Trailers and Towing: The Driving Force

Everyone seems to be on the move these days. Not only are we able to pick up and go without thinking twice, but we also are able to take our horses with us without it being the big deal it once was. In fact, it's so easy to throw some hay in the hay net, load the horse(s) and gear, and take off that often we forget to check on the one thing that gets us from point A to B until there's a problem. Your towing vehicle, or the backbone of the operation, needs to be in road-worthy condition at all times so that whenever you jump into the driver's seat, you and your precious cargo will get to where you're going safely and without incident.

Choosing the Right Vehicle

Choosing the right vehicle can be a sizable expenditure, worthy of considerable research in advance. Because your trailer has a significant effect on how your tow vehicle handles, it is essential that you choose wisely. You don't want your trailer shimmying or swaying at high speeds, making it difficult to steer and possibly flipping over. And you certainly don't want your trailer to become detached while cruising down the road! While these examples are extreme, if you don't have the right vehicle for the job, your risk of accident can significantly increase or the integrity of your vehicle can become seriously compromised.

Even though personal preference and finances often dictate what you choose, here are a few points that cross all boundaries when it comes to towing. Colette May, director of the New Horizons Equine Education Center in Livermore, Colo., and author of Tow Vehicles (lesson two of the Trailering and Transportation Course she created), states that you would do well to have a pre-determined idea of how much weight you plan to haul and whether you are expecting to travel locally, on long-distance excursions, or into mountainous terrain.

By way of example, she says, "The average two-horse trailer will weigh about 2,000 pounds. But you must figure the total loaded weight. A couple of 1,000-pound horses, plus gear, hay, etc., could easily top four thousand pounds."

She then goes on to say, "If you will be making short trips on relatively level ground, you may be able to get by with less truck than would be required of those living in the Rockies. However, when choosing a new tow vehicle, it makes sense to purchase one that will handle the worst conditions you may encounter as well as allowing for some growth in your family of horses."

Long distance travel, on the other hand, requires different ground rules. You should keep in mind that driving over 45 MPH will increase engine strain on a tow vehicle, as will long, steep inclines. In addition, high altitudes and high winds can have a decided effect on your vehicle's performance.

Also note that wheel-base size (length between the front and back axles) plays a considerable role in the stability of your vehicle. "The greater the wheel-base, the less likely you are to fishtail on the road. Naturally, hauling larger numbers of horses increases the need for a greater tow
rating and length of wheel-base," May explains.

Manufacturers provide information about each truck's qualifications, including maximum gross trailer weight and wheel-base information designed to help you determine your immediate and future needs. The Ford Motor Company, for instance, provides an RV & Trailer Towing Guide with a chapter dedicated to "Things to Know Before You Tow." Although it is not equine-specific, they recommend you find out the weight of the trailer you intend to tow, including the weight of what you plan to pull--which for horse owners translates into the difference between hauling Arabians and Warmbloods. Also, if you live where mountainous terrain dominates, you might want to think about having a vehicle with a more powerful engine so it can withstand the strain of pulling a heavy load up and down hills.

Chuck Hartshorn, director of marketing for Putnam Hitch Products, suggests, "You should keep in mind the load you are carrying. People often forget the effect a heavy load has on the handling of their vehicle. The more weight you have on the back of your vehicle, the greater the tendency your vehicle will have to wander. As you place more weight on the back of the vehicle, you are 'unloading' or removing weight from the front end. So, as the back end goes down, the front end comes up, reducing the amount of downward pressure on the front tires. This can cause the tow vehicle to have reduced steering control that in turn will make the trailer sway more."

Brakes

Trailer brakes are mandatory in all states, and most states require brakes on all wheels. The Ford Motor Company suggests that you install a separate braking system in any towing vehicle. The basic types are electronically controlled brakes and surge brakes.

Electronically controlled trailer brakes work in conjunction with the towing vehicle's brakes and can be activated either automatically or manually through a control box placed within reach of the driver. Lee Cappello at Bennington Ford Truck in Bennington, Vt., strongly recommends this braking system for all horse trailers.

According to Cappello, "Owing to the amount of weight you'll be hauling, this is clearly the safest way to go. Because the brakes are connected to both your vehicle and the trailer, you effectively cut your stopping distance in half (when compared to surge brakes) should there be a loss of power in the trailer (brakes)."

