Hitching Up the Horse Trailer

Hitching up a horse trailer, especially if it’s a bumper pull, can be difficult. If you are short, your truck has an extended cab or you have a tool box in the bed, you may not be able to see your bumper or hitch ball for the horse trailer. Then hindsight may as well be zero.

We polled a bunch of horse people to collect tips that they use to speed their hitching process. Some still try to have a friend around to help guide them, but others say they’ve become adept at backing up to their trailers alone. Learning to hitch up quickly by yourself is imperative. If you have a veterinary emergency or have to evacuate your horses in case of a natural disaster, then the “get out, look, get in, back up, repeat” method can not only be frustrating, it can cost you precious time.

First Steps
It may seem obvious, but we’ll reiterate it here anyway: The first step in any hitching process concerns safety.

Begin by checking the interior of your trailer for bees, bad hay, dust or other health dangers. Check the soundness of the floors by poking a knife into the wood. Rotting wood will take a knife blade easily. Check your tire pressure on both the tow vehicle and the trailer, and make sure all door latches are oiled and working properly. Put fresh hay in the hay bag or manger, and sweep or pitchfork any manure remnants or wet shavings out of the trailer. Check the coupling device, so that when you get into the correct position, it will slip on easily.

Because you have to line up the hitch apparatus with a 2- to 3-inch-diameter ball, and you have to do so blind, it helps to break down the hitching process into two parts – both requiring that you estimate space and distance.

The first estimation involves centering your truck so that it meets the hitch ball. The second requires you to measure the distance between your hitch and the trailer tongue accurately, so you don’t bang into it or have to continually get in and out of the trailer.

Hitching Help

-Position your truck so that its rear tires form the top of a rectangle and your trailer’s front tires form the bottom.

-Decals or orange-dot stickers from an office supply store can help you mark helpful spots for hitching.

-Find the center of your trailer and the center of your truck’s bumper to line up your truck with the hitch ball.

-A stone or stick in the ground parallel with the hitch ball can help you measure the decreasing distance between your truck and the hitch.

-When attaching the coupling device, look underneath to make sure the clamp isn’t riding on top of the ball
instead of below it.

The Friend Method
At first, the easiest way to learn to hitch quickly is to have a friend help you.

Place your truck in position by imagining that its rear tires are the top corners of a rectangle laid on the ground. The front wheels of your trailer are the bottom corners, and the tongue juts right into the center of that short side between your trailer wheels. The wheels should all line up, forming the long sides of the rectangle.

Use your passenger side mirror to see the right side of the truck and trailer and line them up. Ask your friend to stand outside of the rectangle on the driver’s side but parallel with the hitch ball. Never place a person between the rear end of your truck and your trailer. Even though you are driving very slowly, you never know when the trailer could roll or your foot could slip off the brake.

Have your friend outstretch her right arm and point down at the hitch. Turn around in your seat so that you are looking over your right shoulder. Center your friend’s pointing finger in the middle of your rear window and slowly decrease the size of the rectangle.

If you aren’t able to come at it straight, pull forward and start again. As you get closer, have your friend signal with the left hand to keep coming, then slow way down and finally stop, with the ball directly under the hitch.

Sometimes, even with a friend helping, you’ll need to get out and look at the last few inches to take a mental picture of the distance. Only you know your vehicle well enough to know how much release on the brake equals two inches of travel. Releasing the brake just enough, inch backwards until your friend gives you the stop sign.

It may be helpful, once you are lined up correctly with the hitch ball, to have your friend show you the distance between your bumper and the hitch by holding her two hands up in approximately the same width, bringing her hands together as you get closer, until she signals you to stop.

Hitching Up Alone
The first few times you hitch up alone will require a great deal of getting in the truck, backing up a few feet, getting out, eyeballing the distance between the hitch ball and the coupler, getting in, backing up the estimated distance, getting out, checking again and so on. It’s a long and potentially frustrating process, but there’s really no avoiding it. It just takes practice, and even trailer hitchers who’ve been at it for years have to get out and look now and then.

Still, it’s a good idea to repeat the hitching up process a few times with your friend present, for the sake of practice. While she’s there, try to find a spot in the center of your truck behind you that corresponds with the pointing finger. Later, you’ll use this spot as a marker to practice by yourself.

Finding the Center
Horse people who frequently use their trailers develop systems and habits that help them hitch up quickly. One of the most useful tips is determining a mark or spot to find the center of the truck.

Begin by lining up the truck and trailer in a straight line, in the rectangle position. Then look for landmarks you can use to center it. You’ll need three such markers if you are hitching up a bumper-pull trailer: One that marks the center of your trailer, another that marks the center of your truck bumper and a third to measure the distance between your rear bumper and the trailer tongue.

