Trailer Maintenance, Right on Schedule
- Sep 1, 2006
We rely on our trailers to transport our horses safely and reliably. So it stands to reason that we should pay close attention to their maintenance and soundness. But in the busy life of the modern equestrian, trailer upkeep can easily be pushed down on the list of "things to do." But remember--this is our horses' safety on the line, and putting off trailer maintenance can be putting your horse at risk of serious injury. To make the chore more manageable, we'll help you break it all down with tips on regular maintenance.
Tom Scheve from EquiSpirit Trailer Company says it's wise to make a laminated comprehensive trailer checklist and refer to it a week prior to leaving for a trip. Included should be a reminder to inspect:
Tire and spare tire for wear This is very important to do frequently, because once tires begin to show a wear pattern, it can be difficult to stop, even if you've fixed the cause. Examples of wear include baldness in the center of the tire, which is caused by overinflation; wear toward the edge of the tires, which is an indication of underinï¿½flation; side wear, which can mean your axles are not in alignment or you've overloaded the trailer (do not overload in the future and have your tires realigned).
Flat spots are the results of skidding tires (adjust your brakes and avoid slamming on the brakes).
Tire and spare tire for pressure Scheve warns that you could have a flat tire on rubber torsion suspension (now standard on most horse trailers) that will not appear flat, so it needs to be checked. If left unchecked, it could overload the other tire on the same side, and you end up with two flats and only one spare tire.
Randy Lewis, Featherlite National sales manager, says the tire pressure should be indicated on the certification or VIN label.
To make sure you've got the right figure, check the psi rating (pressure per square inch) located on the side of the tire. Keeping tires at their maximum rating insures that they will flex less, thus ride cooler, and they will be less apt to blow from the heat. Odie Heck from Sundowner Trailer suggests using a tire pressure gauge to inspect pressure on a regular basis.
Brakes and brake adjustment "Test the trailer brakes by moving your rig a short distance before loading the horses and brake hard," says Heck.
Scheve adds, "If the brakes grab and skid, slide the fine-tune setting on the controller until the brakes engage simultaneously, or slightly ahead of the tow vehicle brakes so that the entire rig brakes as if one unit."
Breakaway battery Check this with a battery tester. If it is a rechargeable battery, make sure it's charged.
A more thorough test is to lift each tire off the ground with a trailer-aid jack, pull the pin out of the breakaway switch, then try spinning the wheel. The brakes should have the wheels locked up. If the wheels spin, then the battery or wiring is faulty. Recheck the battery after testing to make sure it's fully charged.
Lights and turn signals Have a friend watch your brakes, turn signals, and running lights while you operate them from the tow vehicle to make sure they are all working, If they are not, check fuses, junction box, plug connector, overall wiring, and/or bulbs.
Door latches, hitch bolts Check for wear and tear that could cause a failure. If the horse area doors are secured by a small door handle latch only, make sure the door latch works easily and the spring loaded catch latches securely.
Bearings Wheel bearing care should be done by a professional mechanic unless the axles are EZ lube axles, which allow you to grease them with a grease gun without removing the wheels. However, Scheve cautions that EZ lube axles are easy to overgrease if you're doing it yourself. Over-greasing can blow out the bearings.
Floor If you have an aluminum floor, look for signs of corrosion. If your floor is wood, check for dry rot (soft or crumbling spots) and under the trailer for signs of deterioration on the cross beams supporting the floor.
Windows If the trailer has sliding windows, check that they slide easily. If they are drop-down windows, make sure they work and latch securely to the trailer. Make sure screens are in place to prevent debris from flying into the trailer.
Lug Nuts Check that your lug nuts are tight and properly torqued. If you want to do this yourself, consult a mechanic the first time. Or you can just have this job done by a mechanic.
For a quick inspection, walk around and feel each lug nut with a tire iron to see if any are loose. Note: Bolts tend to loosen more easily on aluminum rims than on steel.
"Also include a reminder (on your list) to conduct basic cleaning chores and inspect the inside for wasp nests or other insects," says Scheve. "These are things that, if done ahead of time, should be rechecked the day of use."
Finally, inspect the interior horse area for any sharp edges or hazardous protrusions and finish up with a general walk-around to look for any obvious defects.
Once a year (perhaps at the beginning of the show or trail riding season), you should have a professional inspect the condition of the trailer brakes and adjust them if needed, check and grease the bearings, and make sure the wiring and the electric braking system between tow vehicle and trailer are in good working order. Also, have them check the undercarriage for wear or damage to the frame.
Once hooked up on the day of use, another laminated "pre-flight" list should have you checking to make sure the coupler is secured, the breakaway system is hooked up correctly, safety chains are attached, and all turn signal, brake, and running lights are working.
After the Trip
Upon your return, be sure to clean any manure- or urine-soaked bedding and lift the rubber mats to check the trailer floor.
Don't store the trailer with either soiled bedding or clean bedding in it, because it could draw moisture and cause extreme condensation on the interior sidewalls, floor, and roof of the trailer. The urine and manure can damage the floor and attract insects.
Scheve says if there is only manure in the trailer and moisture has stayed completely on solid mats, occasionally it's all right to sweep it out without removing the mats.
"But every second or third time you use the trailer, you should wash it out and lift the mats," he says. "Let the floor dry before you put the mats back over the floor. If you are going to store the trailer for a while, then definitely the mats should be lifted and the floor washed. Store it with the mats turned up and resting on their sides so the floor can dry completely."
If you have an aluminum floor, lift the mats and wash it with soap and water at least once a month, or even better, every time the trailer is used, regardless of whether your horse has soiled the mats or not.
