Trailer Driving Tips

Trailer Driving Tips

For your horse to have a comfortable and safe ride, make all changes in speed gradual.

Photo: Christy M. West

While most of us learn to drive a passenger vehicle through driver's education, the majority of us learn to drive horse trailers through experience. When you consider how precious the cargo is, cutting our towing teeth at the "school of hard knocks" seems silly. However, there are ways to learn without endangering your horse, and techniques available to help sharpen your skills. In this article you'll read hauling tips from experts across the country.

Handling Hitches

Hitching might seem an easy enough task, but it's one of those things that look easier than it is. Unless you have a friend available to direct you as you back up, hitching can be very tricky.

Neva Scheve is the co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Serv­icing a Horse Trailer. She says that hitching up your trailer might seem intimidating, but it can become fairly easy with practice.

"An advantage of hitching to a gooseneck trailer is that, in most cases, you can see the ball while you are backing up to the trailer," says Scheve. "But you do need to climb into the bed to attach the chains, and to secure (some) couplers. Hitching up a tagalong is a little trickier to align because you can't see the ball or the coupler on the trailer. But once aligned, the rest of the 'hooking-up' is fairly easy."

For tagalongs you can create a visual guide by taping a strip of visible tape on your truck bed, tailgate, or back window of your SUV, right above where your truck hitch is located. Put another piece of tape on the trailer nose where it's directly above the coupler and visible to the driver. As you back up, align the tape strips and you should land within inches. "There are also products on the market to help align your trailer," says Scheve. "If they help, there is nothing wrong with using them."

Always use a frame-mounted (not bumper), equalizer hitch that is bolted to the frame of the tow vehicle. Be careful, trailer hitches are not all rated equally, so the ratings should always be checked. The slide-in-ball mount and the ball itself also have ratings, and the ball sizes vary. The ball on your hitch might be too small (or underrated) for the coupler on a trailer. Don't make the mistake of thinking it fits just because it went onto the ball easily. A smaller (2-inch) ball hooked to a larger coupler (25⁄16-inch) will "pop" off when you meet that first good bump in the road. If you are borrowing a trailer, check the coupler size with the owner, and ask him to show you exactly how to hook everything up. It is usually not a good idea to borrow a trailer unless it is an emergency situation.

Make sure to cross your safety chains underneath the hitch to form an "X" so it can help support the nose of the trailer if it comes loose from the tow vehicle. While you can't pull the trailer this way for long, the chains keep the tongue of the trailer from dragging on the road and breaking free from the tow vehicle, giving you some maneuverability and control until you can pull off the road.

The chains should be attached to the hitch or to the frame of the tow vehicle. Do not put the chains over the ball because if the ball or slide-in-mount comes off, the safety chains will come with it. For the same reason you should attach your breakaway brake cable to the frame or hitch. Your breakaway cable should be looser than the safety chains. If the coupler comes off the ball, the chains will be the first to hold the trailer. You can then slow the unhitched trailer with the manual brake and pull over. If the breakaway cable is activated first, it will lock the brakes. The abrupt stop could cause your horse to be thrown forward. The cable's main purpose is to stop the trailer right now if it detaches from your vehicle.

Also make sure the electrical plug is attached and working by checking all lights, turn signals, and brakes before each trip.


Backing up is one of the hardest things to learn with a trailer. It's a tricky technique that takes practice and keen coordination. To back a trailer, you must turn your tow vehicle in the opposite direction you want your trailer to go. If you want to send your trailer left, you must turn the steering wheel as if you are turning to the right.

Cherry Hill, author of Trailering Your Horse: A Visual Guide to Safe Training and Traveling has a foolproof formula. Put one hand in the center of the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want your trailer to go right, move your hand to the right. If you need to make a sharp turn, turn the wheel and accelerate. If you need to make a gradual turn, accelerate and turn the wheel as you go. Once you're in line with your target, straighten the truck wheels to line up the tow vehicle and trailer.

"Empty parking lots are great places to practice your skills," says Hill. "Set up an alleyway of cones or boxes and try to back between them. Start out backing straight into the alley, then practice backing into the alley while you are turning. First try it with the bend in your rig on the driver's side so you can see what is going on in your mirrors. Give yourself plenty of room before you begin and make a sweeping turn backward to line yourself up. Then practice with the bend on the passenger side."


With urban sprawl eating up much of the countryside these days, parking spaces at horse shows are getting smaller and smaller. Have respect for your fellow competitors by parking your rig in a straight line and allowing a minimum of 12 feet between your trailer and your neighbor's. Any smaller and your horses could get in a fight. Hill suggests placing a cone 12 feet out to discourage other trailer drivers or passenger cars from parking too close. Practice parking in an empty parking lot. Place cones on the white lines of the parking space and try not to knock them over as you pull in your rig.

Stop and Go

Rapid driving can cause serious accidents, and quick braking can cause a trailer to jackknife. When driving a horse trailer, always drive your rig at the speed limit or slightly under it. Pay attention and try to anticipate when a driver will pull out in front of you.