The marker can be as simple as a trailer manufacturer’s decal, an orange dot price tag that you get at the office supply store and stick on your trailer or even a scratch in the paint. Some trailer manufacturers have intentionally placed logos on the center of their trailer fronts. Aerodynamic trailers with pointy noses allow you to simply find the center of your truck bed and line it up with the point.

The next step is to find the middle of your truck tailgate or back window of your full-sized SUV. The orange-dot method can work well here, too, but they tend not to stick when they get wet, so don’t expect the stickers to be there next time you hitch up. Some people visually measure the distance between bolts in their truck bed, or you can count the number of ridges from each side of the truck bed to find the center spot. Then you can align the center of your trailer and the hitch ball more easily.

You may not always be able to position your truck so that it lines up straight. You may find yourself in a tight parking space that forces you to maneuver into hitching position at an angle. But if you can spot the rectangle from your back wheels directly behind you (it won’t line up with your trailer tires if you are coming in at an angle), know where the center of your truck’s rear bumper is and can line that up with the hitch, it will make it much easier in tight or angled spaces.

To measure the decreasing distance between the back of a truck and the hitch, you can choose a spot on the ground, outside of the rectangle. Place a stone there, or poke a stick in the ground. The spot should be lined up parallel with the hitch ball.

Once you’ve marked it, get back in the truck and, alternating between looking over the right shoulder and left, slowly close the distance between the stick or stone and your rear bumper. If you are short, you may want to angle your driver’s side mirror slightly down and toward the truck so that you can see the back fender. As you back up, continuously look over the right shoulder to check your truck bed and trailer center markers to make sure you’re on course.

With some trailers, getting within an inch of the ball is all that’s necessary. You can then remove the wheel chocks and drop the hitch onto the ball. The trailer will roll into position.

Gooseneck Trailers
The same theories apply to hitching up a gooseneck trailer, although it tends to be much easier because, in most cases, you can see when the tongue and ball meet. However, if you’re short, have a crew cab or have a toolbox against the cab (or any combination of the above), then you may not be able to see the ball in your bed. In this case, you have to choose a line on your lowered tailgate and keep the tongue of your trailer centered on that line as you back up.

You’ll also need to find a spot on the top of the wall of your bed parallel to your hitch ball to help you know when to stop. That could be a scratch, a mark or a measured distance between bolts.

The easiest way to line up your truck and keep the tongue on the right track is to watch the actual ridges in the truck bed or bed liner. As you back up, keep the tongue over the ridge that leads to the hitch ball. Then you can inch slowly up to the tongue and apply the brake. Remember that with automatic transmissions there will still be the tiniest bit of roll after you put the truck in park, so give yourself a half-inch or so in leeway. With manual transmissions, engage the parking brake as soon as you are centered under the tongue and park the truck in gear to prevent rolling.

Finishing Up and Hitting the Road

It may seem simple, but the next step is the most important in hitching up your trailer. Attach the coupling device, and when you think it is securely in place, look underneath to make sure the clamp isn’t riding on top of the ball instead of below it. The coupler holds the trailer to the tow vehicle.

Sometimes couplers need a little push or pull to get them to lock down. That may require inching the tow vehicle forward a hair until you feel the “thunk” that signals that the hitch ball and coupler have connected. Then crank it down on the ball and lock the coupler down with the pin (or other device, depending on your hitch).

On a bumper-pull trailer, see if you can lift the tongue. If you can, it means your hitch isn’t secure. For a gooseneck, jump up and down in the bed once or twice to see that the trailer tongue follows the truck and doesn’t come unhooked.

Hook up the equalizer bars on your bumper pull, plug in your electrical cord and loop any excess wire so it doesn’t drag or get ripped out. Attach the safety chains and the safety brake switch. Finally, don’t forget to raise the trailer jack to its highest position. And in a gooseneck, raise the tailgate and make sure it clicks in.

Then check all your electrical. Turn on each turn signal and check each time. Turn on your lights and put a book or some other heavy object on your truck brakes so you can be sure the lights are working. Pull forward a foot or two to check that your trailer and truck brakes are engaging.

When you’ve loaded the horses, you’ll have to repeat this part of the exercise and adjust the trailer brakes according to the added weight. But better to check that everything is working before you load.

You’ll also want to make sure the trailer is level, and that all the tires have the proper air pressure. Your trailer guide should give you a PSI (pounds per square inch) rating loaded and unloaded.

When you want to practice trailer hitching, choose a quiet time when you don’t have to be anywhere for a while. Give yourself time to pick out little landmarks and get a feel for how to ride the brake when you’re backing up. Just as in training a horse, correct repetition will eventually burn it into your brain and you’ll be an old hand at hitching.

A Guide to Hitch Guides

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