Horse Trailer Safety and Value

At home, on the road, and at your destination, a horse trailer must safeguard the horse. And as long as you own it--which could total the lifetimes of several horses and towing vehicles--a safe trailer proves the worth of your investment.

A trailer is a container on wheels; a box that tends to incite equine argument. You expect your horse to enter the box, stand in the stall during transport, and exit on command.

Horses often resist such confinement. The trailer imposes constraints that conflict with his natural instincts. The horse is a large, powerful animal which naturally suspects any restriction. He may "pitch a fit" and jump, kick, turn around, or fall down in the trailer.

To calm the horse's fears, the trailer must provide adequate width and height. For entry and exit, wide doors and a high ceiling make the horse more likely to load and unload quietly. In transit, the stall is large enough for him to shift his weight, but it limits his movement within walls or dividers.

Horsemen continue to debate the details of trailer design. The market offers a range of sizes, in slant or straight load, ramp or step up, bumper pull or gooseneck. However, all must fulfill the basic requirements of a box.

A Strong Container

To the horse, the trailer should feel solid and secure, both at a standstill and in motion. Walls, ceiling, and floor should retain their integrity. Surfaces must remain firm under pressure from head, shoulder, hip, and feet.

In most trailers, a metal frame forms the foundation. The frame is a skeleton of bars that support the attached layers of metal or wood.

For the sides of the box, you can choose among sheets of steel, aluminum, or fiberglass-reinforced plywood (known as FRP). Some trailers combine materials, while the all-aluminum vehicle has gained popularity for durability and lighter weight.

Aluminum trailers use both smooth sheets and ribbed, or extruded, aluminum. Mark Podeyn, representing Exiss Trailers at Albuquerque's Action RV, explained: "Extruded aluminum is forced through rollers or dies into a shape. The process alters the molecular structure so the aluminum is much more rigid and harder. It makes a rigid framework and consistent sizing on long, large pieces."

He recommends aluminum of .050-inch thickness.

Another manufacturer, Logan Coach, prefers steel construction: "We just build all steel," said the firm's engineer, Jerry Zesiger. "I've talked to aluminum trailer owners who are going back to steel. They think they save weight, but you need thicker aluminum to get the strength of steel."

A strong floor can be wood or metal. For wood, look for treated boards placed cross-ways rather than lengthwise. The all-aluminum trailer uses extruded aluminum planks for durability and less weight. Planks interlock like tongue-and-groove wood.

Look for how the frame supports the floor. Cross-members provide a solid foundation so the floor does not bow. For example, the Exiss aluminum trailer uses I-beams four inches wide placed 12 inches apart. The floor should be a separate unit from the trailer's frame. (In case of an accident, a separate floor can remain intact even if the frame is bent.)

The double-wall construction has an interior wall, a layer of insulation, and an exterior wall. It won't flex from impact, and it is less likely to dent. Double-lined doors are also more rigid.

Rivets bind the layers together. Podeyn noted two types of rivets used in trailer construction: the buck rivet and pop rivet.

"The stronger is the buck rivet, with a solid shank. The pop rivet is more expensive, but less strong. It's hollow and could shear."

He noted that installing buck rivets involves more labor costs, as two workers team to secure each rivet from inside and outside the trailer wall.

The wooden walls of European-style trailers are a laminate wood and fiberglass. The layers of material provide strength while not retaining the heat of metal walls. A wooden interior must be smooth, with no likelihood of splinters that could injure the horse.

Like a stationary stall, the interior of the trailer must prevent injury. The surface should form no sharp edges or gaps to trap a hoof.

"We pay a lot of attention to the inside of the trailer," said Zesiger. "Everything is smooth, including the latches on stall dividers, the tie rings, and the hooks for feedbags."

Many new trailers feature interior walls that are rubber-lined for safety. Stall dividers are thick rubber or padded with foam and covered with vinyl.

Inspect the design for safe entrance and exit, looking for any component that could impede the horse walking forward or backing out. Some trailers add a hook at the base of each door, so you can latch the door open to prevent it from blowing shut. In the slant load design, another safety feature is the recessed latch for fastening the stall divider to the trailer wall.

For stall dividers, most owners avoid the full divider that reaches the floor. This partition confines the horse's feet within the stall, and it can cause the horse to scramble against the wall. However, a solid divider can form a larger compartment, which is useful when you want to haul one or more horses in one spacious stall, or transport hay or gear in the adjacent stall.

