Driving Your Horse Trailer

Neva Kittrell Scheve, EquiSpirit Horse Trailers


The foundation of good driving habits is a safe and properly rated rig. Whenever you take your horses out on the road, whether for a short or a long trip, you are putting yourself and your horses at a certain amount of risk. Your combination doesn't have to be new, but it is very important that the trailer and vehicle are in good working condition and the tow vehicle is properly rated to tow the trailer and it's load.

If you are towing a tag-a-long trailer, you must have a Class III or Class IV hitch that is bolted or welded to the frame of the tow vehicle. It must be rated to match or exceed the weight of you trailer. Whether you are towing a gooseneck or a tag-along, your trailer should be level, the brakes and lights must be working properly, the emergency breakaway brake must be attached and the battery fully charged. Safety chains or cables must be hooked to the tow vehicle. Many states require safety chains or cables for gooseneck trailers as well.

Besides having all the right equipment, what more can you do to improve your chances on the highway and help your horse to arrive at your destination safely and in a good frame of mind?

Take a ride in your horse trailer (not on the road in a tag-a-long, it's illegal). You may be surprised how it feels each time the rig takes a turn or makes a sudden stop. Considerate driving can have a real effect on your horse's attitude about the trailer. Always think about your passenger and he will learn if not to actually enjoy, to at least gratefully tolerate his trips.

If trailering is new to you, practice driving the rig before you put a horse in the trailer. Know how to park and back up before you go out on the road. Backing isn't so hard once you know the secret. Put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want the back of the trailer to go to the left, turn your hand to the left. If you want the back of the trailer to go to the right, turn your hand to the right. If you want the trailer to move sharply, turn the steering wheel before you move the vehicle. If you want to turn more gradually, turn the steering wheel as the vehicle is moving. A longer trailer is a bit easier to back than a shorter one. A tag-a-long trailer with a long tongue is easier to back than a trailer with a short tongue. A shorter trailer jackknives more easily than a longer trailer.

If you are only hauling one horse in a two horse straight load, put him on the driver's side of the trailer. If you are hauling more than one horse, put the heaviest one on the driver's side. Roads are usually crowned in the middle, so by putting the heaviest part of the load on the higher side, it will help balance the trailer. Never put a horse backward in a trailer that is not designed for it. This will change the tongue weight and make driving very dangerous. Slant loads will usually travel better if you load the heaviest part of the load toward the front, but check to make sure you have not overloaded the tongue weight or the rating of the rear axle of the tow vehicle.

Before you go on a trip, check the tow vehicle. Check and replenish engine fluid levels and wiper fluid.

Make sure the ball on the tow vehicle is the correct size for the trailer. (This is especially important if you have different balls for several different trailers, or you are using a new or borrowed trailer).

Make sure the rearview mirrors are properly adjusted and you know how to use them.

Check tire pressure in the tires of the tow vehicle and the trailer. Improper or uneven tire pressure is responsible for most towing problems and low tire pressure is often the cause of tire failure.

Check lug nuts on the wheels. Wheel nuts and bolts should be torqued before first road use and after each wheel removal. Check and re-torque on a new trailer after the first 10 miles, 25 miles, and again at 50 miles. Check periodically thereafter.

Check inside the trailer for wasp nests and other hazards.

Check over your hitch, coupler, breakaway brake battery, and safety chains. Make sure the brakes and all lights are working properly before you load the horses.

When horses are loaded, make sure all doors are latched properly and horses are comfortably tied. (Untied horses can get stuck under bars or dividers, which could cause a broken neck or back, or move around too much, which may unbalance the load and cause loss of control of the vehicle.)

Take a cell phone with a fully charged battery or a CB radio with you.

Drive down the driveway or access road and before you drive onto the main road, get out and check over everything again. Something you overlooked may make itself apparent by then.

If you happen to stop somewhere where the rig has been left unattended, check everything all over again. Someone may have been tampering with the trailer or with the horses.

Once you get out on the road, your driving requires some special precautions. Loaded horse trailers are heavy. The extra weight puts more strain on the tow vehicle and stopping distances are longer. You will also not be able to accelerate as quickly. These problems will be emphasized if you are close to your maximum towing capacity. A good precaution is to drive at least 5 mph under the speed limit, keep a good distance behind the vehicle in front of you, and don't dart into traffic. Some states have a separate speed limit for those hauling trailers. Don't let other drivers push you to drive faster. You are bigger than they are, let them deal with it.

