Trailer Shopping 101

Fulfilling your equestrian goals without a horse trailer is difficult. Your facility might be the best one going, but to really stretch your wings, it's good to get out in the rest of the world. Even if you're happy staying put, medical emergencies and natural disasters might force you out on the road. Borrowing trailers from friends and begging rides off stablemates can only go on so long, but the questions remain: How do you go about buying a trailer? Do you buy your tow vehicle or the trailer first? Is one trailer much the same as the other? And where do you begin to look?

Tom Scheve, co-author with his wife, Neva, of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, and co-designer of Equispirit Trailers, has made it his life's work to educate horse owners on the importance of choosing the correct trailer. He says although it's true that a horse trailer is really just a box on wheels, there are many things to consider before you begin your search. Scheve says many people fall at the first hurdle when a few simple answers are all it takes to help point the way toward the best fit.

First Considerations

A good match is extremely important when hauling horses. The animals must fit inside the trailer and the tow vehicle must be the correct size to tow that trailer. It seems clear, but Tom says matching up the equipment is where most mistakes are made.

Mistake #1--Putting the trailer before the horse. Your horse's size should be your first consideration, as one-size-fits-all is extremely rare in horse trailers. There is a big difference between a 14-hand horse and an 18-hand horse, and butt/chest bars and dividers can only be adjusted so much. The average large horse needs 10 feet of stall length and approximately three feet of width (a six-foot-wide trailer). A larger horse needs more, up to 11 feet of stall length. The larger horse also needs extra width and height.

"It's not a good idea to fit your smallest horses exactly, let's say nine-foot stalls, as your re-sale value will be limited to people who only have those size horses," says Scheve. "So it's not a bad idea to get one a little bit larger, but you can overdo it. The butt and chest bars may be too big for your smaller horse, and he could slip under them, which would be very dangerous."

Conversely, cramming a big horse into a small trailer, even for short distances, is also inadvisable. "Your horse, with his trust in you, may go ahead and get onto a small trailer, but once in there he'll find that he's really squeezed in and he can't lift his head up," says Scheve. "He won't be able to stretch his neck out and cough out any debris, which is one of the main causes of shipping fever."

Bearing this in mind, think of the horses you have and what sort of riding you do, and include your goals in the future. "Let's say you love Arabians and will always have them in your life," says Scheve. "So you know that your horses will always be 13.3 to 15.2 hands. However, if you are into jumping or combined training, your horse may be 16.2 hands, but in the future you may decide to buy a 17-hand horse. Start your search for a trailer with adequate space for your horses."

Finally, decide what options you would like on your trailer, such as a walk-in dressing room, outside tack room, or camping facilities. Think about whether you want to haul two or more horses (which demands a larger tow vehicle). All of these options will impact the weight of the trailer, which will help determine the strength of the towing vehicle you'll need.

Mistake #2--Putting the truck before the trailer. Many people purchase a truck first and the trailer second, but Scheve says this is a mistake. "You need to know and understand the kind of weight you're going to pull (live weight that can easily shift) before considering the type of tow vehicle to buy," he explains. All tow vehicles have a certain amount of weight that they can handle, and the vehicle you have now might not be up to pulling the trailer that fits your horses' size and your needs.

First, estimate the total trailer weight of your trailer--including your horses and tack--so that you know your actual weight. Then determine your Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR is usually found on a trailer sticker), which is the amount of weight the manufacturer says your trailer will safely hold (usually relates to axles). This rating should always be more than the actual weight. If you match your tow vehicle's pulling capacity to the GVWR, you should have a good match for pulling safely with some to spare. Towing weight capacities for tow vehicles can be found in the vehicle brochure or towing guide at the dealership.

"You can also have too much of a tow vehicle," cautions Scheve. "A drastic example is a two-horse trailer/non-dressing room tagalong with one small horse pulled by a one ton dually, capable of pulling 14,000 pounds. That big truck will flip the trailer around and bounce the horse terribly."

Trailer Shopping

Trailers can be found through private individuals, dealerships, and via the Internet. Here are several pointers for these types of purchases.

The Dealer--Dealers who do nothing but sell and service horse trailers are few and far between. Even in large cities, there might be only one dealership. Most new trailers are sold by dealers who might not have a service center.

"Don't compare buying a trailer to buying a car, unless you're fortunate to live near a full-fledged trailer dealership," says Scheve. "If you do, that's a positive. They will be there to help you find the right trailer with the options you want and will help you service your trailer in the future. You will also be able to inspect the trailer before you receive it."

If you have a brand of trailer you like and can order it from a dealer long-distance, you won't be able to inspect the trailer before receiving it. Quiz the dealer on what options are available and which are standard. When you buy, ask whether the trailer will be shipped directly from the factory or from the dealership. If it's coming from the dealership, ask them the extent of their dealer prep, and if they check all options and standard equipment before it's shipped. If it's coming straight from the factory to you, ask the dealer how the trailer will be inspected and dealer prepped at the factory, since the dealer will never see the trailer and since most manufacturers consider this a dealer responsibility. This helps ensure that what you ordered is correct and that everything works properly.

Servicing and repairs can also be done at your local body shop.

The Individual/Used Trailer--Just like a passenger car, you can get a great deal on a used trailer, but just as with a car, you need to look out for certain issues.

"When looking at a used trailer, look for ways your horse could get into trouble without trying," suggests Scheve.

First, check the trailer's strength. Slide under the trailer and make sure there is no rust on the frame. While you are under there, if the trailer has a wooden floor, look to see how many brackets are supporting that wooden floor. More brackets will give the floorboards extra support. One in the middle and two at both ends are not enough and can cause even a strong floorboard to crack under a horse's weight.

