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April 27, 2010

Towing And Trailer Safety Part 4: Choosing The Right Tow Vehicle

If your tow vehicle is too small and light for your trailer, then it won't have the appropriate stopping power for the trailer and itself. Photo by Tomas Gimenez.

Check back on Wednesday, May 5, for Part 5: Preparing To Hit The Road, the next article in our continuing series on Towing and Trailer Safety.

Once you’ve purchased the horses and bought the trailer, it’s time to make the final step and find a tow vehicle. However, the process isn’t as easy as going to a dealership and picking out a truck or SUV. Choosing a vehicle that will safely haul your trailer and horses requires some research and a little bit of math.

“People want what they see, but they don’t realize that what they see may not be the right thing [for their situation],” said Neva Scheve, author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “There are so many myths out there, and people just jump on the bandwagon. People don’t realize how important it is to make smart decisions about their truck and trailer.”

Why Weight Matters

The first step in deciding which tow vehicle to purchase is finding out how much your trailer weighs. Some trailers have their empty weight listed on the title, but the more important number is the Gross Vehicle Weight.

The GVW is the actual weight of a single vehicle and its complete load. In order to find out the GVW, load up your trailer with everything you think you might take with you when you’re hauling (including your horses, feed, water, equipment, etc.) and take it to a scale and weigh it. Add 20 percent for a safety margin, and you will know the correct weight for which your tow vehicle needs to be rated in order to haul safely.

“It’s a common misconception that aluminum trailers are lighter than steel. There are many factors that determine weight besides the construction material,” said Scheve. “If the weight is listed on the title, it’s probably going to be the generic weight of that model. If a manufacture adds extra features, they won’t add that on to the weight.”

The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating is not the actual weight. It’s the total weight the trailer can weigh and still be safe as stated by the manufacturer. This rating is usually printed on a sticker inside the trailer. It's easier to use this number to choose your tow vehicle than to load it up and weigh it. If you don't overload the trailer, you will have the recommended safety margin you need. 

Normally, GVWR of a trailer is determined by axle capacity. Axle capacity is the combined weight rating of each axle. If your trailer has a GVWR of 5,000 pounds, then it means the trailer has two 2,500-pound rated axles. Some manufacturers may add a bit more to the GVWR allowing that some of the tongue weight is on the tow vehicle. Your trailer’s coupler should be equal to or greater than the axle capacity.

“If your axles have a 7,000 pound capacity and your coupler has a 5,000 pound capacity, the trailer would only be rated at 5,000 pounds,” said Scheve. “The trailer is only rated to the lowest rating.”

However, Scheve noted that the towing capacity of a vehicle is generally calculated for hauling travel trailers or boats on flat ground. If you’ll be traveling in the mountains, consider a larger towing capacity than if you’re hauling on average terrain.

“The tow vehicle you have is going to have to be rated to tow at least the gross vehicle weight, plus 20 percent,” said Scheve. “Horses are top heavy by nature and are an unstable weight. It’s a different type of weight, so the vehicle should be a little overrated to give you a safety margin. It’s easier to make a mistake with tag-along trailers, and there are a lot of people out there doing it wrong. With a gooseneck, you need a full-sized truck, and it’s harder to make that mistake.”

Vehicle Ratings And Add-Ons

A vehicle’s towing rating is determined by a combination of engine size, transmission and axle ratio. The engine needs to have enough power to pull the rig in any conditions and over any terrain. The axle ratio is the gearing that multiplies torque to the rear wheels. Torque gets the load moving and provides pulling power. The higher the gear ratio, the more torque. Lower gear ratio equals better fuel efficiency.

Finally, the transmission provides the gears to get the load moving. Automatic transmissions are usually recommended for tow vehicles simply because first gear is smoother in an automatic transmission, making it easier to operate and to get the load moving. Four-wheel drive does not contribute to towing capacity.

“Every manufacturer publishes a tow vehicle guide,” said Scheve. “You can have two exact trucks and have different capacities because of the transmission, engines, etc. To tow safely, you have to match the towing capacity with the gross vehicle weight of your trailer. You’re better off above it, but you have to stay within reason. You don’t want to overkill it, either.”

