What makes a trailer safe? The answer is complicated, and the opinions of various friends, trainers, vets and anyone online are to be taken with a grain – or two – of salt. Here’s a few trailer tips to keep your horse – and you – safe:
Trailer safety checkpoints
It’s pretty obvious your trailer should be kept in perfect condition. A horse trailer is basically a box on wheels with a few mechanical parts. The whole trailer rests on the tires and axles, so it’s very important to maintain the brakes, have the bearings packed yearly (unless you have Nev’r Lube axles), and make sure the tires are in perfect condition. Tires should be rated for the weight of the trailer and inflated equally to the proper pressure.
The trailer floor is the only thing between your horse and the road. Don’t take any chances with a floor that is less than perfect.
•Check wood floors by sticking a knife into the wood and twisting it – if the wood seems a bit mushy, it is time to replace the floor.
•Aluminum floors can corrode so check constantly for pitting or the beginning of corrosion. •If the floor has a spray-on bed liner, don’t forget to check under the trailer because the liner can hide defects in the aluminum. The undercarriage, which supports the floor, should be checked yearly for rust (steel) or corrosion and stress fractures (aluminum).
•The coupler keeps your trailer attached to the tow vehicle. Check the coupler for interior wear before each season to make sure it has not become loose on the ball.
•Check the latching mechanism.
•Check the safety chains and the breakaway battery, which must be fully charged to be effective.
Choosing the perfect trailer
The above checkpoints are basic safety rules for any trailer, no matter what style or brand it is. But what other features make it safe for the horse and the people involved?
Not all trailers are created equal. Many are built by manufacturers who aren’t completely familiar with horses, so there are great differences between brands. Add the horse and handler to the mix and the situation becomes extremely variable. The training and temperament of the horse and the experience of the handler make a huge difference.
Choose a trailer with an interior clear of any barriers or protrusions that could injure the horse. It is most important that all interior dividers, center posts, butt and breast bars be easily removable. These interior pieces should be strong enough to hold up to a horse thrashing around inside, or to protect him in case of an accident. But you should be able to quick-release any part to get a horse out of a bad situation.
The next most important feature is accessibility. You should be able to reach and unload each horse individually without unloading the others. This is the main problem with slant load trailers.
It’s been my experience that anytime someone says, “My horse will never do that,” the horse does exactly that. Forethought and good judgment when choosing a trailer can minimize a situation that could be catastrophic in a more poorly designed trailer.
The trailer also needs to fit the horses being hauled in it. If you haul horses of different sizes, some adjustments should be made. Butt and breast bars may need to be adjustable so they fit all the horses properly. The situation I wrote about at the beginning of this article may have been avoided by proper fit and/or quick release features. Horses can get down and under a butt bar more easily than you would think. It is easier in a step down trailer because the horse can step so much lower than in a ramp trailer.
Training is key
The last trailer tip – and the most important to a safe trailering experience – is good training! A horse trained to load and haul safely and quietly will stay safe no matter how inferior the trailer may be. If your horse doesn’t tie on the ground, then don’t expect him to tie quietly in the trailer. If the butt bar is taken down while the horse is still tied, he is likely to pull back and try to run out of the trailer or get himself stuck under a butt bar. He is also more likely to panic and jump over the breast bar. This is dangerous to everyone in the vicinity. If either of these incidents occurs, quick release features will lessen the impact, but good training may avoid the problem in the first place.
One final piece of advice: Never take the butt bar down or open the slant divider with the horse still tied. When the butt bar is taken down or the ramp or doors are opened, many horses believe it’s all right to back out; but when they hit the end of the rope they panic and start to pull. It’s not uncommon for a horse to break the lead or halter and fall out of the trailer backward. Also, the advice to reach in, take down the butt bar and then open the ramp could result in the handler being crushed by the horse pushing down the ramp on the way out. I would also tell the poster to make sure the butt bars are set low enough to discourage the horse from scooting under.
Many people who offer trailer tips base their opinions on their own experiences and those of their friends. Things may have worked for them personally, but they may not be aware of all the possible consequences. They mean well, of course, but before you take any advice, use you own logic and common sense.
Neva Kittrell Scheve, along with her husband Tom, is author of the nationally recognized textbook The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer. Neva also has two other horse trailer books to her credit including Equine Emergencies On The Road with Jim Hamilton DVM. Neva has been a horsewoman for over 40 years and has been involved in animal rescue as a former member of VMAT , a division of FEMA, and the Moore County Equine Response Unit. Besides being authors and clinicians, both Tom and Neva own EquiInternational Inc., which designed and developed the EquiSpirit line of horse trailers in Southern Pines, NC. For more info, contact Tom: 1-877-575-