Buying a Trailer: What to Know Before You Go

Buying a horse trailer is a big decision. With so many models and styles of trailers, how do you choose the best one? One trailer doesn't fit all. Your decision will be made based on economic reasons, as well as what suits your horse(s) (is he a small Morgan, an oversized warmblood, or do you travel with more than one?), your use (is it fully equipped for trail riding and camping, or just for travel to and from a local show?), and you (looks do count!).

With so many decisions to make when buying a trailer, the facts needed for an informed decision go beyond the scope of one article. An excellent resource is the book The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, written by Neva Kittrell Scheve with her husband, Tom. The Scheves have developed numerous lines of horse trailers through their company EquiSpirit, and Neva travels nationwide giving seminars on all aspects of horse trailers.

The most important thing to remember is that no matter how appealing a trailer looks--with decked-out living quarters, a spacious tack room, and a fancy paint job--if it's not safe and suitable for the horses you will be hauling, it is not worth the money.

"A trailer need not be expensive to be safe, but the wrong trailer is not a good buy at any price," write the Scheves.

The Needs of the Horse

According to Donnie McKee, marketing director for CM Trailers in Madill, Okla., the size and the needs of the horses you haul determine the type of trailer you need. He recommends to buyers that they keep their future needs in mind.

According to the Scheves, there are three major health criteria for selecting a trailer: Size, ventilation, and safety in design.

Size--Is there enough room and light for the horse(s) to be comfortable? A horse needs room to spread all four legs and enough head room to use his head and neck for balance, according to the Scheves.

Lonny Smith, product manager for Featherlite Trailers in Cresco, Iowa, recommends measuring your largest horse's height, length, and width, and buying a trailer that will fit him. Then any of your smaller horses will fit, and you should be able to make adjustments, such as adding special brackets to lower butt and breast bars or moving them forward or backward. It's also important to make sure the structure is strong enough to contain your strongest horse. This goes for all parts of the trailer--butt bars, tie rings, dividers, etc.

Keep in mind that the height in trailers with rounded roofs is sometimes determined at the highest point. If this is the case, is your horse going to bump his head as he moves toward the outside wall? When measuring floor width, make sure to account for wheel wells, which (depending on the design of the trailer) might take up your horse's available standing room.

Ventilation--Not all trailers have adequate ventilation, which is important for temperature control and air quality. James Jones, DVM, MS, PhD, research advisor at the Equine Athletic Performance Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, says, "There is likely to be a greater danger of horses getting too hot when being transported than getting too cold. When trailers get stuck in line at construction, accidents, etc., the interior of the trailer can be as much as 20°F warmer than the outside temperature, and it may get more humid inside, making it very difficult for horses to evaporate (sweat) and lose heat."

During a trip, a horse is exposed to dust and mold spores from hay and shavings, say the Scheves. Gases from urine and manure--as well as misdirected exhaust fumes--can also cause the horse severe health problems during a trailer ride. Jones says he has heard of horses that came into the UC-Davis clinic which died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty exhaust system.

Safety in design--Horses have a knack for finding some way to get hurt. Smith recommends checking the trailer for any sharp edges or protruding objects. Inspect all parts of the trailer for functionality, durability, and safety. There should be an appropriate-size emergency exit for the handler. Door frames should not be so low that the horse bumps his head while getting on.

Ramps should be solid, low, non-slip, and long enough so the handler is not in danger of flying hooves when the ramp is being raised. Step-up trailers should be wide enough to allow the horse to turn around and walk out, if possible. For a step-up trailer, the Scheves prefer to have a front unload ramp.

Remember to check the condition of the floor and underbraces. All lights and brakes should be working, tires should be in good condition, and the trailer should be constructed to hold the size, weight, and strength of your horses and maintain its structural integrity in an accident.

Once these basic items have been evaluated, then you can decide on other features such as insulation, removable hay bags, mats, screens, bar guards on windows, water tanks, etc. And as always, more expensive features can be considered, such as interior fans, air-ride suspension, closed-circuit television cameras, living quarters, etc.

The Needs of the Buyer

Budget is usually the first consideration of the horse owner when buying a trailer. But, you should shop first for the features you need instead of the look of the trailer.

Also, Smith and McKee agree that you should not buy based solely on price.

"Price should not be the first concern," says McKee. "Fit of the trailer to the horse comes first, then quality, then price is third. If those first two things are met, the price will fall right into place. The horse trailer market is too competitive for it not to."

Two-horse trailers are the most common and have better resale value than a one-horse trailer. If you are hauling four or more horses, you might need special licensing from your state, and the size of the trailer will definitely affect the type of tow vehicle needed.

If you go a lot of miles and/or camp in your trailer, features such as storage, dressing rooms, tack/feed compartments, and living quarters might be necessary.

Styles of Trailers

There are three basic styles of trailers. All have advantages and disadvantages.

The manger trailer has a fixed, built-in hay manger in the head area. While the storage area underneath the manger is a good feature, the manger can be problematic. When a horse wants to cough, he will lower his head. This is not possible with a manger in the way. Also, when the manger is full of feed, the horse is always breathing in hay, dust, and debris.

In addition, the wall underneath the manger prevents the horse from spreading his legs forward for balance. The Scheves say it is a very common problem for a horse to end up in the manger during the ride due to lack of balance.

These trailers usually have a small escape door, which can be awkward if your horse misbehaves and you want to exit quickly. Some horses have even tried to squeeze through these small people doors.