Scheve says many trailer manufacturers using aluminum floors have strict cleaning policies. If these specifications are not followed, they could void the warranty.
"Check the floor often," says Scheve. "Aluminum floors will corrode if not properly cared for."
Aluminum floors require frequent scrubbing because they are affected by the alkaline in urine and manure, which will start to corrode aluminum over a relatively short period of time if not cleaned with soap and water. (Note: Some mats are very heavy and might be inconvenient to lift for cleaning after every trip, especially if you're traveling weekly. You should consult your owner's manual for floor care for your particular trailer.)
Most wood floors are pressure treated against water and weather, and they hold up remarkably well with less maintenance than aluminum floors. If the mats cover the entire floor, most of the urine and manure will stay on the mats, but the trailer should still be swept out after every use and hosed out every few trips.
"Using a power washer and liquid detergent, wash and rinse both sides of the rubber mat as well as the floor and walls of the trailer. Be sure the mats and floor are dry before replacing (mats)," Lewis says.
He reminds you to check the tires for wear and tear after each trip. It might seem excessive, but a flat tire on a horse trailer is not just an inconvenience, it's a danger.
Changing trailer tires on the side of the road is extremely unsafe and difficult. And few roadside vehicle assistance programs (other than USRider, an equine-based program) will change a trailer tire for you with horses on board.
"If you have a trailer with living quarters, we recommend that it remain plugged in to an adequate power source when not being used to keep your facilities fully charged," says Heck.
Conduct a walk-around to check for any obvious defects that might have occurred during your trip. Take a close look at your chains, breakaway system, the hitch, and the electrical plug to make sure they weren't damaged in the transport.
For instance, chains can drag on the ground or the electrical cord can come loose. Take out all the hay, and make sure there isn't any hay left in the cracks around mangers and floor.
Keeping your trailer clean and dry can prolong its life. One simple way to do this is to close the vents so rain can't come in while the trailer is being stored. Trailers are expensive, and even though you might not have plans to use yours for a while, wash it regularly as this helps preserve the life of your investment.
"Be sure you wash the roof, too," says Heck. "The sides of the trailers will get dirty if it rains and dust and debris from the roof runs down."
Wash the trailer more frequently if it has been exposed to salt or liquid de-icer. Jack the trailer up and hose off the undercarriage as well.
Check the hinges, doors, and dividers inside the trailer every three months.
If you want to keep your trailer in top shape, have it serviced on an annual basis. Lewis recommends trailer service every year or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. Since trailers do not have odometers you should keep track of miles logged while towing it.
"Owners should have their service personnel check brakes, wheel bearings, tires, axle attachment bolts, and the welds of the trailer," Lewis says.
Heck adds, "Service personnel will make sure the dividers are working properly and check all of the hinges and latches. If it has a living quarters, they will check the batteries, power converter, and plumbing to make sure there aren't any leaks. They also do a general walk-around to check for any unforeseen problems."
Living quarters should be winterized in areas where it drops below freezing.
Also, ask your service expert to check the seals on the roof to make sure there aren't any leaks, and check the A/C vents on top for birds' nests or damage.
If you're ever in doubt of any maintenance issues, consult your owner's manual for a complete list of maintenance steps since every trailer is different, or call the company for advice.
A safe, well-maintained trailer will give you years of use and maintain its value should you ever decide to sell.
THE RIGHT "STUFF"
Dexter "never lube" axles eliminate the need to grease the bearings. Rubber torsion axles (on most horse trailers now, but not all) require minimum care because they eliminate springs, shackles, and bolts that wear out. The 3M VHB Tape has shown in research to reduce noise (by 41%) and vibrations (by 30%) as compared to trailers built with traditional mechanical fasteners.
Choosing a trailer that is built with the right materials can eliminate long-term maintenance. Look for powder-coated latches instead of regular painted latches. Seek out baked-on enamel aluminum instead of painted aluminum. Buy galvaneeled and galvanized steel instead of raw steel.
"In the near future, you will see trailers reducing welds, replacing them with high-performance glues," says Tom Scheve of EquiSpirit Trailer Company. "Testing of this in the car industry has been going on for several years."--Sharon Biggs
STORING YOUR TRAILER
Although it might not be possible for many horse owners, storing a trailer inside and out of the weather is ideal, says Randy Lewis, Featherlite National Sales Manager. Some trailers weather the outdoors better than others, depending on the age, quality, and technology of construction.
"For instance, a seamless roof will be less likely to leak over the years as one that overlaps materials," says Tom Scheve from EquiSpirit Trailer Company. "Baked-on enamel aluminum is apt to weather the elements better than certain painted aluminum skins or painted steel sides."
Therefore, keep your trailer in a dry building that is free from birds, animals, and other equipment that could damage the trailer. "I once had a customer ask me if her trailer could fit inside her barn, would it be best to keep it there," said Scheve. "She came back in the spring with both her fenders missing--her goats ate them."
If indoor storage is not possible, keep the tires and trailer covered with porous RV-type covers (a non-porous tarp can collect moisture between it and the trailer, causing damage) to prevent rain, dirt, pollution, and the sun from damaging the trailer, especially the tires.
"If the trailer is built well, with the elements in mind, it should take the weather well, except for the rubber tires," says Scheve. "Sun tends to rot the rubber over a period of time."
Treat a painted or fiberglass-reinforced plastic trailer with paste wax twice a year (consult your manufacturer's guide) to protect the finish. Waxing the inside walls of the trailer can protect the surface from bangs and kicks. Note: Most new trailers are painted just before shipping, so make sure the paint is cured before waxing--inside or out.--Sharon Biggs
About the Author
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.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals