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April 13, 2010

Towing And Trailer Safety, Part 3: Choosing The Right Trailer

A trailer ramp must be low to the ground, non-slip and sturdy so the horse will feel comfortable walking onto the trailer. Photo by Coree Reuter.

Check back on Wednesday, April 28, to learn about choosing the right tow vehicle, the next article in our continuing series on Towing and Trailer Safety.

With so many different trailers to choose from these days, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when considering a trailer purchase. However, if you stick to a few simple guidelines and keep in mind that the trailer needs to fit the horse, you can simplify the process.

“So many people choose the wrong trailers,” said Tom Scheve, co-author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “The horse should always come first, the trailer second and the tow vehicle third. You have to look at the horses you have and determine what kind of trailer will fit the horses comfortably.”

Trailer Dimensions

Determining the appropriate size for your trailer depends on the breed and type of horses you own. While most horses fit in a standard straight-load trailer—10’ stalls, 7’6” tall and 6’ wide on the inside—many of the breeds used in the performance industry today need a little more space. In general, a horse that is 16.3-17.2 hands needs a trailer that has 11’ stalls and is 7’8” tall. Two inches doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but that extra clearance will make the horse much more comfortable. For the 18-hand range, or an extra wide horse, some width may need to be added. Since the legal width on U.S. roads is 8’6”, the interior width can be 6’8” before the wheel wells would need to be inside the trailer.

“The size of the trailer is going to make a difference,” said Neva Scheve, co-author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “The horse needs to have enough head room so they can keep their head and neck in a natural position, and you want to have enough width that they can spread their legs to balance. He needs to be standing in a nice, natural position while he’s on the road.”

Materials Make A Difference

  • Aluminum – Aluminum is becoming increasingly popular for horse trailers. It’s lightweight and fairly corrosion resistant. However, aluminum is not very strong on its own, so it’s combined with other metals to increase its strength. Aluminum is 1/3 the strength of steel and 70 percent less weight. Aluminum trailers vary in price and quality, due to the fluctuating price of the metal. Aluminum is more rigid and does not absorb shock as well as steel. It does not withstand impact as well as steel and can be harder and more expensive to repair.
  • Steel – Steel is the most common and affordable material used for construction of anything that requires strength. Rust used to be a major concern, but advanced technology has all but eliminated rust with the use of Galvaneal, galvanized and powder coated processes. Steel is less expensive than aluminum because it’s more readily available. Steel trailers generally hold up better during accidents and are easily repaired by a competent welder.
  • Fiberglass – When used as a roof, fiberglass will have a slight cushioning affect if the horse hits its head. However, a fiberglass roof will not hold up on its own in an accident where the trailer rolls over, and a frame should be installed with the roof. Fiberglass edges aren’t as sharp as metal. Fiberglass is not as strong as steel or aluminum, and when used for the walls of trailers it can easily sustain damage from the horses or outside factors.
  • Hybrids – Hybrids are built on the frame of one material, but the nonstructural parts are made of a different material. This allows for the best aspects of each material to be utilized.

All About Flooring

When it comes to the floor your horses stand on while trailering, most experts agree that wood is the best way to go.

“A wooden floor doesn’t conduct heat or cold; it’s much more solid for the horses, and there’s space for the moisture to go,” said Frank DiBella of Deluxe Horse Vans, Inc. “We’ve always selected wooden floors, and we’ve had trailers come back with over a million miles on them, and the floor still looks like new. You won’t get that with aluminum.”

Aluminum flooring can be safe for your horses as well, but while aluminum doesn’t rust, it does corrode over time. In order to prevent corrosion from happening, it’s important to keep the flooring clean and dry. Mats should be removed from the trailer and any urine, which can cause oxidization, should be washed off the floor with soap and water. Aluminum flooring is a heat conductor and draws heat off the road and into the trailer. It’s also more susceptible to dents, which creates pockets in which moisture may settle.

Another advantage of wooden flooring is that it’s less expensive to replace. Each individual board can be removed rather than having to fix the entire floor. Wood is also a natural shock absorber, making trailering easier on your horse’s legs.

Whether your trailer floor is wood or aluminum, you must check it on a regular basis. If you can stick a knife easily into the wood and get shreds when the knife is turned, it’s time to be replaced. Look for cracks or signs of stress, such as warping or dents, and a spotty or uneven milky appearance on aluminum floors. Do NOT take chances on flooring.

A new option is Rumber. A product made from recycled tires and plastic, it can be used without mats. It’s a bit more expensive and has a 10-year warranty, while many trailers with wood floors come with a lifetime warranty.

Shape, Style and Functionality

  • Straight-load manger – Manger trailers have a built-in hay manger in the head area of the trailer, and underneath the manager is a small storage area. These trailers are compact and provide storage space, however, the horse’s head is continually confined with the hay, preventing him from breathing clean air. There is also a wall in front of the horse’s legs, and that prevents him from using his front legs to balance when the trailer stops.
  • Straight-load walk-through – A walk-through trailer contains the horse with a chest bar, so the area in front of the horse is open from ceiling to floor. This allows the horse ample space to balance with his front legs and extend his head down and out. There usually isn’t storage space in these trailers, but they are generally inviting for the horses because they are open and airy.
  • Center-loads – Center-load trailers are normally longer than slant-load four- or six-horse trailers because of the space between the front and back horses. The front horses ride facing backward, while the rear horses ride facing forward. Center-load trailers are among the most horse-friendly options when it comes to trailering. The stalls are open in the front like a walk-through trailer, and the horses are contained with chest bars. This trailer also allows the horses the benefit of knowing where their friends are, which is a stress-reducing factor during long trips. They normally have a tack room or living quarters in the front providing ample storage.
  • One-horse trailers – These aren’t very common but can be effective for owners who know they will only ever haul one horse. They aren’t much cheaper than a two-horse, but they do save on gasoline costs.
  • Two Plus One – These trailers are designed similarly to a straight-load walk-through, but they have added space to fit another horse in the front in a box stall.

The Scoop On Slant-Loads

While slant-load trailers offer owners the ability to haul multiple horses, the actual design of the trailer isn’t necessarily suited to the comfort and safety of your horse.

“If I could wave the magic wand on slant-loads, I’d get rid of all of them tomorrow,” said Tom with a laugh. “Any horse trailer worth its salt should allow you to access one horse without having to take the others out. In a slant-load, you have to take everyone off to get to the one in front.”

Slant-load trailers make it harder for horses to balance. Naturally, a horse balances by putting his hindquarters underneath him and bracing with his front legs. When traveling in a slant-load trailer, the horse is forced to balance on his right front foreleg and right hind leg.

“The horse can’t really brace for balance,” said Tom. “They fall against the divider or can fall under the divider, and you’ve got a mess. The horse needs to have a chest and butt bar so they can lean and brace on both of their front and hind feet.”

Another issue is that slant-load trailers are limited in width, which directly corresponds to stall length.

“If the horses are too large for the stall, the horses are forced to push their heads in one corner and their butts in the other,” said Tom. “They don’t have room to stretch out and relax when that wall is up against their face. They’re stuck like that until you get somewhere.”

While Tom doesn’t prefer slant-load trailers, he suggested taking the dividers out and providing more space for the horses if that’s what you choose.

Do You Need A Ramp?

Having a ramp on your trailer is another option over which horse owners debate. A good ramp is a safety net for the horse, but a bad ramp can cause serious injury or anxiety. Ramps should be solid, not slippery, and low to the ground. Ramps should also cover the entire width of the trailer opening, and any springs that hold the ramp on should be smooth with no parts sticking out.

Step-up trailers (or a trailer without a ramp) are easier for horses to load into because they are often afraid to step onto a ramp. However, when a horse comes off the trailer, he is generally stepping backwards and must step down blindly. It’s easy for a horse to slip and lose his footing.

Smooth Riding

Horse trailers ride on a suspension system, which can directly affect the price of your trailer. In most cases, trailers are built with tandem wheels. With two axles, trailers can be balanced to distribute the weight of the trailer more evenly. Four wheels also provide security if you have a flat tire.

For years, most horse trailers had leaf-spring suspension systems. The springs are melded together in layers and absorb road shock. In general, the heavier the trailer, the smoother the ride will be on this suspension system. Suspension is important for the comfort of the horse and the safety of the driver!

Rubber torsion suspension has become increasingly popular in the past several years. This system provides a smoother ride by incorporating the axle directly onto the trailer frame, and by using four rubber cords, which are encased with the axle beam. As weight is applied to the trailer, the bar rotates and the rubber cords provide resistance.

“Rubber torsion suspension takes 99 percent of the chop and vibration out of the floor,” said Neva.

Another reason to consider rubber torsion suspension lies in its safety. Since each axle is attached separately to the bottom of the trailer, the wheels support each other as they move across the pavement. This allows the trailer to be driven on three wheels in an emergency situation.

Hitchin’ A Ride

The horse world is full of great debates, and one of the classics is whether a gooseneck trailer is better than a bumper pull. Both options are reliable and safe but have definite advantages and disadvantages.

“With three or more horses I always recommend a gooseneck,” said Neva. “The bed of a truck can take more weight than a bumper hitch, but you have to match the trailer with the tow vehicle. When you do that correctly, everything works together to create a smoother ride.”

Bumper pull is actually a misleading term, since the hitch should be connected to the undercarriage of the vehicle, not the actual bumper. However, these trailers are very popular for several reasons:

  • Less expensive than gooseneck trailers.
  • More options for tow vehicle.
  • Easier to find a tow in an emergency.
  • Follows the path of the vehicle while towing.
  • Less intimidating for infrequent drivers.

“If it’s hitched correctly, a [bumper-pull trailer] can be just as safe and ride as comfortably as a gooseneck,” said Neva.

A gooseneck trailer also has some distinct advantages, and most people who own these trailers believe it’s the only way to go.

  • Tongue weight of trailer rests on the bed of the truck, allowing more stability and ability to haul more horses.
  • Trailer turns when the truck turns, which cuts corners. This creates a tight turning radius.
  • Living quarters or tack room area provides ample storage.

However, gooseneck trailers are more expensive than bumper-pull trailers and must be pulled by a pick-up truck. The tight turning radius requires a bit of driver education, and a gooseneck can intimidate a nervous or infrequent driver.  

This article is the third in an ongoing series loaded with tips for safe towing and travel. Do you have any questions about trailering or anything you’d like to see in this series? Please e-mail coree@chronofhorse.com She would love to hear your thoughts and looks forward to your contributions!

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