Hit the Road (Trailer Maintenance)

A well-maintained horse trailer is a safe one, and safe practices mean less wear and tear on your rig.

Teaching a horse to load like a champ is an oft-covered topic, but have you considered whether you’re starting with an enclosure that’s safe and pleasant for both horse and human? By maintaining your trailer properly, and abiding by some simple safety guidelines, you will go a long way in helping your horse enjoy his ride and arrive safely.

The Stresses Of Travel

Transporting equines has long been known to cause stress and precipitate health issues ranging from “shipping fever” (any of several respiratory and pulmonary disorders that occur because of shipping) to soreness or injuries. Noise, vibration, the inability to lower the head, and the constant need to balance are all stressful conditions horses encounter in the average horse trailer. At a minimum, these factors could be detrimental to your horse’s performance, and they could lead to more serious health complications such as dehydration or colic. Trailer manufacturers have come a long way in developing more spacious trailers with adequate ventilation and cushioned footing, helping a horse feel less claustrophobic and more comfortable. But, the unavoidable characteristics of travel still have their effects, so maintaining your trailer to reduce noise, vibration, and dust, along with practicing safe loading/unloading and driving, will help your horse feel more comfortable en route and be healthier upon arrival.

But I Only Use It …

Whether you’re racking up thousands of miles annually, or only using your trailer sporadically, every horse trailer requires maintenance in order to be a safe piece of equipment, according to the man who’s literally written the book on trailer safety.

Clint Lancaster, technical director of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) and co-author of The Trailer Handbook: A Guide to Understanding Trailers and Towing Safety, says there are a few key areas to monitor closely, no matter what your usage level.

“Fundamentally, we’re mainly concerned about the connection to the tow vehicle, that’s the coupler and safety chains, and the undercarriage, which includes the axle, springs, wheels, and tires,” he says. “If these items fail doing 70 mph on the highway, it could be devastating.”

Sundowner Trailers living quarters design and development director Stephanie Griffin says trailers sitting unused for long time periods require maintenance, too. “Many people don’t realize that tires, brakes, lights, batteries, generators, caulking, and many other items all demand regular attention, even when they’re not being used,” she says.

Trailer Maintenance, Step By Step

Trailer component failure and the resulting cascade of consequences are essentially what you’re trying to avoid through proper maintenance, agrees Bruce McConnell, customer service manager at Featherlite Trailers in Cresco, Iowa. The company’s Web site (www.fthr.com) has a helpful trailer maintenance schedule chart in the Customer Resources section (top of page).

While it’s best to read and follow the guidelines in the owner’s manual for your particular trailer, here’s an overview of important trailer maintenance elements, and some things to watch out for.

Tires Most tire failures result from low pressure, excessive weight loads, and/or excessive speed, according to the Featherlite Trailer Web site; avoiding these extremes will provide a smoother and safer ride. To maintain your tires at ideal pressure, check each one before traveling, when tires are cold. Be sure to use tires rated for horse trailers, never automobile tires, and carry a properly inflated spare. Also, on a dual-wheeled vehicle, a tire leaking due to a nail puncture can put undue pressure on the partner tire, a likely recipe for disaster. A tire pressure monitoring system can be used to provide real-time pressure information during the drive.

Lug nuts Lug nuts screw onto the hub bolts, holding the wheel onto the trailer’s hub and axle. It’s essential to check them for proper tightness before heading out. Be sure you have a lug wrench or tire iron stowed in your towing rig or trailer, and remember to check the lug nuts before your return trip.

Brakes According to Featherlite’s maintenance schedule chart, you should check breakaway brakes before each use to be sure connections are clean, the battery is fully charged, and brakes work properly. You should adjust brake shoes and drums after the first 200 miles on a new trailer, and every 3,000 miles thereafter. Also have them checked annually for wear. Electric and hydraulic brakes have additional maintenance needs; generally every six months or 6,000 miles is a good check-up time for electric brakes, and every 12 months or 12,000 miles for hydraulics.

