Dealing with a Trailer Accident

Having an accident with a van or trailer carrying a horse is a nightmare. Always do everything in your power to prevent a vehicle accident with horses on board (or anytime for that matter). If you are uncomfortable with the trailer rig or the size of a van, seek out the tutelage of an experienced driver. Put in practice time driving your truck and trailer combination before your first equine passenger goes along on a trip. Remember to pay attention to the weather conditions--especially if you are preparing for a long journey.

Probably one of the biggest mistakes people make is to drive the van or trailer like a car. Remember that with all the extra weight, everything is increased (i.e., stopping distance, the number of car lengths you should be behind the vehicle in front of you, turning ratios, etc.). Your reaction time must be good, but don’t slam on the brakes if you can avoid it! Being safe means no map reading, no eating a fast food meal sprawled out across your lap, and NO calling on the cellular phone while you are driving. Remember, there is a 30% greater chance of being in an accident if you are driving and cell phoning at the same time. If you do not have a co-pilot to help with these things, pull over and stop before you pause to read the map, eat the snack, or make the call.

The extra weight of the trailer or van means the stopping distance could double. You should increase the space between your vehicle and the one you are following by one car-length for every speed increase of ten miles an hour. Be aware of approaching tractor-trailers; when they pass you the air currents will tend to push the vehicles apart. You should be ready to compensate for this. Try and watch what the cars are doing as far ahead as your line of sight will allow--if you see a brake light come on, decrease your speed--even if the vehicle immediately in front of you doesn't slow down right away. The driver of the car up front might not be as aware of what’s going on as you are!).

Always watch for sharp curves and traffic getting on and off ramps--remember, any sudden moves you make will bounce your precious cargo around. If you do have to slow down fast, it generally is better to do it in a straight line rather than around a curve. In other words, if approaching a curve too fast, it is better to brake hard in a straight line and then enter the curve more gently than to brake hard while in the curve.

Also remember all the safety items. If your trailer has brakes make sure they work and are adjusted appropriately. Make sure that all the trailer lights are working and that there are enough of them on the back--this can help reduce the chance of a rear end collision. Also make sure that you have an approved fire extinguisher.

If an accident does occur, it will be very important to get aid as quickly as possible. The presence of a cellular phone or a CB radio plays an important role here. Remember that not all parts of the countryside have cellular service, so a CB radio is a good back-up. Pay attention to the road signs and know what cell phone number will get you directly to the state police. Truckers and other road warriors use CB channel 19 while many emergency agencies and the state police often monitor CB channel 9. Make sure that whoever you end up talking to knows that you have (or might have) injured horses and that a veterinarian is also requested.

Immediately after the accident, if the trailer or van is upright and the horses can be safely accessed, you will want to evaluate them and apply any first aid that might be required. Be extremely careful opening any door on the vehicle (even the little tack compartment or escape doors designed for people, not horses). If a horse has broken loose from its ties during the accident, it could be free in the trailer and if it is panicked enough, it will attempt to jump out of any escape route possible. You DO NOT want to unload the horses on the highway. There have been many sad reports where a frightened horse has survived the first accident, only to break lose from its handler and run into oncoming traffic, causing both horse and human fatalities. If there is no danger of fire from a ruptured gas tank, wait to unload the horses until the police arrive and can supervise and stop traffic if it is necessary to unload a horse.

Hopefully, if the situation involves a fire, you will have a fire extinguisher and enough people will stop to assist so there will be no need to unload on the side of the highway until it is safe to do so.

If the trailer or van is overturned, you should NOT attempt to rescue any trapped horses until safety crews appear on the scene to provide help and advice. The inside of a vehicle with a trapped horse is an extremely dangerous place. In addition, the emergency crews should have the appropriate equipment to "extract" the horse safely.

Depending on the animals' injuries, the safest way (for the people and the horses) to extract them might be for a veterinarian to place them under anesthesia for the removal process. If possible, a veterinarian should work with the police and rescue personnel to develop a plan of action. Oddly enough, many horses lay down rather quietly while trapped, only struggling intermittently, while their rescue is organized. Remember, the most important things are to get emergency help immediately and not make the situation more dangerous by making rash errors of judgment.

Editor's Note: This excerpt is from Understanding Equine First Aid by Michael Ball, DVM. The book is available from

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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