Regular Trailer Checks Help Head Off Disaster

A few years ago, a trainer had taken her Quarter Horse stallion to an event that included showcasing sires for stud-fee auctions. The day before she left for the event, she oiled every hinge, door and lever on her four-horse slant load, which was only a year old.

Trailer inspection includes things that aren’t easily spotted, like wheels and axles, and you have to crawl around to look. Be certain the ball is tight and secure. You should check it every time you hitch up your trailer.

She and a friend stopped for dinner en route and, while there, met some people who wanted to see the stallion. The owner went to the trailer and showed them the horse.

When she reloaded him, she got sidetracked, didn’t tie him in his divided stall and forgot to secure the back doors of the trailer. A few miles after she drove off, the back trailer doors came open. The stallion fell out on the highway and was killed.

It’s easy to become complacent about loading our horses into a trailer and heading off to a show. Sure, we know we’re supposed to check everything. We know we’re supposed to have a level load. We know . . . but often we don’t.

The Right Vehicle
A vehicle pulling more weight than it’s designed to handle is a disaster in the making. Excessive weight will affect the vehicle’s steering, acceleration and braking capabilities. Overall, the rig becomes dangerous.

Know your vehicle’s Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). This is the total of everything, including your empty vehicle, the load it carries inside — which includes passengers, bales of hay, tack and all other materials — and the loaded weight of your horse trailer.

You can obtain information from a dealer or access a website that gives vehicle towing capacities. One excellent site is (For more information on towing vehicles see February 2001.)

Strong Hitches
Of course, much of your horse’s safety rests on the trailer hitch. Folks argue over what’s best, a bumper hitch or a receiver hitch, but we think a receiver hitch is a better choice when it comes to hauling horses.

A bumper hitch has a ball bolted to the factory bumper of the vehicle. Bumpers are rated for their ability to tow a load, but one factor that is often overlooked is the “push vs. pull” situation. If you had to brake hard, the bumper could fold and give to the pressure of the load.

If you use a bumper hitch, it’s extremely important that you know the capability of your vehicle’s bumper. It might not be capable of handling the weight of your trailer and your horses.

A receiver hitch is bolted to the frame of the vehicle. While it also has a maximum towing-capacity rating, overall it’s stronger in terms of enduring the pulling and pushing stress of your loaded trailer. If you pull a gooseneck trailer, again, we believe your fifth-wheel hitch will be strongest if it’s attached to the frame of the vehicle under the bed.

Consider your trailer-hitch ball, too. Hitch balls are also rated for different load weights, ranging from 2,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds or more. You can’t just select a ball that fits in the hole in your hitch. Having one of insufficient strength snap during hauling could cause an accident. If you’re not sure about the rating of the ball on your hitch, ask your trailer dealer.

Weight Distribution
A rancher had just two horses in a stock trailer long enough to handle four. He moved them up fairly close to the front of the trailer and tied them loosely. During the haul, the horses got loose, moving to the back of the trailer and putting all their weight toward the rear trailer door.

Because the trailer had insufficient tongue weight to anchor it over the hitch, the front of the trailer raised up and caused the back wheels of the towing vehicle to become “lighter,” as the horses’ weight shifted to the rear of the trailer. The vehicle and trailer began to sway and both overturned into a ditch, resulting in injured horses and an injured driver.

General Motors Corp. suggests placing 55 to 60 percent of the load over the front half of your trailer. So, putting two horses in the back section of a four-horse trailer destroys that equation. If you have a three-horse slant load and you’re hauling one horse, putting it in the back stall will add too much weight to the rear of the trailer. Load that horse in the middle stall.

Perhaps your best bet might be a weight-distributing hitch. If you haul the same horses all the time, you can learn to make adjustments for a safe, level load. First, measure the height of the front bumper of your towing vehicle before attaching your trailer to the hitch. Next, hook up the trailer. Load your horses. Now, adjust your weight-distributing springs so that the front end of the vehicle returns to the original height.

