Trailer Shopping

You're finally ready to buy a trailer--one of the more significant purchases you'll make as a horse owner. It's a lot of money, so you'll want to make a wise investment. It's a good time to buy a trailer, as horse travel has evolved into a part of everyday life with conscientious, well-informed owners demanding safety and comfort features for horse and human.

Entering into a closed, dark space is counter to a horse's survival instinct. So, what we think of as an innocent walk up a short ramp could be considered a potentially life-threatening experience to your horse. But with a trailer that accommodates your horse's size and has adequate ventilation, lighting, and safety features, the most common causes of distress can be eliminated, enabling your horse to relax while on the road.

Horse Safety

Neva Kittrell Scheve, a veteran in the trailer industry since 1983 and co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, underscores the importance of considering your horse first when choosing a trailer. Scheve counsels, "The horse should have enough room to use his head and neck for balance and to lower his head to cough out dust and debris he may have inhaled in the trailer. He should also be able to spread his legs forward and backward to stand easily without having to lean or scramble to find his balance."

The breed and size of your horse is also a factor as you compare trailers. While a 16.2-hand Thoroughbred might need a tall trailer, a 16.2-hand warmblood could need not only a tall trailer, but a wide one as well. And with heavier horses, weight becomes an issue from a hauling perspective. "Putting a big horse into a lightweight trailer can be like carrying bricks in a plastic bag," says Scheve.

She also notes, "Since horses are prone to feelings of claustrophobia--with young or green horses that are unused to entering into small spaces being particularly sensitive--they will likely need to develop a sense of self-assurance as they learn the ropes. And while it's ultimately up to you or your trainer to instill confidence and trust in an untrained horse, having a trailer that is light, airy, and open can help make the process much easier."

Your horse's temperament also plays a role in finding the right trailer. If you have a calm, easygoing horse, you can pretty much pick and choose. If your horse is high-strung and nervous, finding a trailer that will help alleviate his anxiety--from providing more interior space to providing extra comfort features (see the following additional safety features)--can make the difference between your horse feeling comfortable or developing colic during travel.

Trailer Safety

Scott Riley, director of education for Sundowner Trailers, says the type of tow vehicle and hitch you intend to use are also factors, as they must be able to adequately handle the weight of a full load.

Here is a checklist of items that should not be overlooked:

  • Sharp edges invite injury, so make sure that all surfaces--exterior and interior--are rounded and/or smooth;
  • Latches, tie rings, butt bars, breast bars, etc., should be strong enough to take wear from the largest, strongest horse;
  • Dividers, posts, butt bars, and breast bars should operate freely, yet be easily removed in an emergency;
  • Ramps should be solid, low, non-slip, and long enough to protect you from getting kicked while lifting the platform;
  • Step-up (no ramp) trailers need to be wide enough to allow your horse to turn around and unload head first instead of having to back out (a front unload ramp is even better);
  • The construction material of the trailer should be strong enough to handle the size, weight, and strength of your horse(s) plus equipment; and
  • Additional safety features that can help reduce stress and that might not be expensive include removable hay bags, mats, screens, bar guards on windows, removable or no rear center post, and water tanks.

Your Needs

Budget usually dictates the end product, but by shopping smart, you can get the features you want without having to buy more trailer than you need. Scheve suggests concentrating on the trailer size that will fit your current situation, with the idea of trading up when you can afford it. Think about resale value as you shop around.

Take into account how often you use your trailer. If you travel often or for long periods at a time, your trailer will need to be especially durable and easy to operate. If you show, camp, trail ride, or haul for hire, storage is important, so you might want a trailer with a dressing room, tack/feed compartment, or living quarters.

When it comes to living quarters, Riley suggests you ask yourself these questions: "How many people do you plan to sleep? How many nights per month are you planning to use the living quarters? How many horses do you intend to haul? How much combined storage (for you and your horses) do you need? Will you need a generator? How much water do you need to carry?"

Trailer Types

Here's a rundown on the two types of trailers available on the market today, with a list of pluses and minuses for each:

Bumper-Pull/Tag-Along Advantages

  • A bumper-pull trailer is usually less expensive than a gooseneck trailer;
  • There is a larger selection of vehicles that can be used to tow it (i.e., SUV, mini-van) than the traditional pickup truck;
  • A bumper-pull takes up less storage space than a gooseneck;
  • Because more people own bumper-pull trailers, it's easier to find a tow vehicle with sufficient hauling power should that situation arise;
  • Because a bumper-pull follows the path of the tow vehicle, it is easier to turn; and
  • Licensing is less complicated. Since most bumper-pull combinations weigh under 10,001 pounds (Gross Combination Vehicle Weight Rating, GCVWR), you won't have to register your rig as commercial.