Keep in mind that this system needs to be outfitted with a special controlling device and additional wiring for electrical power.

Surge brakes are independent hydraulic brakes triggered by a master cylinder at the junction of the hitch and trailer tongue. They are independent from the hydraulic fluid in the tow vehicle's brake system and should never be connected. Although they are less expensive than electronically controlled brakes, surge brakes should only be used when you tow light weight, such as a one-horse trailer.

An emergency breakaway system with a working battery is also mandatory for all trailers of at least 5,000 pounds GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating; more on this in a moment), and some states require it of trailers of lesser weight.

While the process might seem rather daunting to a new buyer, Cappello says that his customers often come to him with their horse and trailer requirements first so that he can spec out the right vehicle for the task.

Hitches

You can't talk about towing vehicles without including a description of hitches. Depending on how you plan to use your trailer, there are several types from which to choose. In all cases, it is imperative that the hitch match the maximum weight capacity of the trailer and intended load.

A weight-carrying or non-weight distributing hitch is used primarily for small and medium-sized trailers. Hartshorn offers a helpful explanation of how it works: "The hitch and ball should be in a place that ensures the trailer is level. A trailer going down the road with the tongue too high or too low will have a tendency to wander around behind the tow vehicle. Also, a trailer that is not level is more susceptible to crosswinds, such as a passing semi or gust of wind. One way to ensure the ball and trailer coupler are at the same height is through the use of an adjustable ball mount. This type of ball mount allows you to adjust the height of the hitch ball. Keep in mind that when choosing a trailer hitch, it is safer to have a hitch rated to carry a heavier load than one with an insufficient rating."

A label attached to the hitch receiver, provided by the manufacturer, will indicate the weight-carrying and weight-distributing capabilities. You are responsible for purchasing the correct hitch ball, ball mounting, and any other equipment needed to tow the trailer.

A weight-distributing hitch is used in combination with a hitch receiver to distribute tongue load to the tow vehicle and trailer wheels. Although weight-distributing hitch receivers are either welded or bolted onto the vehicle frame, the bolt-on style is preferred as it can be detached if necessary. Plus, it will not weaken the vehicle's underbody as a result of the heat generated by the welding process.

A gooseneck hitch generally consists of a special hitch ball mounted in the bed of a pickup to maximize weight efficiency by transferring the weight of the front of the trailer directly over the towing vehicle. The mounting location is very important. It should be placed at least two inches in front of the rear axle of the truck frame in order to increase carrying capacity and reduce the possibility of sway. It is a common hitch for livestock and horse trailers.

Most gooseneck hitch balls are 2 5/16" in diameter. With this type of system, the coupling device is located on the end of a gooseneck hanging down from the front of the trailer. "One advantage a gooseneck hitch provides relates to the fact the load you are carrying (horses) move around," Hartshorn explains.

Which of these hitches is the correct one to use? Neva Scheve, of EquiSpirit Trailers and co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, suggests that for tag-a-long trailers, a weight distrubution system be used to make the trailer and vehicle perform as one unit. This makes the trailer more like a gooseneck hitch by distributing the weight between the front wheels of the tow vehicle and the trailer wheels. If you are using a three-horse tag-a-long, a weight distribution system is mandatory, says Scheve.

For a two-horse trailer, the weight distribution system is also the preferred type of hitch. This system increases the capacity of the hitch, and it is especially important for a vehicle with a shorter wheel base. For more than two horses, a gooseneck is preferred, according to Scheve.

Hartshorn says, "One big advantage of a gooseneck is they are installed in front of the rear axle (of the towing vehicle). This results in the weight of the trailer being more effectively handled by the tow vehicle's suspension and reducing the amount of front end unloading."