Lights Check lights before every use to be sure they’re working, and after every use to see if anything needs to be fixed or replaced before the next trip. Be sure the connections are clean and tight-fitting. Check for loose wires in the trailer. “If a trailer or tow vehicle has sat outdoors for an extended period, it can result in problems with the lights,” Griffin says.

Coupler/hitch From a safety standpoint, Lancaster feels the top two concerns are correct hook-up and proper loading of cargo in the trailer, which can also affect the integrity of the hook-up.

“It’s important to ensure you’re using the proper size hitch ball for the coupler of the trailer, as well as the proper size tow vehicle hitch for the trailer’s gross weight. Safety chains are also essential, and should not only be connected properly, but checked for wear each time the trailer is used,” he says.

Floor Lancaster says another of the top safety issues he’s seen in his 15 years in the industry is corrosion of the trailer floor and lower walls. “It isn’t only from urine and horse excrement, but also silage effluent, the liquid that forms from fermentation of silage from livestock feed, which results from dropped feed that ferments in the edges and corners of the floor,” he says.

Featherlite recommends thorough cleaning of the floors every three months, including removing and hosing down mats. Letting them dry completely is a must before putting them back in the trailer. More frequent cleaning is good. As a hygiene measure, some equine professionals pressure-wash their trailers inside and out with a Clorox and water solution following each use or after hauling an unfamiliar horse or one that’s been sick.

Wheel bearings and axles “As far as safety, maintaining wheel bearings and axles is a big issue,” advises McConnell. “Most wheel bearings should be checked every 12,000 miles or annually, whichever comes first.” Inadequate lubrication can cause bearings to freeze up, ruining the hub and most likely requiring complete axle replacement.

Weight load While it’s not necessarily a true maintenance issue, attention to proper weight limits and loading will help your trailer travel well, last longer, and avoid trailer sway or tow vehicle instability issues. Know the total weight of the horses, feed, and gear you’re loading, and refer to your owner’s manual for specifics on ideal loading zones for your trailer.

Safety By Design

A trailer’s design and quality of construction will determine a great deal about the amount of maintenance required and overall safety. The NATM (www.natm.com) has developed a number of programs to help horse trailer manufacturers and users.

While NATM’s annual Guidelines contain federal, state, and industry information to guide manufacturers, consumers should watch for the organization’s red, white, and blue Compliance decal on trailers. The decal indicates the manufacturer has undergone a voluntary consultation with NATM and is building trailers in accordance with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards.

Lancaster reports that NATM members as a whole are safety-conscious. “Horse trailer manufacturers are typically very good about safety issues,” he says.

Accident Prevention

In 2009 there were two news stories about horses being dragged behind horse trailers; one horse died and another suffered extensive hide removal, but survived. Preventing a catastrophe such as this requires performing regular maintenance so latches and doors work properly, and also ensuring that you close the trailer doors securely and tie your horses appropriately.

Emergencies sometimes happen, but Griffin says being prepared can save you precious response time and effort. “Fortunately the number of these stories is minuscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of horses hauled safely each year, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” she says.

Griffin recommends using ties that can easily be unhooked in an emergency, plus keeping a kit with items such as a jack, flares or cones to warn other drivers, and basic veterinary supplies, including a leg splint. “These are all items helpful in the event of an accident,” she says.

The process of hitching trailer to truck also can go awry; keep small children and pets clear of the area, and know where everyone is before backing the tow vehicle. If your journey gets under way in the dark hours of early morning or late at night, consider hitching the vehicle ahead of time during the daylight hours, when the light, and your senses, are clearer.

Take-Home Message

Maintenance and safety go hand in glove when it comes to horse trailers; a well-maintained trailer is a safer trailer, and safe practices mean less wear and tear on your trailer. Whether you possess a two-horse that’s seen its share of show travel, or a brand-new, fully loaded trailer with living quarters, trailer maintenance is essential to providing a safe ride for your four-legged passengers, and peace of mind for you.

About the Author

Lisa Kemp

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