by Judy Van Put
For some horse keepers, a horse trailer is a necessary component of horse ownership, especially if you show your horse or if your local riding options are limited. But for others, like those who are purchasing their first horse, the thought of having their own trailer is a luxury. As it will be a major expense and purchase, it can also be a bit daunting to decide exactly which type of trailer to choose, and what to look for. So how to begin?
First, you’ll need to determine what your needs are – whether you will be hauling one horse, two or more. Just as importantly, you’ll need a vehicle that is equipped to pull all that weight – the trailer itself and the weight of the horses (around 1,200 pounds per horse), plus your tack, feed, equipment and passengers in the vehicle. If you’re purchasing a new vehicle, be sure that the trailer hitch is factory-installed with heavy-duty brakes and transmission. Most add-on hitches are used for hauling boats/ATVs and not a half-ton horse and trailer.
The manufacturer of your truck or SUV will provide a Tow Vehicle Guide that describes how much weight the vehicle is rated to tow, as well as the amount of tongue weight it’s capable of carrying. The gross vehicle weight rating of the trailer is the manufacturer’s recommended maximum capacity of the trailer, plus the total amount that the trailer will hold. The figure you arrive upon is the minimum weight required to tow your horse trailer. It’s better and safer to err on the high side than on the low side.
Next, you’ll need to choose which type of trailer best suits your needs. It’s not uncommon to find a horse that is unwilling to lead into or out of a trailer, which can cause a stressful situation. If you have a very large, heavy or tall horse, you’ll need to measure the trailer specifications to see if that horse will fit comfortably.
Some horses will load and travel more calmly in a two-horse straight trailer, which has the benefit of being able to load/unload one horse while the other horse remains undisturbed. For an average-sized horse, the straight-load trailer will provide more neck and head room. Some have dividers that can swing to the side (with removable rear posts), providing more room for horses to enter and making them more comfortable in a light-filled, hospitable space. In a straight trailer, the horse will be traveling with an equal amount of weight on the front and hind feet when loading and unloading. She will need to be able to lead on and then exit backwards. Having a ramp will make it easier than just stepping down onto the ground when backing out.
Others prefer the slant-load trailer, which can carry more horses and has extra room for tack, etc., in addition to enabling you to turn the horse around to lead out. However, if you’re traveling with more than one horse and the horse in the first position has a problem or needs to be unloaded, you’ll have to unload all the others behind first, unless there is an emergency side door. In addition, the horse will need to be able to balance at a slant.
You’ll also need to decide how your trailer will hitch on to your vehicle. A bumper-pull hitch will work for a two-horse trailer, but for a three-horse trailer, you should opt for a gooseneck hitch to balance out the extra weight and provide a more stable ride.
Regardless of which type of trailer you choose, you’ll want windows to be within reach, especially if you’re traveling alone. Larger windows and vents provide more light during the day, which is important for your horse’s comfort and confidence in entering the trailer. If you travel at night, the trailer should have good lighting inside for when you need to unload or reload your horse.
Check out how the trailer doors lock, remembering that you might have to get to your horse quickly. A deadbolt lock requiring a key is fine for your tack room but might not be the best option for the horse stall.
If you purchase a used trailer, you’ll need to do your due diligence to ensure the trailer is in good condition, is safe for your horse and is road-worthy, remembering that unlike when purchasing a new trailer, you won’t be getting a warranty and you’ll most likely be buying “as-is.”
One of the most important things to consider is the floor. Remove the floor mats so that you can inspect the wooden floorboards thoroughly, looking for signs of rot. Use a screwdriver to check for soft wood that can eventually give way. Check the frame of the floor for rust or deterioration, then look underneath the trailer to inspect the condition of the steel crossbeams – the more crossbeams under the floor, the stronger it will be. If the trailer has an aluminum floor, inspect it for signs of corrosion.
Examine the windows, doors and dividers, making sure all latch properly and work well. Try out the butt bars and breast bars to be sure they are easy to use, and be aware of any metal burrs or other uneven surfaces or blemishes that might be hazardous to your horse.
Check the wheel bearings and tires for wear (if the tire wear is uneven, this could either be improper inflation or a bent axle) and for dry-rot. Check that the tire pressure is up to the maximum PSI that is indicated on the tire and that all tires are at the same pressure. Check the spare tire to make sure it is not dry-rotted and is still usable.
Check out the trailer hitch or gooseneck coupler to be sure it’s working properly and easily, making note of the size of the ball to hitch to. Electrical wires should be in good repair and all lights working properly. Safety chains should be in good condition. If the trailer is equipped with a hand brake, be sure to test that as well. Be sure the gross vehicle weight rating (which should be noted somewhere on the trailer) is compatible with the vehicle you’ll be using to haul the trailer. Especially with a gooseneck coupler, you’ll want to hitch the trailer to your vehicle before you purchase it to make sure it will clear the truck bed by at least eight inches and is compatible.
If possible, try to get a professional – perhaps your mechanic or body shop technician – to check out the trailer thoroughly before you decide to purchase it.
Taking extra time to research the best trailer options for your horse and your situation will be well worth it in the long run, as a trailer is an investment you can look forward to using for many years to come.