Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

As we come into the Spring season in the Northern Hemisphere – in the large animal rescue and response world we brace ourselves for the onslaught of trailer wrecks that seem to come with the grass and flowers as people load up for their first shows and trail rides of the year.

This year I am thrilled to team up with Dr. Robin Mills Ridgway, PhD, PE (an engineer), and Purdue University Extension to talk about "Trailer and Tow Vehicle Safety and Maintenance Considerations." Consider putting on a training event at your Pony Club, saddle club, 4-H meeting, etc., to educate people about their truck and trailers: what makes them work, and how to prevent horrific tragedies. Links to some great Purdue Extension resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

As horse transporters (whether it is 5 miles or 500 miles or just around the corner to a friend’s house), we want to provide a safe transport to our beloved horses and animals that trust us enough to go into a trailer at our bidding. Some of the most horrific things can happen to our horses in incidents where maintenance of the trailer floor, hitch, coupler, or other structural components fail. We want to avoid situations like these and that begins with understanding the anatomy of our rig.

The major components of a horse transport “bumper-pull or tag-along” or a “gooseneck” rig include the trailer (called in other countries a float), the coupler and hitch, and the towing vehicle. They look very different because in the “tag along” rig, the trailer is hitched to the rear of the towing vehicle (car, SUV or truck), while in a gooseneck the trailer is hitched to a ball placed above the rear axle of the towing vehicle, normally a truck.

You can start by checking the overall picture of your rig by hitching it, parking on flat pavement, then standing back and looking to ensure that it is level. If too much weight is on the tongue of the tag along trailer, it will cause it to bend down at the hitch in the middle, changing the weight distribution of the towing vehicle and putting uneven loads on the tires which will show uneven wear and can fail. Alternately, if the weight distribution is uneven and causes the hitch to rise in the center of the rig, it will cause uneven loading of the rear axles of the trailer, again possibly causing failure.

One of the most misunderstood things about choice of tow vehicle is, “Can I pull it with my car/SUV/truck?” That is not the best question. The best question to ask is, “Can I stop it and can I manage it in an emergency?”

Horse trailers are large open boxes, which unfortunately makes them seem safe for people to load all kinds of things into them, including extra hay, tack, water, grain, etc. which can totally change the intended weight calculations of the loaded trailer. A “loaded” trailer includes the horses, all your stuff, and the weight of the trailer itself,which can be really heavy and hard to control with a towing vehicle that is not heavy enough or intended to handle it.

Tow vehicle “care and feeding” includes knowledge of the gross vehicle weight rating and gross combined vehicle weight (of the tow vehicle and trailer. Do you know what’s under the hood of your vehicle? Have you conducted a pretrip check? If you don’t know what you are looking at or fore, take it to a professional and have him or her check for to make sure everything is in good repair, from the tires to the A/C and fluids.

An anatomy check of the tow vehicle will change depending on what you are towing with, but you should at the very least know where to check and possibly add oil, transmission fluid, washer fluid, power steering fluid, coolant for the radiator, and brake fluid. And in the case of possibly having to jump your battery, you should know where it is (or where both are if you have a big truck) and have cables for that possibility. If you don’t know, ask a professional to show you.

Trailer “care and feeding” is similar to your vehicle – although a trailer is mostly a rolling box, it must be structurally sound with floors in good shape, all steel parts solid, lubricated and working, and no rusty sharp edges where animals can injure themselves. Don’t be shy – crawl under your trailer to check if the floor is in working order, that the brake wires aren’t pulled loose, that the rust isn’t significant, the supports and connections aren’t falling apart, and that the nuts are connected to the bolts that hold the axles on.

Check ramps to ensure they aren’t rusted or rotten – horses stepping onto a rotten floor can go thru it. Ramp springs need to be lubricated and ensure they aren’t fatigued, if they aren’t working to help lift the ramp, find out what is wrong. You should be able to stand to the side and work the ramp. Never stand behind a ramp to open and close it – this is very unsafe as a bolting horse can back out over a person and crush them.

Now on to the tires, which should be of the proper type and size with the correct load rating for the size and weight of your trailer. You can read these facts on the side of the trailer tire, and if you don’t know, ask a tire professional. Replace your tires at the proper age – every five years is usually the manufacturer’s recommendation. They rot from the inside and won’t show wear until they fail. I always get larger and heavier duty tires than what normally come with trailers – mine are load range G tires with 110 psi that might be more expensive, but they don’t blow out at the same rate as the lowest quality tires (ST tires are trailer service only, which tells you something).

The single most important fact to know is that proper inflation pressures have to be used for tires to avoid blowouts and that this has to be done regularly – the air in tires is not eternal. By the time you see cracks in the tire on the outside, that tire is rotted out from the inside.

When you are considering purchasing a new trailer or a used one – be more concerned about the design of the trailer for your and the horses’ safety – not necessarily the nice layout of the tackroom or living quarters. Manufacturers take short cuts in the trailer industry just like everywhere else, and it is buyer beware. Remember that there is no safety testing of any trailers in the USA and that the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers' (NATM) stamp looks pretty but means only that manufacturer ascribes to voluntary minimum standards for building trailers – no one audits or checks to see if they actually conform, and minimum standards are pretty minimal.

Let’s get into the trailer and look for safety in design – look at the butt and chest bars – make sure that you can operate them from a safe position. Horse trailers should always have two methods of keeping a horse in the trailer (aka ramp and butt bars, or butt bars and a door, etc.)

Do you know how to change a flat tire on your trailer? It is always preferable to practice at home instead of on the side of the road. Know how to get the wheel covers off, and the lug nuts, and balance the trailer on a drive up chock / jack so that you can safely change the wheel. Use safety triangles way behind your trailer to warn other drivers and have the correct size lug wrench and tools to remove and replace the tire.

Look at the anatomy of a “bumper hitch” (no trailer should ever be placed on the bumper even if there are holes there for a ball) or more correctly called a “tag along” system. Find the safety chains and ensure they are properly rated for the loaded weight of the trailer. Find the emergency breakaway and make sure it is connected and that the battery has a charge. Ensure there is a locking pin for the coupler, that the coupler is lubricated and sets down all the way over the ball, and that the nut and lock washer on the ball are tightened.

Then check your brakes and lights to ensure all is working. While there are numerous kinds of electrical connections, your rig should at a minimum have a brake controller, electrical connection between towing vehicle and trailer, and emergency breakaway brakes system. The emergency breakaway system should always be connected to the frame/hitch of the towing vehicle – not to anything on the chains or trailer side (whether it is a gooseneck or a tag along.)

Getting the correct ball size for the trailer you are towing is important because your hitch capacity is only as strong as the weakest component. You should get a new hitch ball if it becomes beat up or every 10 years, which ever comes first. Keep it lubricated. Make sure the coupler is the same size as the ball. Make sure the ball rating is matched to the tongue weight and the mount rating of the hitch into the receiver of the tow vehicle for the trailer you are hauling. Solid mounts normally are higher ratings than hollow ones.

Looking at examples of towing vehicles matched to various trailers that you might see on the road comes down to looking at the engineering of those rigs and making decisions based on the best control and braking abilities of the combination that you can get. Although weight distributing and load leveling systems exist, they do not make up for a poorly matched combination of towing vehicle and trailer.

Check out the following trailer-safety information from Purdue University:

What are your worst horror stories having to do with trailers and trucks that weren't properly maintained or matched? We all learn from each other and I like to learn from you. Please share!