• When hauling horses (live cargo), stay below 70%-75% of the vehicle’s maximum tow rating.
• Choose a tow vehicle based on the weight, size and type of trailer, and the weight and number of horses you’ll be hauling.
• Consider the truck and tow vehicle as a single unit, and make sure all parts are compatible, including hitch, brakes and tires.
• In hilly or mountainous terrain, braking power is as important-or even more important-than the horsepower required to drive up the slopes.
• When it comes to selecting a tow vehicle, safety is far more important than fuel
You happily load your horse into your new trailer. It is more substantial than your old one, and Ol’ Butterpat doesn’t have to “scrunch up” anymore to let you fasten the butt bar behind his ever-increasing back end. You stop to pick up a buddy and her horse before heading to your favorite trail in the state park.
As your truck labors more than usual climbing Heartbreak Hill, an impatiently weaving line of cars forms behind you. You and your friend joke about needing a new truck to match the trailer and give a small cheer as you reach the top. The cheering, however, rapidly turns to silence, white knuckles, and white faces as you begin your descent. Although you have the brake pedal pressed to the floor, you are, in fact, speeding up, your steering isn’t working right, and you are not in control of upwards of 10,000 rapidly moving pounds with a hinge in the middle. Oh, and your top-heavy cargo shifts when it gets nervous.
This is the stuff of nightmares. We are going to be generous here and give thanks this situation involved a hill, not a mountain; that you, your friend and the horses made it safely to the bottom; and that there was a more level route home. We are also going to assume that, as an intelligent person, you bite the financial bullet and go shopping for a different truck the very next day.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes that “Most SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, minivans and passenger cars can be equipped to tow a trailer.” It does not, however, say what kind of trailer that might be.
Know What You Need
Towing horses is a specialized task. Some people assume that because their SUV has a tow package, it should be able to pull their horse trailer. Others think a pickup can haul anything. Still others have been assured by a salesperson that, “This baby can haul elephants!” The phrase “but not necessarily safely” can be tacked onto each one of those statements.
We will not presume to tell you what vehicle is best for your situation. Your requirements will be determined by many factors, including the size of the trailer, how many horses you haul, the ratings of your tow vehicle’s hitch, distances traveled, terrain, altitude, whether it includes living quarters, and, to a lesser degree, style and fashion.
You probably won’t haul elephants, but it certainly can seem like that when things go wrong. So we asked horse trailer dealers for advice on appropriate tow vehicles for pulling two-horse and four-horse trailers.
The technical details mustered in defense of our experts’ choices boiled down to the following:
1. You must know the exact capabilities of what you are driving.
2. You must know exactly how much weight you are hauling.
3. You must make sure that the entire unit-truck, trailer, hitch, brakes and tires-is correctly rated, balanced, compatible and in good working order, because safety is determined by the weakest link.
Although many people purchase a truck first, it actually makes better sense to know your trailer and its requirements before you invest in a vehicle to ensure it will have ample capacity to pull it. Be aware that although it is a blow to anyone’s budget, it is extremely unlikely that anything safe to pull horses is also going to be a gas-efficient, run-around-town vehicle.
There are many factors that do not actually affect how much you can tow, but might make towing easier, safer or more economical. For instance, according to both manufacturers and dealers, four-wheel drive may give greater traction in mud or snow, but can actually reduce the tow rating, as it makes the truck heavier. A dually truck will give more lateral stability, but not necessarily more towing capacity. But don’t overdo it. A dually truck, pulling a two-horse, non-dressing room, tag-a-long trailer with only one horse can give him a mighty rough ride. All else being equal, gasoline or diesel does not have significant impact on towing capacity, but may affect your short or long-term budget.
Tow Packages & Ratings
“Tow packages” are specific adaptations that are made to a vehicle to withstand the added weight and strain of towing. These vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. If you are buying a used vehicle, the VIN (vehicle identification number) can lead you to find exactly what was originally built into it.
“Tow ratings” state the maximum weight a vehicle is designed to pull and, more importantly, designed to stop. Any number of trucks can look identical, but may have very different tow ratings, depending on engine size, transmission, axle ratios and wheelbase. The actual rating is posted inside the edge of the drivers’ side door. Remember that the hitch rating is separate from the tow vehicle rating. A rear frame mounted hitch (rear hitch for tag-a-longs) could have a much lower rating than the tow vehicle, if not fitted with the right equipment.
Unfortunately, tow ratings can be seriously misleading when applied to horse trailers. It would be easy to assume that if your truck has a tow rating of, for instance, 6,500 pounds, you should be able to load a 4,000-pound trailer with a couple of 1,200-pound horses. Actually, while you could certainly load that much, it would be exceedingly unwise to pull out of the driveway with it.