The walk-through trailer allows the horse to walk on while the handler walks out a separate full-size door. These trailers have many advantages, say the Scheves. They are open, allow the horse to brace himself, allow freer head movement, and the handler's door is safer and allows better access to the horse.

A slant-load trailer can be appropriate depending on the size of the horses; slant loads might not work for large horses. Be careful of wheel wells that take up floor space or can injure the horse's legs. A slant load allows the hauling of more horses in a smaller trailer, and many horses will load easier into these light, open trailers. One disadvantage is that when a horse travels at a slant, his body is absorbing the impact of the ride unevenly. With some slant loads, there is no access to the middle horse(s) without unloading other horses first, and some slant loads are built with a high step-up or steep ramp.

To determine the true width of the stalls in a slant-load, measure the stall from the front partition's center to the back partition's center. Don't measure from corner to corner, recommend the Scheves.

Jones sees some benefits to stock trailers. "I have not done cold weather work (trailer research), but colleagues from Canada have told me they don't tend to see frostbite on horses up there that are hauled in open stock trailers in the winter," he says.

"If true, I would then see many potential advantages to using a more open trailer for the sake of better ventilation, less dust, gas, bacteria, etc., assaulting the horse's respiratory system during a time of stress," he adds.

Step-Up vs. Ramp

There is always debate over whether a ramp or a step-up is better. The Scheves comment that with a step-up trailer, a horse can miscalculate the height or the footing underneath and slip a leg under the trailer, injuring the leg or his spinal column. If you purchase a step-up trailer, they recommend that it have enough room for the horse to turn around and walk out to avoid accidents that can occur with backing out and stepping down.

Smith says to know your horse. "If you're horse will load without a ramp, then you probably don't need one," he says.

Not all ramps are built equal, but the Scheves believe a good ramp is safer than a step-up. Find a trailer with a solid, non-slip ramp that is low to the ground--steep ramps make it easier for horses to slip. The ramp should cover the entire width of the trailer opening. Springs should be smooth and out of the way. Door latches should not stick out and should be strong enough to keep the horse in. In addition, the ramp should not be too heavy for one person to lift.

When a ramp is needed, Smith prefers trailers that have the ramp behind the load doors, rather than the ramp being the door. This allows you to put up the ramp without the risk of being kicked.

The Materials Debate

Another popular debate is which construction material is best--steel, aluminum, fiberglass, wood, or a combination. In their book, the Scheves discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type of material.

"There are many differences in quality from company to company," they write, "and the particular material is not as important as the overall quality of the trailer and the attention that has been paid to the well-being of the equine passengers. Buy the best trailer you can afford based on the design of the trailer and the quality of the safety features, not on the type of construction material. Do not sacrifice the health and safety of your horse(s) because you want a trailer made of a particular material because someone else has told you that you should."

What do the various materials have to offer? Aluminum trailers are resistant to rust, which is a problem with some steel trailers. However, since aluminum trailers can corrode, they must be kept clean and dry. Aluminum must be three times as thick as steel to have equal strength, which can make an all-aluminum trailer even heavier than some steel trailers. The strength also depends on the type of alloy used.

"Because aluminum is so much more expensive than other metals used for horse trailers, some manufacturers may cut corners to keep the price of the trailer more in line with what the consumer wants to pay," the Scheves caution.

Aluminum is more rigid than steel, which can lead to fatigue fractures if the trailer isn't built properly, say the Scheves. If buying a used aluminum trailer, check for hairline cracks or other signs of stress.

Steel's main problem is rust. However, steel has been improved in the last several years, and galvanized, galvanealed, and powder-coated steel have made rust problems almost obsolete in newer trailers. Steel is also more impact-resistant and easier to repair.

Fiberglass is low-maintenance and will hold its good looks, but it can tear or be easily damaged by a kick, write the Scheves.

Trailers with wooden floors will breathe better, thus allowing harmful gases to escape. Wood also absorbs shock, decreasing leg and hoof stress. But check a wood floor carefully--if a knife can be stuck in the floor and the wood shreds when the knife is turned, then the floor is going bad. Never buy a trailer with planks that run widthwise since the horse will stand on the same boards, which will eventually give out, possibly while traveling.

A popular option is to have a trailer made out of several materials, combining the advantages of each material while minimizing the disadvantages.

Take-Home Message

It's best to make a checklist of things to inspect and questions to ask before you go. It's always a good idea to compare different trailers; however, you should keep in mind that with so many types of trailers, each with their own options, you might find it hard to compare them. With a little knowledge and planning before you go, you should be able to find a trailer that meets your needs.

The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, is sold on ; or by calling 800/582-5604. 



WALK-THROUGH TRAILER--The walk-through trailer allows the horse to walk on while the handler walks out a separate full-size door. These trailers are open, allow the horse to brace himself, allow freer head movement, and the handler's door is safe and allows easy access to the horse.

SLANT-LOAD TRAILER--Trailers should be wide enough to allow the horse to turn around and walk out if possible. This is safer, and can be useful during an emergency. This trailer's saddle storage area swings out and the partition flattens so the horse can be turned and walked out.

MANGER TRAILER--The manger trailer has a fixed, built-in hay manger in the head area with outside access to much-needed storage underneath. Consider whether the horse you will haul needs leg room in front for balance. Also make sure that hay is dampened to prevent the horse from breathing in dust and debris.

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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