Trailering Safety, Part 1
By Eli Benson
Whether your trailer gets used once a week or once a year, there are some things to consider before you hitch up and load your horse. Your trailer may have been in great shape when you parked it two months ago, but it may not be now. A trailer, like any machine, will deteriorate with lack of use. Conversely, heavy use will wear it out as well. With a little bit of preventative maintenance, your trailer will last for many years.
What you are looking for in a trailer is to transport your horse in safety and comfort. To that end, this guide will tell you the things to look for when you are going to use a trailer. It might be your own, a borrowed trailer, or one that you are thinking about purchasing. This is intended as an overview only. If you have any doubts, take the trailer to a mechanic, or trailer maintenance facility.
Lets start with the horse compartment. Remove any rubber mats, and check the condition of the boards underneath. Look for any rotten spots, loose screws or bolts, or anything that doesn’t look right. Something that people don’t think about when looking at the boards is the steel structure holding up the boards. I’ve heard of a case where the boards were fine but the girder holding it up had a broken weld at one end. In fact it wouldn’t even give with the weight of a person on it, only with the weight of a horse. It was hard to find. The man jumped up and down on the broken part and found that it moved. Look at the bottom of the wall. There may be rust along there. I’ve seen trailers rust through at that point. I’ve even seen them bad enough that the steel upright posts holding up the sides and roof were rusted through too. Look for any protruding metal or wood parts that might injure a horse. Jagged rusty edges are a real problem. Another thing to think about is the height and width of the compartment. Will it fit your horse comfortably? Horses should be able to be able to ride with their head held high if they want to. If the trailer is a strait load, check the “Butt Chains” or “Butt Bars”. You don’t want worn chains or poor welds holding your horses in. In a slant load, make sure that the partition latches are oiled and easy to move. When a horse is leaning on the partition, it can be very hard to open if it is not well oiled. Also door latches and hinges should be oiled or greased. Some door hinges actually have grease fittings - use them. Especially if they doors don’t get used much. The hinges get water in them and could be rusty. Constant opening and closing could cause them to seize and tear off while you are moving them. Rubber mats would be really nice on your horse’s feet and joints. Some sort of vent or window might be nice too. On a strait load, if you do have open vents, depending on the size of vent and horse, the horses may benefit from fly masks. This will give a measure of protection to your horse against bugs or road debris.
The next thing to look at is the running gear. This is anything that makes the trailer function as a road vehicle. Wheel bearings ought to be checked and greased. Even if they were greased and not used for 5 months, re-grease them before you use them. If you are lucky they will have “Bearing Buddies” (at least that is what boat trailer people call them). These nifty bearing caps have a spring and plunger in them. You fill the plunger with new grease from a grease gun, and as you drive, it presses that grease into the bearing. If the trailer doesn’t have them, you ought to pick up a pair for each axle. You can find them at Tractor Supply Co. or an auto parts store (~$15). If you don’t have a grease gun get one of those too (~$20). And don’t go cheap on the grease; buy wheel-bearing grease instead of all-purpose stuff. Once a year, jack up a wheel at a time, and jiggle it up and down, left and right. There shouldn’t be any play there. It will move a tiny bit, but if you are concerned, compare its movement to the other wheels. If they are all the same, then they are probably okay. If one side is looser, take it to a mechanic. When you set out, stop a few miles out and check the wheel bearings. This is easy to do. Put your hand on the wheel hub and check for heat. It should be mildly warm. If it is too hot to touch, then it is definitely time to replace the bearings. About axles, I would highly recommend a dual axle trailer. This gives you a lot of peace of mind when you eventually blow a tire. However unlikely, it is possible that a blowout on a single axle trailer could cause you to lose control of your tow vehicle. Check the spring mounting bolts, if any. Some spring mounting bolts have grease fittings as well. Anything with a grease fitting should be greased. If your trailer has torsion springs, there may not be any bolts to check. Look underneath the trailer for broken welds, or badly rusted parts.
