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Debunking Trailer Myths and Half Truths
Neva Kittrell Scheve
People talk and horse people talk more than most. Opinions are many and stories travel quickly throughout the horse world, sometimes opinions get elevated to truth without merit. Since most opinions have some basis in fact, it's difficult to know what is myth and what is truth. Usually the facts are somewhere in between. Opinions about horse trailers are especially subject to scrutiny because there is very little conclusive research or solid information. For someone who is looking to buy a horse trailer, it's important to know the facts.
Let's look at a few of the most commonly believed myths.
Horses haul better in slant loads than straight loads
What is the basis for this half-truth? In the early 1980's the first slant load trailers came on the market. The original purpose of the slant load trailer was to put more horses into a shorter trailer. Hauling 4, 6, or more horses in a straight load trailer necessitates a very long trailer that many people don't want. In addition, the fact that horses will position themselves in a slant position when there are no dividers in the trailer caused people to believe that horses preferred to stand that way because it was more comfortable when the trailer was moving. When the first slant load owners realized that the horses loaded readily into the trailer it was assumed they were also hauling better and this well intentioned, but somewhat misleading concept was readily accepted. The story developed a life of its own. Soon, the slant load trailer was considered the "only way to go".
It sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Maybe, but there are many other factors that should be considered before slant loads can be recommended for every horse.
The first horses to be hauled in slant loads were quarter horses and polo ponies, smaller horses that could cope with the shorter stall length. Slant loads quickly became the fashion in this market and soon, owners of large horses wanted them, too. But it soon became apparent that these horses didn't fit very well. A horse that is cramped in a stall is not able to use its head and neck normally to keep its balance in the trailer. If he is hauled in the trailer this way for long periods, he overcompensates and uses improper muscles to cope.
Because it is illegal for a trailer to be over 8 ½' wide, the stalls cannot be made longer without making some design changes for larger horses. Many manufacturers widen the overall interior, but then the wheel wells are inside the trailer where they interfere with 3 or 4 of the stalls. Other manufacturers configure more of a slant to the stalls, but the severe angles don't really give the horses more room. The only solution is to widen the stalls, which allows the horses to stand in a more forward position. However, widening the stalls defeats the original intent of the slant load trailer because it makes it longer.
Do horses really like to haul on a slant? In my opinion, there are no studies that prove this fact at this time. Common sense suggests otherwise.
The most common argument for the slant is the fact is that a horse will stand on a slant in an open trailer. As an experiment, put a horse in a stall in the barn, stand him against the wall and tie him comfortably with a lead rope. He will immediately move his hindquarters away from the wall. Since the barn stall is not moving, he isn't standing that way to find a "center of balance"; he just doesn't feel comfortable standing next to the wall. Horses like to feel space around them. He also probably wants to look out the stall door or window. In addition, most horses that stand away from the wall in an open trailer don't position themselves on a complete slant with the butt against the opposite wall like a slant load divider demands.
A horse generally feels better in the open trailer because he isn't as restricted when he has more room - not necessarily because he is standing at a slant. A smaller horse in a traditional slant load is able to move around a bit to use his head and neck for balance, and he can also adjust his position somewhat to relieve tired muscles and joints. A horse that fits more tightly doesn't have that option.
When slant load trailers first came on the market, most other horse trailers at the time were small, dark, and inadequately ventilated. Since horses don't like dark small spaces, the entrance of a large slant load trailer was much less frightening than what everyone had been used to. Most horses popped into the trailer easily. But loading better doesn't always mean hauling better. Rubber torsion suspension also came onto the market at the same time as the slant load trailer. My opinion is that any improvement of attitude about hauling was a result of a smoother ride, not the slant position.
Horses naturally propel themselves forward using both hind legs, and halt by bringing those hind legs up underneath them. All riding disciplines require that horses halt straight with hind legs well under them because that is the correct and natural way for a horse to halt. A moves straight when moving forward. Dressage riders do not ask the horse to begin a dressage test by halting at X, slanted to the left. Western riders do not ask their reining horses for sliding stops slanted to the left.
Why ask a horse to absorb the force of acceleration and deceleration in a trailer in a slanted position where he must use the right foreleg and the left hind leg in an uneven manner? Traveling for long distances in this position can make a horse sore. Sometimes stiffness or soreness that may cause behavioral problems, and outright lameness that is not often attributed to the trailer ride, can be caused by it just the same. Hauling in a straight position, either forward or backwards, helps the horse equally absorb the acceleration and deceleration through the length of the spinal column. (Never put horse backward in a trailer that is not designed for it.)
Minimum requirements for a horse trailer to be safe and stress free from the horses' point of view are room, light, ventilation, and safety in design. Access to each horse individually can be included in the "safety in design" category. Most slant load trailers do not provide this feature. If one horse is in trouble, all the others must be unloaded to reach that one horse. A front unload ramp can improve that situation.