Towing Tips

To ensure your towing experience is as pleasant and safe as possible, Hartshorn provides the following suggestions:

  • Remember that your vehicle is considerably longer when you are towing. When you're passing, turning, or parking, this additional length will directly impact the people, vehicles, and objects around you. When you get a new trailer or tow vehicle, hook everything up and find an area where you can get used to the new rig. Find out how it turns, how it stops, and how it performs on dirt roads, parking lots, and hills. The more you know about how your rig works, the safer you will be.
  • If your vehicle is not equipped with special towing mirrors (or factory mirrors designed for towing), have some installed. They are relatively inexpensive and many can be installed without tools. They improve your visibility tremendously.
  • Consider installing a "Reverse Gear Alarm." This activates an audible warning sound whenever the vehicle is put into reverse, alerting people and animals around you that you are backing up.
  • Install mirrors on the back of your trailer that provide you with a view of the area directly behind the trailer. You may have seen similar mirrors on delivery trucks. These mirrors might not be effective if you have a trailer longer than 18 feet. You can also go the high-tech road and install a small camera at the back of the trailer.
  • Always use safety chains. Should your trailer and tow vehicle become disconnected, the chains will keep the tow vehicle and trailer connected and help
    reduce the chances of your trailer veering into traffic or off the road. The use of safety chains is mandatory in many states and is required in all states for tag-a-long trailers, and in at least 29 states for ball hitch gooseneck trailers.
  • Never let people ride in the trailer. In the event something happens to the trailer, anyone inside the trailer could be seriously, if not fatally, injured.
  • If you have an auxiliary braking system on the trailer, install a "Brake-Away" kit. This unit automatically activates the trailer brakes in the event the trailer separates from the tow vehicle. When used in conjunction with safety chains, a Brake-Away kit can help you bring everything to a safe stop.

Know Your Vehicle

Here are some calculations that will help you to choose the right vehicle for the amount of weight you're planning to tow.

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) is calculated by adding the base weight (the weight of the vehicle with standard equipment plus a full tank of gas) plus the cargo weight (cargo, optional equipment, including the trailer tongue load or king pin weight), plus passengers. While this weight does not have to conform to safety standards, the GVW may not exceed the gross vehicle weight rating.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum allowable weight that a vehicle can handle without risking damage or danger and must comply with safety regulations. This weight combines the gross vehicle weight plus tire, rim size, and inflation pressure figures.

The different classes of tow vehicles, from Class 1-5, correspond to the gross vehicle weight rating. Become familiar with the various weight loads. By networking with other horse people, you can gain some insight into their buying experiences and get a better idea of what size vehicle would work best for your needs.

Cappello offers the examples, "If you are planning to haul two horses with a bumper pull trailer, you would need a Class 3 tow vehicle. For four or more horses, you would need a Class 4-5 vehicle outfitted with a fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch."

Maintenance

When it comes to maintenance, keeping to a regular schedule will greatly reduce the advent of sudden or serious trouble, especially when planning a longer trip where previously ignored problems are more likely to wreak havoc on your plans. Reference the service manual provided by the manufacturer for the specifics, or check with your dealer about what needs to be done and on what timetable. Also, the Department of Transportation and various automobile associations can offer valuable insights into good trailer towing procedures.

Cappello says that making a checklist and referring to it often also will help you to keep on top of the little things that can be easily overlooked, such as:

  • Top off all liquids before your trip, paying particular attention to brake fluid, oil, and water, as traveling over steep terrain can cause your vehicle to run hotter or possibly overheat.
  • Check and inflate tires periodically, especially your spare.
  • Take enough tools to change both vehicle and trailer tires, along with a screwdriver, crescent wrench, jumper cables, flashlight, spare water, and extra oil and coolant.
  • Store several blocks of wood or bricks to place behind the wheels and under the hitch to anchor your vehicle and trailer if you ever have to stop on an incline.
  • Keep a properly pressurized fire extinguisher on hand at all times. If the needle is below the green portion of the pressure gauge, be sure to have it refilled.
  • Inspect your hitch. Make sure it is firmly attached to the vehicle frame or trailer.
  • Make sure that safety chains are secure, rust-free, and not worn from dragging on the road.
  • Check that the trailer plug receptacle for your electrical system is clean and firmly attached.

Whether you are an endurance rider, on the show circuit, or out for an adventure in the woods with friends, owning a trailer and having a vehicle to tow it offer unlimited possibilities to a great many horse owners where once equine travel was restricted to an elite few. Even though you will make a substantial investment, take the time to do your research in advance and do periodic checks once you have taken the plunge. The rewards of mobility will be well worth taking that proverbial deep breath and going for it!

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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