Next, lift the mats and check the wood for mushiness or soft spots.

"Take a little knife and dig it down into spots that look wet," says Scheve. "A bad floorboard might not be a deal breaker. Local fabrication or body shops that weld can make the repair."

If the trailer has an aluminum floor, look under the mats and check for deterioration. Aluminum that has corroded will look different from rusted metal. Aluminum deterioration is white and flaky, with a honeycomb appearance. "Repairing or replacing an aluminum floor is very costly as it is difficult to weld," says Scheve. "It takes skill to weld, and the welds are never as strong as the original."

Don't assume that every trailer is manufactured with a horse's safety in mind. Trailers are often made with sharp edges and ties in dangerous positions. "Anything that a horse can catch themselves on, they eventually will," says Scheve. Go through the whole trailer with your hands and inspect the butt/breast bar latches to make sure nothing is sticking out that could cut your horse. Make sure the tie rings are at the appropriate height and not at eye-level, which could cause injuries.

"These issues aren't easily repaired," says Scheve. "If a welded tie ring is not in the right place, you will have to have someone un-weld it or take it off. If the butt bar has a latch that is sharp, in order to make the butt bar work you'll have to modify the latch. The windows often have bars on with sharp edges--another difficult issue to address."

To check that the coupler works well, work the mechanism to see that it slides easily. Then hitch it up to a tow vehicle to make sure it won't pop off under pressure. Make sure the coupler size matches the ball on your tow vehicle. Scheve says there are two sizes: two inches or 2 5/16 inches. If you put the larger coupler on a two-inch ball, it will pop off. However, this can be easily and cheaply fixed by replacing the smaller ball on your hitch with a large one.

Since rain can cause corrosion, as time goes by, electrical wiring is something that is an issue on all trailers. Check for corrosion by hooking up the lights; if they all work, chances are the wiring is sound. Scheve says wiring issues are fixable, although problems can be difficult to determine without a mechanic.

"It could be bad wiring all throughout, which can be quite a job, but it is fixable," he says. "But the problem could just be a bulb out or a short somewhere."

Electric brakes can only be inspected by a mechanic. Scheve says if you decide to buy the trailer, have the mechanic adjust the brakes at the inspection.

Trailer tires will dry rot before they wear out. If the trailer has been stored outside and in constant sunlight, you frequently need to check that the tires are sound by looking for cracks in the walls. Feel the tread to see if there is any uneven wear, as this will give you an indication as to whether the axles are bent. However, this could also be a sign of uneven tire pressure, again something to point out to your mechanic. Also check what kind of tires are on the trailer.

"Trailer tires are more specifically rated than a car tire," says Scheve. "They are also 'tougher' for trailer use."

Finally, check for good ventilation and light. Roof vents are desirable as they let hot air out and bring fresh air in. Ramps should work well and be easily raised and lowered. The step-up should be manageable and safe for your horse.

Internet--With the advent of the Internet, the horse world is getting smaller, and you can find a good trailer through individual sales on the Internet. Scheve says all you have to do is ask the right questions and have the seller e-mail digital pictures of the trailer.

"People who own horses tend to be fairly honest," he says. "If you get a good set of inside and outside pictures, and you ask all the right questions about the trailer, you can at least get a good idea whether the trailer will fit your needs."

Before you set out on a long journey, query the seller about all the areas you would look at if you were there:

  • How long have you owned the trailer?
  • How often was it used?
  • What was it used for?
  • What is the maintenance record?
  • How old are the tires?
  • What state are the tires in (ask for a close-up photo)?
  • What kind of tires are on the trailer and do they match?
  • What condition is the floor in (ask for a photo)?
  • If the floor is wood, are there any soft spots (if so, ask for a photo)?
  • How many joists support the wood floor?
  • How are the bars latched (ask for a photo)?
  • Where are the ties situated (ask for a photo)?
  • What size is the coupler?
  •  What kinds of brakes are on the trailer? (The answer should be four-wheel electric, which means there are brakes on all four wheels.)

Take-Home Message

Now that you are armed with some general and specific questions about horse trailers, you should have an easier time searching out the trailer that suits your and your horse's needs. Make sure you have someone knowledgeable inspect the trailer, and practice driving it without horses before you load up and head down the road.

TRAILER TYPES: Gooseneck or Tagalong?

A gooseneck is always the safest choice when hauling three or more horses, says Tom Scheve, co-author with wife his, Neva, of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, and co-designer of Equispirit Trailers. A gooseneck trailer attaches into the bed of the truck, which will distribute the weight more evenly between the axles of the towing vehicle. It also has a smaller turning radius--a plus with a larger trailer.

"A two-horse tagalong has a lot of positives (they are cheaper, more commonly found, and easily track around corners), and there are a lot of positives to a two-horse gooseneck," says Scheve. "They both will be safe if they are well-designed, well-constructed trailers."--Sharon Biggs


You have your truck, you have your trailer, your horse is happy, and you're ready to go. But what will you do if you happen to break down while on your journey? All passenger vehicle roadside services can help you with your tow vehicle, but there is very little they can do with your trailer and your horses. In a breakdown situation, it's up to you to find alternative transportation. Until recently, stranded horse owners had to rely on friends or kind strangers to help rescue them from the road. Now, USRider offers its services to equestrians. For around $10 a month, you'll receive 24-hour nationwide roadside assistance (including towing, lock-out assistance, fuel, oil, and water delivery), $500,000 personal excess equine liability insurance, up to $20,000 personal accident insurance, and even help with emergency lodgings and veterinary care. Best of all, your membership follows you no matter whose trailer you're in.

For more information, visit or phone 800/844-1409.--Sharon Biggs

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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