In conclusion, most horses will be less stressed in a trailer that has more room and light, not necessarily whether it's a slant or straight load.
All steel trailers rust, Aluminum doesn't
In the past, most steel trailers quickly turned into rust buckets, and aluminum seemed the best answer to solve that problem. That perception has endured even though it is not necessarily true anymore. The steel industry has improved considerably over the years and the trailer manufacturers have been using better caliber steel, especially for higher quality trailers. If the trailer is built of raw steel that has not been treated or painted at the steel factory, the trailer will rust in a short period of time. If the trailer is built of a kote-steel, which is coated at the factory before it is shipped, the trailer will be less likely to rust, especially if it is kept clean and dry. If the trailer is built of galvanealed or galvanized steel, which is electrochemically treated, it will not rust unless the treatment is removed during welding and not recoated.
The statement that all steel trailers rust, is a myth because it depends upon the steel, the trailer, the quality of the manufacturer, and most of all, how well the trailer is maintained.
Aluminum does not rust, but it can corrode. Corroded aluminum turns to white powder. Like steel trailers, every all-aluminum trailer is not alike. The quality of the alloy, the quality of the trailer, and the owner's maintenance program will make a difference in the life of a trailer. Many people do not realize that aluminum must be regularly maintained and in particular, aluminum floors must be washed and dried monthly to protect the floor from corrosion.
All aluminum trailers are lighter therefore better, than steel trailers
Whatever trailer you chose, for safety sake, it should be strong enough for the wear and tear of the largest, strongest horse that is hauled in it and hold up as well as possible in an accident. That not only includes the structure itself, but interior dividers, posts, bars, and tie rings. The most commonly used aluminum alloys are 1/3 the strength of steel and 70% of the weight. Aluminum must be 3 times thicker than steel to be as strong, therefore, it can weigh as much or more than a steel trailer of equal strength. This is more true for 2 horse trailers because as the trailers get bigger and longer, the all-steel trailer will get heavier than the all-aluminum in proportion. Manufacturers of hybrid trailers use the strength of the steel for structural parts and control the weight issue by using the lighter aluminum and other materials in non-structural parts. Many hybrid trailers compare favorably with all-aluminum trailers for weight, and may be stronger pound for pound.
There are many different manufacturers of horse trailers and all have different methods and quality, whichever material is used. The decision to buy a trailer should not be made because of inaccurate information about the true properties of the metals involved, but the overall quality.
Using steel and aluminum together causes the metals to react to each other.
True. However, most manufacturers who build "hybrid" trailers of steel and aluminum together understand how to keep the metals from touching each other by using Mylar tape or a protective coating. Even "all-aluminum" trailers must have steel transition parts where the couplers and axles are attached to the frame because aluminum is not strong enough to hold these important parts onto the trailer. So, in reality, there is no such thing as an "all-aluminum" trailer.
Goosenecks are safer than tag-a-long trailers
Yes and No. Problems generally attributed to tag-a-long trailers are trailer sway and instability, and a higher incidence of trailers coming unhitched. There are more ways to make a mistake when hitching to a tag-a-long than hitching up a gooseneck. It's obvious that a pick up truck is needed to haul a gooseneck and not a lot can go wrong when placing the gooseneck ball in the bed by a qualified installer. However, hitching a tag-a-long can be done in many ways and there are more ways to make a mistake. A tag-a-long trailer must be hitched with a frame mounted equalizing hitch that is rated to tow the weight of the trailer fully loaded. I always recommend weight distribution bars especially for vehicles with a shorter wheelbase or to increase the capacity of the hitch. A properly hitched two-horse trailer, even with a dressing room, towed by an adequate vehicle, can be just as safe and stable as a gooseneck. For more than two horses, a gooseneck is recommended.
Rear Ramps are slippery, steep, and heavy, and a step up rear entry is better.
There are many bad ramps out there. So many, in fact, that it's quite reasonable for people to assume that all ramps are equal. If the ramp is unsteady or steep and slippery, most horses will be reluctant to load and it's quite possible for a horse to slip when unloading. A ramp can be too heavy for many people to lift without back strain. However, a good ramp is safer than a step up entry. It isn't so much for the loading, but for the unloading. A low, steady, non-skid ramp prevents a horse from slipping under the trailer by miscalculating the landing surface or height of the step when backing out. If a horse slips under a ramp, the ramp can be lifted to get him out and the chance of severe injury is less than if he gets under the trailer itself. Slipping under a step up trailer is more common than most people believe, and such an accident can be severe enough to result in the loss of the horse. A step up can be made safer if the horse can turn around and walk out head first, or if the trailer is equipped with a front unload ramp. Most newer ramps are spring loaded and are very easy to lift.