Down the Road Safely: Take Care When Hauling Horses

By Cynthia McFarland

Horse tied to a trailer.

Whether you’re traveling to a competition or just heading to the local trailhead to meet up with riding buddies, you want to get there and back safely.

Having a trailer opens up a world of options, but it also comes with responsibilities. You’re hauling precious cargo and you want to do everything possible to ensure an uneventful trip, no matter how long or short the journey.

Tow-Vehicle Concerns

Today’s drivers have an abundance of vehicles, both full-size trucks and SUVs, to choose from when it comes to a tow vehicle, but hauling horses is vastly different from hauling a boat or camper. Horses are considered live cargo, and their weight constantly shifts so your tow vehicle must be up to the challenge.

Some drivers make the mistake of thinking that if their vehicle can actually pull the trailer, then it must be okay. Wrong. The last thing you want is the load behind you controlling the situation, which is exactly what can happen, sometimes with disastrous results, when you try to haul a trailer with an underpowered towing vehicle.

A key part of safe towing is being able to control and stop what’s behind you, so a capable tow vehicle is essential.

It’s important to know how much weight you’ll need to tow on a regular basis as this will let you know if you have enough vehicle to safely do the job. A basic 2-horse trailer carrying 2 average horses can easily weigh 5,000 lbs. or more. Throw in hay, tack and passengers, and then consider that you might be hauling up and down hills.

You’ll want to check your vehicle’s manual for some crucial numbers, including:

  • Payload: combined maximum allowable weight of cargo and passengers the vehicle is designed to carry
  • Towing capacity: amount of weight vehicle can safely tow
  • Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR): maximum allowable weight of vehicle and loaded trailer (including all cargo and passengers) that vehicle can safely handle

You don’t want to push a vehicle’s towing abilities to the max on a regular basis. The closer you get to the maximum towing weight, the more you need to think about stepping up to a larger vehicle. If you’re within 1,000 lbs. of maximum towing weight, it makes sense to consider stepping up to a vehicle with more towing capacity.

Hitch Safety

When hauling a horse trailer, you never want to pull from a bumper-mounted hitch. For safety’s sake, only use a frame-mounted hitch, which is welded directly to the vehicle’s frame, or a gooseneck hitch, which is mounted to the frame in the middle of the truck bed. If you have a frame-mounted hitch, it shouldn’t be less than a Class IV or Class V, as these are made for extra heavy-duty hauling and weights over 5,000 lbs.

Make sure your receiver ball matches the trailer hitch. An incorrect ball size is commonly the reason a trailer will come un-hitched.

To avoid making potentially disastrous mistakes, make it a point to hook up your own trailer. Follow the exact same sequence each time. Always lock the hitch and connect the safety chains and lights, even if you are only hauling a short distance.

If you’ve parked your truck and trailer anywhere, such as at a show or trailhead, double-check the hitch before moving. This can prevent an accident should someone have tampered with anything while you were gone.

Maintenance is Crucial

“Towing puts a lot of stress on a vehicle. Make sure you have an auxiliary transmission cooler,” said Brian Bednar, owner of Bednar’s Auto Service Inc. in Ocala, Florida. “Most vehicles used for towing, such as 1-ton trucks have this, but not all do. This is always a good idea.”

The old recommendation of buying a truck with a standard transmission if you’ll be towing regularly no longer applies. “The automatic transmissions today are so durable and heavy-duty, especially in the diesel pickups; that’s the way to go,” Bednar noted.

That said, it’s important to maintain your cooling system and change the fluids and transmission filter every 20,000 to 30,000 miles, he adds. If you are towing frequently, the engine will be working harder.

Maintenance is vital for keeping your tow vehicle in top shape. Follow the manufacturer’s manuals for oil change and engine service schedules.

“If you’re towing regularly, you should definitely change your oil and oil filter every 3,000 miles to 4,000 miles at the most,” says Bednar. “Make sure your brakes are maintained properly, and don’t exceed the manufacturer’s rating when towing.”

The importance of correct tire pressure can’t be overestimated. Check your tires to see what the tire pressure should be, and keep the tires on both your tow vehicle and trailer properly inflated. Overinflated tires can wear unevenly, while underinflated tires will heat up and can fail, in some cases causing loss of vehicle control. Always have a conventional full-size spare trailer tire and don’t use mini spare tires.

Pay close attention to your trailer tires, especially if you haul infrequently or your trailer has been sitting for some time. Inspect the sidewalls. A tire can have plenty of tread left, but have dry-rot or weather-rot. This can usually be detected on the sidewalls and sometimes between the tread. Also check the valve stems. If you can push on them and air comes out, they need to be replaced.

Look for the date on the tire; all tires have one. If the date is older than five years, you’ll want to replace them even if the tread is good, because older tires start to break down from the inside where you can’t see.

Trailer ball bearings should be serviced every 12 months or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first.

If your trailer has a wooden floor, inspect it periodically to make sure the boards are in good condition and that the metal frame underneath is not weakened from rust. Check for damage or rot by pressing a screwdriver against the wood wherever it touches the frame. These are the first places wood will start to rot and affect the integrity of the floor. Even when made of pressure-treated wood, floors should generally be replaced every 10 years (more often if they’re heavily used or in regions where roads are salted in winter).

Make sure all trailer and vehicle lights are working properly before hauling, and check lights and electrical connections whenever you stop.

Whenever possible, avoid parking a vehicle and trailer on a grade. If it is necessary to park on an incline, use wheel chocks under the trailer wheels on the downgrade side and always use your parking brake.

Ready to Roll

Before leaving home, be sure to have all necessary paperwork. A current Coggins test and a certificate of veterinary inspection (health certificate) dated within 30 days are typically needed for moving a horse, and different states may have additional requirements. When you will be traveling and crossing state lines, you can contact the state veterinarian office ahead of time to learn that state’s specific requirements.

Leg wraps and head bumpers can protect horses against possible injury. But if you plan to use them, be sure the horse is familiar with them well before the trip. The day you leave is not the time to wrap your horse’s legs for the first time. The last thing he needs is something new to fret about and raise his stress level.

A recent trailer accident survey of more than 200 accidents revealed that the main causes of wrecks were lack of proper maintenance, operator error and improperly matched equipment, with operator error causing the majority of accidents.

Make sure your trailer isn’t overloaded or unbalanced. If you are only hauling one horse, put him on the left side of the trailer.

Drive with your lights on day and night. Drive at or just under the speed limit, allowing ample stopping room between you and the vehicle ahead.

Never haul horses with windows open so horses can put their heads outside the trailer! This is an extremely dangerous practice and horses have been seriously injured and even killed by something striking their heads. Window bars should only be dropped when the trailer is parked. Webbing or screens over the windows can allow airflow and prevent horses from putting their heads out during travel.

It’s a good idea to carry water when hauling horses even a short distance, as you never know what can happen. A serious accident can leave you stalled in traffic on the interstate for hours, which can be dangerous if you have no water on hand and it’s 90-plus degrees.

Towing requires more vigilant driving than usual, as weight in the trailer may shift with the horses’ movement. Keep enough space between your vehicle and those in front of you so that you can slow and stop safely. The old “one one thousand, two one thousand” rule for stopping isn’t enough when you are hauling a loaded horse trailer. A simple rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of one vehicle length for every 10 mph.

Finally, drive defensively and keep your horse in mind. Gradual acceleration, turns and braking will make hauling easier on him.

Related Articles