The straight load trailer uses chest bars and butt bars in front of and behind the horse. These position the horse in the stall, and they allow him to brace if necessary. Brenderup uses an adjustable butt bar, to shorten the stall for a smaller horse, or lengthen it for a larger one. Chris Barr said, "The horse stands over a specific spot over the trailer axle. We use no manger, but have a chest bar. The horse can raise or lower his head to clear his sinuses."

A Comfortable Stall

Ventilation and temperature control enhance a trailer's comfort. A stuffy, hot trailer makes the horse uncomfortable and causes stress during travel. An irritated horse is more likely to protest confinement.

Roof vents and windows permit air flow. Windows can slide or drop down; colored plexiglass helps keep the trailer cooler by deflecting sunlight.

Slant loads typically feature the drop down feed doors, placed at approximate nose level of the average horse. You'll see a trailer on the highway, with horses poking their noses out in the fresh air. Bars on these allow free air flow while keeping the horse's head inside the trailer. Or, you can accessorize by adding web "window guards."

On sliding windows, look for bars inside the window, placed across the frame. These prevent a horse from poking his nose out the window. Check the height of windows at the horse's rear in a slant load. If set too low, the horse can kick the frame or bars, or rub his tail against the frame.

Heat distresses the horse, so look for a trailer that encourages a cooler interior. (You can add a blanket if it's cold, but only the environment can cool the horse.) Insulated walls help reduce heat buildup. Insulation also deadens noise inside the trailer. Excess vibration and rattling can bother the horse while in transit.

You might also consider a fiberglass top. Offered for 30 years on Turnbow trailers, this long-lasting material is cooler than metal and lighter in weight. "Aluminum tops condense moisture," said Dana Turnbow Scott. "The aluminum sweats and drips inside. Fiberglass won't rust, shake, or rumble. In the event of a rollover, it won't crush in like metal would. If you do poke a hole in it, it's easy to repair."

The Brenderup trailer also features a fiberglass roof. Barr noted the safety aspect of this component: "There are no steel beams in the roof of this trailer. Look at the beams in most trailers--they are directly over the horse's poll. He can rear up and crack his skull. Or if that trailer rolls over, the walls trap the horses inside and the metal beams distort. With fiberglass, we can tear the roof off and get the horses out."

The equine passenger might seem more comfortable riding on a diagonal rather than facing straight ahead. When trailering one horse in a two-horse compartment, you can remove the divider to let the horse stand facing the road or the curb.

The slant load trailer places the horse in this position. Stalls are angled toward the middle of the road. They measure 36 to 40 inches, wider than the typical 32 inches of a straight load trailer.

Every vehicle is designed within size constraints. The width of the axle must fit into a lane on the road, so trailer axles measure a maximum of 102 inches (8 1/2 feet tire to tire).

A slant load trailer this wide has two choices: either the widest interior with wheel wells protruding into the stalls, or unobstructed stalls in a space seven feet wide. A steeper diagonal creates a longer stall length. The straight load trailer places the wheels outside the stalls, and the space between the wheel wells limits the stall widths.

Larger horses might ride uncomfortably at a slant. Manufacturers offer a "sport horse stall" that can measure 10 feet nose to tail. However, the longer the horse, the more cramped he will feel in even this size
stall. Owners compromise by opening feed doors; this has killed horses that have their heads outside in a rollover.

A slant load offers versatility with its swinging dividers. You swing all dividers open and load the horses from the front to the rear, latching each divider beside each loaded horse. When you unload, reverse the process and bring the rearmost horse out first.

Some slant loads feature a rear tack compartment in the corner created by the rear slant stall. It does block the exit for the last horse. He won't be able to turn around in a loaded trailer, so you'll have to back him out. And if you have a long or stiff horse loaded in the adjacent stall, he may not be able to turn around either.

Turnbow Scott noted, "We have a reverse slant, where the horse rides backwards. It's easier for the horse to brace if he faces backwards." With this design, you'll either turn the horse around in the trailer, or specify a front loading door on the trailer's road side. (Horses face curb side.)

Reducing highway bounce also comforts the horse. Rubber mats cushion the floor, and the torsion axle improves the ride. Adopted from travel trailers, this construction means every tire travels on independent suspension. As each tire hits a bump, it sustains the same impact.

Trailers made with the standard leaf springs are less expensive, yet springs can wear out or break. "The rubber torsion suspension controls the movement of the wheels," said Podeyn. "The torsion bar twists instead of bending like a spring. Wheels are still connected to each other, but they move independently of each other."

Additional Safety Considerations

The trailer must stay attached to the towing vehicle and pull steadily. Trailer manufacturers must meet regulations set by national agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Traffic Safety Board.

"Our trailers pull nicely, with no sway," said Zesiger. "That's due to the axle placement, with not too much weight in front of or behind the axles. The right percentage of weight rides on the axles."