Bumper-Pull/Tag-Along Disadvantages

  • When hauling more than two horses, bumper-pulls can have stability problems if the horses are not loaded correctly or evenly (tongue weight can become too heavy or too light on the rear of the tow vehicle); and
  • There is not as much room for sleeping quarters.

Gooseneck Advantages

  • A gooseneck trailer is able to carry more weight with better stability, an important point if you are planning to haul more than two horses;
  • Because the trailer starts turning when the truck turns, the turning radius is much tighter; and
  • The area in the gooseneck can be used for sleeping or storage without adding extra length to the trailer floor.

Gooseneck Disadvantages

  • A gooseneck can cost $2,000 more than a bumper-pull and can only be pulled by a pickup truck;
  • It cuts corners much quicker;
  • It is more difficult to find emergency towing services;
  • Depending on where you live, licensing can be more complicated. Because more gooseneck trailer combinations will be over 10,001 pounds (GCVWR), you'll probably have to declare your rig as commercial; and
  • Since gooseneck trailers are longer, they take up more storage space.

Trailer Styles

Manger Advantages

  • The built-in hay manger at the head of the trailer (with a wall in front of the horse's legs) acts as a storage compartment, making it possible to haul more gear without having to buy a longer trailer.

Manger Disadvantages

  • Because of the reduced interior space (older trailers are six feet tall by five feet wide, newer models are now 6 1/2-feet tall by 5 1/2-feet wide), only smaller or average-sized horses can be hauled safely;
  • The horse's head is confined to a small area close to the hay, exposing him to dust and debris and not letting him lower his head to cough. Therefore, if you are considering a manger-style trailer, make sure that there is adequate ventilation;
  • The wall in front of the horse's legs inhibits his ability to step forward to maintain his balance;
  • Horses can jump or rear up into the manger and get stuck; and
  • The manger-style design doesn't allow for a full-height door at the horse's head, so a half-door for escape is placed over the fender for access to the horse. This can be dangerous for a handler leading horses in and makes it almost impossible to work with a horse from inside the trailer.

Walk-Through Advantages

  • Open from ceiling to floor, the walk-through trailer is sometimes referred to as a "Thoroughbred" trailer because it is considered tall at seven feet (newer models are even taller). Most models offer seven-plus feet as the standard interior width, with added dimensions optional;
  • Walk-throughs are equipped with a breast or chest bar to keep the horse from going through the walk-out door;
  • They have an open appearance to quell feelings of claustrophobia;
  • Unencumbered space lets a horse brace himself with his front legs and lower his head to clear his respiratory tract; and
  • The walk-out door is an added safety advantage for you. If your budget permits, consider a trailer that has a walk-out door on each side.

Slant-Load Advantages

  • More horses can fit in a shorter trailer, i.e., a four-horse slant-load with a three-foot by seven-foot tack storage area is 24-25 1/2 feet long, whereas a four-horse straight load, head to head, with a four-foot by six-foot tack storage area, is 34 to 36 feet long;
  • Since dividers are pushed to the sides and the rear entrance is spacious, horses usually load more easily;
  • Horse can be turned around and led out head-first;
  • Removable dividers make the trailer easier to customize; and
  • There's more room for tack storage (and dressing rooms) at the front and rear corners;

Slant-load Disadvantages

  • The overall stall length is limited to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) restrictions on width (8 1/2 feet) of the trailer. Since the wheel wells end up inside the trailer when it's over 80 inches (6 1/2 feet) wide and cut more deeply into the interior space as the trailer is made wider, the stall length is greatly restricted and often not enough for horses over 16 hands high; and
  • If you have a problem with the front horse and he must be unloaded, you have to unload all the others to get to him.

Which One to Pick?

Tom Scheve, owner of Equispirit Trailers and co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, focuses on the horse's perspective when discussing trailer styles. "I believe that we have to balance the 'horse's point of view' with sound research and knowledge when designing trailers," he says. "Just because a horse walks into a unmoving trailer and stands at an angle doesn't mean that he wants to travel that way, and even if he does, it doesn't mean it is safe, i.e., let a 4-year-old child choose how he wants to travel in your car and he'll probably end up standing on the back seat looking out the rear window. We know he's safer strapped into a car seat, even though he may not like it. I have found that a straight-load, walk through trailer allows a horse to use both his front and hind legs to balance better during acceleration and deceleration, rather than trying to brace with the leading foreleg and trailing hind leg in a slant-load, or having to lean into the divider for balance."

While the process of picking a trailer might seem overwhelming since there are now so many features available, having more choices is better than having too few, especially when it comes to your horse's safety. And just think, by doing your research, you'll be able to get exactly what you want without having to compromise. Whoever said the perfect trailer doesn't exist hasn't gone trailer shopping lately.

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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