For instance, a vehicle with a 4.6-liter V8 engine and a 3.08 axle ratio may have a towing capacity of 5,600 pounds. Whereas if you have the same model with a 5.4 liter engine, you can have a towing capacity of 6,600 pounds.

Know Your Load

Another problem that arises when towing is overloading your rig. In any situation, you should never exceed the Gross Combination Vehicle Weight Rating. The GCVWR is the value specified by the manufacturer of the tow vehicle that is the maximum the total trailer/vehicle combination can safely weigh. This includes the combined weight of the tow vehicle, the trailer, passengers, horses, plus all equipment and supplies carried in both the tow vehicle and the trailer.

Scenario #1: Trailer is rated at 5,000 pounds and weighs 2,300 pounds. You are hauling two small horses at 900 pounds each. Your total weight is 4,100 pounds, leaving you 900 pounds for everything else. This is a safe situation.

Scenario #2: Trailer is rated at 5,000 pounds and weighs 2,300 pounds. You are hauling two large horses at 1,500 pounds each. Your total weight is 5,300 pounds. This situation is not safe because you have overloaded the trailer. If you plan on hauling large horses such as warmbloods or drafts, you will need to invest in a trailer that has a more suitable rating.

Scenario #3: Your rig has a GCVWR of 12,000 pounds. Your vehicle is rated to tow 7,100 pounds and weighs 4,900 pounds. You add five passengers (750 pounds) and luggage (350 pounds). The extra 1,100 pounds reduces the towing capacity to 6,000 pounds. Yet, if your trailer still weighs 7,100 pounds with your two horses and all equipment, you have overloaded the rig. This is not a safe situation.

The load you are pulling should never exceed the GCVWR!

All About The Hitch

The last, but definitely not the least, consideration in your vehicle is the hitch. Hitches come with two ratings, weight carrying and weight distribution, and should always be a class 3 or 4 hitch for tag-along trailers. A proper hitch for towing horse trailers is a frame-mounted, stabilizer hitch. You should never pull from the bumper, no matter what the capacity.

It’s also important for the ball and ball mount to be rated to the correct capacity for the weight of the trailer. Remember, you are only rated to your lowest number, so it’s important that everything is rated the same.

Front end floating (bouncing off the ground) of the tow vehicle is a serious concern when it comes to tag-along trailers. Using the proper hitch equipment is one way to prevent floating. Floating, which can also lead to sway, usually happens when the tongue weight of the trailer weighs down the back of the vehicle and takes too much weight off the front end. This allows the front of the tow vehicle to lift or bounce off the ground while driving.

This is especially a problem on short wheel-based vehicles, like SUVs. In order to combat floating, Scheve recommends weight distribution bars, which are often mistakenly called sway bars.

“It works kind of like a wheelbarrow,” said Scheve. “The bars distribute the weight between the rear axle of your truck and the front axle of your trailer. The stabilization is amazing. I will not haul without them. I had a client come in who was in a terrible accident, and the only thing that saved them was the bars. They are an added safety measure, they’re easy to use and very important.”

Sway is another serious concern. Some common causes of sway include:

  • A poorly designed trailer (tongue weight too light)
  • Uneven weight distribution in the trailer (often happens on three-horse slant tag-alongs)
  • Uneven tire wear
  • Uneven tire pressure
  • An unlevel trailer (nose down)
  • Bent axles  
  • Mismatched weight of trailer versus tow vehicle.

“A sway bar can be added to the hitch,” said Scheve, “but I believe that unless you’re in areas where there’s lots of wind, the cause of the sway should be fixed, not compensated for with a sway bar.”

Additional Food For Thought

Electric brakes are the main choice for trailers since you control them from the cab of the vehicle. If you’re swaying, you can touch the lever and activate the trailer brake instead of the truck brake.

Safety chains are required for tag-along and gooseneck trailers and should be crossed underneath the hitch in tag-alongs. If the trailer comes off the ball, the chains will catch it. The trailer’s emergency brake has to have a working battery, and the release wire should be attached to the frame of the truck.

Unfortunately, there are no government agencies regulating how a horse trailer must be built other than the Department of Transportation’s lighting, brake and axle requirements. Manufacturers may use any material they choose.

“With no regulations on construction, it’s up to the buyer to determine what type of construction, safety features and designs will best protect themselves, their horses, and others who travel the same roads,” said Scheve.

This article is the fourth 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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