“Tow ratings are made for travel trailers or boat trailers on flat terrain, with one person in the vehicle and a stable load that is heaviest on the bottom,” notes Neva Scheve, co-owner of EquiSpirit Horse Trailers in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and the author of three books on horse trailers, including The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining and Servicing a Horse Trailer. “Horses are a top-heavy, shifting, live cargo that has a mind of its own. A horse can lose its balance or throw a tantrum that can create a dangerous driving situation that is not a factor with other kinds of trailers.”
Scheve also notes that hills, mud, snow and wind can put an additional burden on your rig.
While many people seem to expect less handling ability when pulling a trailer, experts dispute that. As Scheve says, “For safety reasons, the tow vehicle should be able to perform as well with a trailer as without. The chance of an accident is increased when the tow vehicle is sluggish.”
It is vastly safer to be well within your rig’s combined capacity than it is to haul weights even close to your maximum tow rating. As a general rule, Scheve recommends having a tow rating that would technically allow you to pull 25%-30% more weight than you are actually hauling.
What’s Actually Back There?
The Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR), which is determined by the tow vehicle manufacturer, is the maximum combined weight of the tow vehicle and trailer that can be hooked up and pulled safely. This means you must know the weight of the entire hauling “package”: vehicle, trailer and contents.
Chances are good that the combined weight is much more than you might think.
Neva Scheve, author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining and Servicing a Horse Trailer, notes that the weight listed on your trailer’s certificate of origin is usually calculated before optional equipment is added. Floor mats, spare tire and extra modifications can add hundreds of pounds more. The only way to be really sure of your trailer’s base weight is to weigh it on a truck scale.
Then you must add the weight of your tow vehicle, passengers, fuel, horses, gear, feed and any miscellany. A bale of grass hay can be 50 pounds, alfalfa more. Saddles vary considerably in weight, but it would not be uncommon for a stock saddle, blanket, bridle and breastplate to run another 50 pounds; double that if you are bringing a friend’s gear along. Then there is probably a tack box of some sort. If you are hauling a water tank as well, remember that each gallon of water weighs a bit more than 8 pounds. If you are camping, add corral panels and coolers filled with ice.
Altogether, you can easily add the equivalent of a fat pony to the load you thought you had and actually be at or above your tow rating.
An even greater margin of safety is prudent in some parts of the country. Joe Robertson, of Scott Murdock Trailer Sales in Loveland, Colorado-a state with highway mountain passes that can top 10,000 feet, with 5,000-foot drops coming and going-notes that “getting it going [up the mountain] isn’t the issue as much as coming down the other side.” He prefers working with a tow rating that is 30%-40% higher than the maximum weight you expect to pull.
Both Scheve and Robertson recommend at least a half-ton pickup to pull a two-horse tagalong trailer, with at least a three-quarter-ton pickup with a gooseneck hitch if pulling four horses or more. In a gooseneck, or “fifth-wheel” hitch, a significant amount of the combined weight is distributed throughout the body of the truck, giving greater stability and enabling the entire combination to handle more as one unit.
Tom Svejcar, of Colorado Horse Trailers in Longmont, Colorado, is an advocate for Brenderup Trailers. Developed in Europe, where the ubiquitous American pickup is rarely seen, Brenderup trailers rely on balance, a low center of gravity, and a specialized braking system to produce one and two-horse trailers that can be hauled by smaller vehicles. Brenderup’s tow vehicle requirements include an engine that develops a minimum of 120 horsepower, a wheelbase of at least 93 inches, and a caution to never exceed the vehicle maker’s recommended tongue weight.
Chain Reaction: Tires, Tongue, Brakes & Hitch
This brings up an issue frequently overlooked: Never exceed the capacity of the “weakest link” in the vehicle-, hitch-, brake-, trailer-, tire-combination.
“Tongue weight” is the amount of the trailer’s weight that presses down on the trailer hitch. According to NHTSA tow guidelines, too little tongue weight can cause the trailer to sway. Too much tongue weight can cause insufficient weight on the front wheels of the tow vehicle, resulting in poor steering. The shorter your wheelbase, the more important a weight-distributing hitch can be to distribute the tongue weight among all tow vehicle and trailer axles.
Brake types vary. Brenderup’s Inertia™ four-wheel brakes operate as the driver lets up on the accelerator, but before the brake pedal is applied. Electronic brakes have a controlling device in the tow vehicle. Surge brakes are independent, hydraulic-activated with a master cylinder at the junction of the hitch and trailer tongue. Which type is appropriate for your situation will depend on your trailer and tow vehicle’s manufacturer recommendations for the weight you will be hauling.
NHTSA further recommends that all trailer tires be of the proper size, type and load-range found on your trailer’s certification label. They should also be properly pressurized and of the same type, size and construction. Do not mix bias-belted and radial tires.
As with so much in horsemanship, safety and balance are two sides of the same coin when it comes to horse tow vehicles and trailers. making sure your combined unit is balanced and adequate to haul your precious cargo requires developing a serious margin of safety that will not only get you and your horses up the hill, but down the other side safely.