Match the trailer to the strength of your towing vehicle. The truck or car must have an engine and transmission suitable to manage the extra load, especially when traveling uphill. European-style trailers, designed to meet European regulations of matching the trailer to a passenger car, are designed for a tongue load that does not exceed 175 pounds.

To handle safely on the road, the trailer should rest level with its floor parallel to the ground. On a bumper pull trailer, the placement of the vehicle's hitch affects the trailer angle. The gooseneck trailer attaches to a hitch secured in the bed of a pickup truck. This design places the trailer tongue over the truck's rear axle. It is easier to tow, turn, and back the trailer, but it does require a heavy-duty truck.

The weight of the trailer and load push on the tow vehicle when it decelerates. Trailer brakes help slow and stop the trailer. Most are electric brakes, either driver-controlled or coordinated with the tow vehicle's system.

The Brenderup's brakes apply automatically, independent of the tow vehicle. "Our brakes work on the principle of inertia," said Barr. "You feel no push, because the trailer doesn't try to run faster. To a very minor degree, there's a tendency for the tow vehicle to be slowed down."

Whatever trailer you choose, drive intelligently and consider the vehicle's length and height. You can find yourself pulling a trailer wider than your towing vehicle, so realize you take up more space across the lane.

In both the straight load and slant load, you need to resolve the question of a ramp. A sloping ramp can simplify or complicate loading and unloading the horses. It does make the action more gradual, but the sensation of the ramp bothers some horses. Podeyn noted, "When hauling babies, it's hard to get them to step up. I put shavings on the ramp and just lead the baby in the trailer."

The auxiliary door, called the escape door, allows you to check on the horse without opening a main door. Avoid using this as an escape after leading the horse in the trailer--every horse should be schooled to enter the trailer on his own. Even in a slant load, you can open all dividers so the first horse moves to the front of the trailer, and you close the divider after him.

Trailer Value

Value means the trailer provides durable, long-lasting transportation. It fulfills the promise of worry-free hauling, and it requires minimum maintenance.

A trailer shouldn't cause more trouble than other vehicles, as it lacks an engine. Your maintenance involves the basics of wheels, axles, tires, suspension, and lighting. The exterior and interior will require regular cleaning for appearance and resistance to the elements.

On the exterior, owners debate the advantages of aluminum over steel. Steel is less expensive and comes in different colors. Galvanized steel panels prevent rusting, and proper painting prolongs the trailer's life. Zesiger advised to examine the consistency of paint. He said, "Look for a light paint area, so you can see where paint will tend to rust."

About Logan Coach, he noted, "We use a high-quality automotive paint. In a downdraft paint booth, we do a baked-on paint job to cure the paint from the inside out. We bake each trailer for 30 to 45 minutes, and the paint tightens up for a glossier paint job." He added that sun produces most paint damage, and paint does oxidize over a period of time.

Aluminum has become popular as it resists the elements without rusting. However, its surface won't remain shiny without extra care. Aluminum will oxidize, and the whitish film dulls its finish. This requires an acid wash once or twice a year. The more expensive anodized aluminum has a clear protective coating to prevent this.

Painted aluminum is the newest trend. A baked-on enamel finish protects the aluminum and contributes to a cooler trailer.

Turnbow Scott noted, "Aluminum is a big conductor of heat. On an aluminum floor over a hot highway, the heat rising from the road will dissipate over the entire trailer. We use a lumber floor." With any floor, extend its useful life by cleaning it regularly. Ammonia fumes contribute to corrosion. The ribbed aluminum floor moves urine so it doesn't stand in one place.

Hauling a trailer affects fuel consumption. Lighter weight costs less to pull, and an aerodynamic design can make the trailer move easier through the air. A flat or rounded front pushes against air resistance; a V-shaped nose reduces drag.

Check details of construction before you purchase a trailer by inspection and testing. Examine joints to check the caulks and welds. Zesiger suggested, "Check welds to see if they're good. You should not see any pinholes in the weld." Inside, investigate the craftsmanship, such as looking for rubber-lined walls that are screwed and bonded.

Operate every moving component. Open and shut doors to look for any resistance, and attach dividers to look at their latch assemblies. Check a straight load trailer for quick-closing butt bars, such as those which fasten by sliding into a notch.

Test the ramp for easy lowering and raising. A spring-assisted ramp simplifies this process. Look for strong bolts and hinges, such as coated steel hardware.

Whatever trailer you choose, look for safety first, then value. The well-being of your equine passenger comes first, as the vehicle should protect the animal during transport.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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