With any hitch, step back and look at the overall profile of your towing vehicle and loaded trailer. If the tongue pushes down too much on the hitch ball, or if the trailer is high in front, pulling up on the vehicle’s bumper, you need to change your load to level things out.

Inside The Trailer
Several people were headed for a trail ride with their horses in a slant-load trailer. The drop-down windows on the side of the trailer were left open on this warm, summer day. There were no grills, and the horses were able to stick their heads out. One horse had a rope thrown over his back. As he extended his head and neck out the window, the rope slipped from his back and dangled outside of the trailer from his halter. It caught in the moving wheels.

Incidents have been recorded of horses that had their heads out and struck by opposing traffic. It’s also not uncommon for road debris to fly up and hit a horse in the face and eyes.

We prefer to tie a horse in the trailer, although there are exceptions to the rule. Some trailers have sections that can be closed up like box stalls, especially good for weanlings and yearlings that haven’t been taught to tie. However, we recommend you use a safety or breakaway halter that will release if it gets caught on something in the stall.

When you tie your horse in a trailer, always use a panic/safety-snap tie that will release fast if your horse gets into trouble. If you don’t have a panic-snap tie, use a quick-release knot on your tie.

Adjust your tie length so that the horse feels his butt touch the back of his trailer stall before he feels the pull on the rope. He needs this both for balance and for a feeling of security. A horse that tends to pull back, when tied in regular circumstances, isn’t likely to try it in a trailer if he doesn’t feel “the end of the rope.”

When you load your horse, don’t tie him until his butt chain is in place. When you unload, untie the horse before you release the butt chain or open the doors.

Consider the case about a young mare that was loaded and tied before the butt chain was in place. Something frightened her. She panicked, set back hard and fought the rope. It didn’t break, but lengthened enough for her to get her back legs out to the ground. As she fought the rope, her legs slid under the trailer and she broke both hocks.

The biggest drawback to tying is that the “right-length” tie may not allow the horse adequate room to get his head and neck down and stretched out. He needs to be able to do this to clear his respiratory tract and help ward off shipping fever a nd other respiratory ailments. Snap the tie on the higher check ring rather than the ring on the nose band. Along the journey, stop and give the horse an opportunity to lower his head. If you have a clean surface available, or a feed tub, drop some feed where the horse will reach down to eat it.

If it’s safe, consider unloading your horse during a haul, be it for a short walk or a layover, again to give him the opportunity to lower his head.

Remember that the vents and windows on a horse trailer are there for a reason: ventilation. When ventilation is insufficient, a horse’s respiratory tract suffers. The trailer becomes warm and moist inside, with condensation building from heat produced by the horses’ bodies.

If there’s urine on the floor, the ammonia is a strong assault on the horse’s respiratory tract as well. Keep the vents and windows open and only blanket the horses when absolutely necessary.

More Checks
Never leave an escape door open with an unattended horse:

A couple returning from a horse show stopped at a restaurant. Their trailer was parked near the highway. Because it was warm, they opened the escape door on the side of their two-horse straight load, so the mare inside could have some fresh air. While they were in the restaurant, the mare became frightened and fought her rope enough to break a snap. She jumped out of the escape door and ran down the highway.

Clean out the trailer, looking for “stowaways” like bee and bird nests:A mare was sent into a trailer that had not been used for quite some time. The owner didn’t tie the horse, but just closed the back doors, both bottom and top.

All of the sudden, a horrendous scuffle started in the trailer and the mare went ballistic. The owner quickly opened the back doors and jumped back as the mare shot backwards down the ramp. Following her was an angry mother hen, who had made a nest in the manger.

Turn the motor off when you stop:

Three rodeo competitors were returning home with their horses in an enclosed trailer. They left their diesel truck running as they went inside a restaurant to eat.

They had planned only a short stay inside, but lingered and stayed much longer than expected. When they got back in the truck, they drove off without checking the horses. Upon their arrival home, they opened the back doors of the trailer. All three horses were dead. Inhalation of diesel fumes was suspected as the cause.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Trailer Safety.”
Click here to view ”Trailer Safety Checklist.”
Click here to view ”Load ’Em Up.”

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