"Allow plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead, and remember it takes longer for you to stop," says Mark Cole, founder of USRider Equestrian Motor Plan. "A safe following distance in passenger vehicles is the 'two-second' rule, or one vehicle length per 10 mph. While this varies greatly depending upon driving conditions, tow vehicle size, and gross weight, at a minimum, we recommend doubling the following distance to four seconds or one rig length for every 10 mph. You may find that other drivers won't respect your braking distance."

Begin counting off your seconds as the car in front of you passes a focal point, such as a road sign or tree. You should count to the number four as you pass that same focal point. If people pull into this space you've created, fall back and regain your safe following distance.

"In the hurried world we live in, maintaining your braking distance is sometimes difficult to do and requires presence of mind," says Cole. "This extra cushion could save your life or your horse's life in the event of a sudden stop or emergency in front of you."

For your horse to have a comfortable and safe ride, make all changes in speed gradual. Stay out of the fast lane. Practice stopping in an empty parking lot, and you'll soon realize how long it takes to bring your rig to a halt.

"You've got three ways to slow your trailer," says Hill. "Your tow vehicle's brake pedal, the manual trailer brake control, and downshifting your transmission."

Downshift to a lower gear when you need to slow down on a steep hill. This lets the engine do the job rather than overtaxing either your tow vehicle or trailer brakes. Use your tow vehicle's brake pedal for normal braking. Use the manual trailer brake when you need to slow the trailer and not the tow vehicle, for example, if your trailer begins to sway or if it comes off the hitch.

Trailer brakes are required in every state. Electric brakes are the brakes of choice. The electric brake controls, which are normally located under the dash of the tow vehicle, can seem difficult to adjust, but it's important that they're adjusted correctly. If your trailer begins to sway, you can activate the trailer brakes by hand separately from the tow vehicle and straighten out the trailer. If you use the tow vehicle's brakes to slow down a swaying trailer, you could jackknife your rig. Electric brakes can be operated and adjusted manually.

"To test your brakes, pick a safe area. While going very slow, take your foot off the brake pedal, and work the brake lever on the controller by hand," says Scheve. "Brakes should be adjusted so they activate just slightly ahead of the tow vehicle. If they activate too soon, they will grab the road and squeal. If they activate too late, they aren't effective. If your brakes aren't responding well, the master brake setting may need to be adjusted as well."


Although a gooseneck has an advantage of being able to turn around on a small radius (but can put excessive strain on the trailer wheels and tires), that advantage can turn sour when maneuvering around normal corners. The gooseneck trailer is more likely to cut corners much quicker than a tagalong, so always make wider turns while watching your trailer tires in the rearview mirror. A tagalong trailer does cut corners to some extent, but it will more closely follow in the tracks of its tow vehicle around a turn, so it is less likely to catch on the curb or any other street object. Regardless of which type you have, you can practice turning in the empty parking lot.

First, make sure your mirrors are adjusted properly. You should be able to see alongside the entire trailer (on both sides) and beyond. Then set out a single cone and practice turning left around it. Keep an eye on the cone in your mirror as you make your turn. If you are driving too close to the cone, next time steer a little bit wider. Now practice turning right around the cone. Going this direction makes it much harder to keep track of the cone in your right mirror. Just remember to swing out wider.

"Make sure to slow down before turning to give the horses a chance to prepare for the turn," says Scheve. "Don't accelerate again until the trailer has straightened out behind you and the horses have regained their balance."

Take-Home Message

Confidence comes with experience. If you're driving a trailer for the first time, take along a passenger that has some trailer­ing experience who can help out in sticky situations and warn you of problems, and take it slow. Take time to practice with an empty trailer in an open parking lot.



  • Plan your route so that you don't get lost in places where you can't get out.
  • Know the height and length of your trailer. Don't drive under a railroad underpass or fast food drive-through unless you know your trailer's height.
  • Make sure to take a wide swing into gas stations as you pull up to the tanks. Heavy poles protect the pumps, and you have to make sure you give them enough clearance, particularly with a gooseneck.
  • In case of an emergency, understand that emergency personnel or police likely will not know how to handle the horses if you are incapacitated. Post a notice in a visible place listing any numbers they can call for assistance in handling the horses.
  • Never change a tire on the road unless you are qualified, says Mark Cole, founder of USRider Equestrian Motor Plan. "Proper lug torque and torque sequence are very important. If you do change a tire by yourself, have a qualified mechanic properly torque the wheel as soon as possible. The moment you notice a flat tire, maintain a safe speed as best you can. The safety of you and your horse is more important than a wheel or tire. Get to the side of the road as quickly as possible and phone for help." Once your repair is complete, build up momentum before pulling into the lane of traffic.
  • When trailering one horse in straight-load trailers, always put the horse on the left side (highway side) of the trailer instead of the right side (ditch side). If the ditch side of your trailer were to swerve off the pavement, the angle of the road, and the shifting of the 1,000 pounds plus weight on the ditch side could increase chances of the trailer turning over.
  • "If you hear any unusual sounds while driving your rig, such as a "clunk," stop and check it out immediately," says Neva Scheve, co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer. "It very well could be something that is not hooked up correctly, such as a wrong size ball, or unpinned slide-in-ball mount, or some problem with your horses that needs immediate attention." --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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