When driving on multilane highways change lanes gradually. Put your turn signals on before you change lanes so your intentions are clear to those behind and next to you. Use your rearview mirrors. Keeping forward motion and tension on the hitch can prevent loss of control from trailer sway. If the trailer starts to sway do not apply the brakes to the tow vehicle, but instead apply, in brief spurts, the hand brake on the controller to the trailer. This slows the trailer behind you and keeps the tow vehicle going forward, which should result in straightening out the combination. Do not apply the brakes on the tow vehicle until the trailer is under control.

A jackknife caused by a trailer skid must be handled differently. If you have to apply the brakes hard to the tow vehicle, check you rearview mirror to make sure your trailer is not jackknifing out of control. If you see the trailer swinging out of your lane, stop using the brake. Release the brakes to get traction back. Do not use the handbrake because the trailer brakes have locked up to cause the skid. Once the wheels grip the road again, the trailer will start to follow the tow vehicle and straighten out.

Use a lower gear to travel up or down steep hills. If you feel the trailer pushing the vehicle when you are going downhill, apply the hand brake to slow the trailer. On long uphill grades, downshift the transmission and slow to 45 mph or less to reduce the possibility of overheating.

Do not park the vehicle and trailer on a grade. If you find yourself in a situation where you must do this, you can minimize the risk by using these precautions: Apply regular brakes. Have another person chock the wheels of the trailer. Release the brakes and allow the chocks to absorb the load. Apply regular brakes again and apply the parking brake, and put the transmission into Park. Release the brakes. To start again, apply the regular brakes until the engine is started in Park and the parking brake is released. Release regular brakes and drive until chocks are free. Apply regular brakes and have the other person remove the chocks.

Be considerate of your equine passengers. Give the horse time to prepare for stops, don't accelerate quickly, and make sure the trailer has cleared the turn, has straightened out, and the horses have regained their balance before you return to normal speed. (Remember how it felt when you rode in the trailer?) Travel over bumpy roads carefully.

Frequently look at the trailer through the rearview mirror. Always be aware of what is going on behind you. It would be a good idea to turn the radio off and keep inside noise to a minimum so you can hear if anything is going wrong with the horses or the trailer. If you hear or feel ANYTHING out of the ordinary, and you have to ask 'What was that?" Pull over, stop, get out and check it out. The little bumping sound or "funny feel" could be the start of something very serious.

There are some other precautions you can take to help you avoid trouble while you are traveling with your horse.

Take care of yourself first. Keep a human emergency kit in your vehicle and make sure you have identification, insurance papers, and license and registration papers. Realize that if you were in an accident and incapacitated, the emergency personnel and police would most likely not know how to deal with your horses. In a conspicuous place where it can be easily seen, post a list of people and telephone numbers who could be called to help. This list should consist of your veterinarian and friends or relatives. It is always a good idea to have someone with you when you travel with horses, and that person should be familiar with your rig if something would happen to you.

If you are traveling interstate, carry current equine health certificates and proof of negative Coggins (EIA).

Carry an emergency kit on board and know how to use it. Consider extra water as part of the emergency kit. Not only for drinking, because horses are more likely to drink familiar water from home, but in an emergency situation you may need water for cleaning injuries or as a bath to cool off an overheated horse. You may need extra buckets in this case.

Always use shipping boots or standing bandages to protect the horses' legs. A head bumper can reduce the chance of serious injury to the poll. Most injuries occur when loading or unloading, so this is important even on short trips. The price of this equipment is much less than one vet bill, so expense is not an excuse to leave a horse unprotected. If you are hauling someone else's horse in your trailer, insist the horse wear protective bandages for your own protection against liability, and agree in advance who will be responsible in the event of injury to the horse or damage to the trailer. Check with your insurance company to see who is covered for what.

Store these items in your trailer so you have them on board: Spare tire, jack, tire iron (if different size than the truck), 3 emergency triangles, flares, chocks, flashlight, electrical tape and duct tape, equine first aid kit with splint, knife, water, buckets and sponge, spare halter and lead rope, spare bulbs, spare fuses, fire extinguisher, WD-40, broom, shovel, pitchfork, manure disposal bags, insect spray.

During winter months these additional items may be necessary: Shovel, sand, red flag (for your antenna if stranded) horse blankets, human blankets, candle, matches or lighter, tire chains.

Keep these items in your tow vehicle: Registration for the vehicle and trailer, proof of insurance, jumper cables, spare tire, jack, tire iron, tool kit including wiring materials, spare belts and hoses, tow chain, cellular phone or CB radio, replacement fuses, road atlas, work gloves, portable air compressor, cash or credit card.

No one wants to have an accident or to be stranded out on the highway with horses in tow. Take precautions and be prepared for the worst, and you should be able to handle any of those unexpected developments that life hands out.

Reprinted with permission from EquiSpirit Horse Trailers
2004-2012 Horse Tack Review



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