Check the hitch coupler to make sure you have the right size ball for it on the tow vehicle. Nearly all trailers use a 2” ball. Some large trailers use a 2 & 5/16” ball. Also make sure the coupler works well, and it is oiled. Make sure any safety pins or latches are present and functional. Check the weight rating on the ball (It’s stamped on top) and compare it to the trailer’s weight. The trailer’s weight should be on a little placard next to the hitch. You don’t want to exceed the hitch’s capacity. I would really strongly recommend a Class 4 (Class IV) receiver hitch for your truck instead of a bumper hitch. A bumper hitch is only rated at Class 2 (Class II). That is 300 lbs of tongue weight, and 3,500 lbs of trailer weight. A Class 4 receiver hitch is good for 10,000 lb trailer weight, with a 1,000 lb tongue weight. If you are pulling horses, this is what you want. A light trailer could use a Class 3 (Class III) hitch (5,000 pulling/500 tongue weight). Also make sure the fully loaded trailer doesn’t exceed the truck’s towing capacity (refer to your owner’s manual to get the weight rating of your truck). Check that you have a good place to attach the safety chains on the truck. Most receiver hitches will have holes next to the receiver for chains. On a Gooseneck trailer, make sure that the gooseneck ball is strong enough for the trailer. It’s weight rating is stamped on top of the ball. If you are going to get a receiver hitch or a Gooseneck ball installed in your truck, pay a professional to do it. These parts have to be torqued to certain specifications, and may require a vehicle lift or other things a home mechanic may not have. Make sure your safety chains don’t drag on the ground. Cross them in the middle to give the trailer a “cradle” effect should the coupler pop off the hitch ball. Make sure the chains aren’t twisted and bound up when attached to the truck. This will be a major weak point if you actually end up needing the chains. Some people do this to shorten the chains, but it is a really bad idea. It makes them almost useless. If the chains are too long, cut them off to the right length and get some good hooks for the end of them.
Check the tires. A new tire should have at least 10/32 of an inch of tread on it. You should replace them at 4/32 inch. Also, look for weather cracks on the sides of the tires. There shouldn’t be anything you could stick a fingernail into. Make sure the tires are at their rated pressure. It will be written on a little placard stamped into the side of the tire. Make sure that all the tires are at the same pressure, as this will improve handling. Also in that placard is the weight rating of the tire. A tire for a 2-axle trailer should be rated for at least 1700 lbs. I would want enough of a weight bearing capacity that if one blows out the other can handle the load without blowing out immediately too. Mismatched tires are okay, as long as they are all the same size, meet the weight rating, and have the same pressure rating. Tires are sized by width, height, and rim size. 205/75R-15 would be width a of 205 millimeters, a height of 75% of the width, with a 15” rim. The “R” means Radial, which all tires today should be. If it says “B” instead of “R” it means it’s a “Bias” tire, and probably really old (time for a new one, maybe?). 205/75R-15 would be a very normal size for a 2 horse strait load. Larger trailers, like Goosenecks will be somewhere around 245/85R-16. Also, carry a jack and lug wrench that will fit the trailer. Your truck’s wrench may not fit the trailer. A couple of blocks of wood or chocks to block trailer from rolling. A tire changing ramp (Also called Trailer Aid or Jiffy Jack) is really handy if you have a 2-axle trailer. All this kit won’t do you any good if you don’t have a spare tire with your trailer. Make sure the spare has air in it, and it is the right size and hole pattern to fit your trailer. For a long trip, take more than one spare. You don’t want to be stuck in a one-horse town having to buy a used tire from the only service station in town for four times the cost of a new one. Also, many times after a blowout your rim will be damaged from riding on the pavement. It pays to have a second spare. Always carry a tire pressure gauge too. Check the pressure whenever you stop for gas.
Electric brakes. You really should have electric brakes. In fact, I wouldn’t transport horses without electric brakes. If you have 8,000 lbs of horse and trailer behind you, your truck’s brakes will not stop you during an emergency. Even attempting a fast deceleration could cause you to wreck your rig without trailer brakes. Make sure that each wheel’s brakes work. To test them, turn the power to the brakes (there is a gain adjustment on all electric brake controllers) up and give the trailer a pull while someone watches the wheels. They should lock up at the highest setting. Make sure you warm them up before use, especially if they haven’t been used in a while. Do this by driving at 20 mph with a little manual pressure on them with the brake controller handle. Not enough to lock the brakes up mind you. Driving a mile should be enough to clean up the rusty brake drums, and get them running smoothly. Then do your check. If all is well, then adjust the power back down till they don’t lock up when you come to a hard stop. That is about where you want them. If you have a heavy load, and the power setting is not sufficient to allow smooth stops, turn it up a bit. That is why there is an adjustment. If your controller has an adjustment for brake timing, set the trailer so that the brakes engage a fraction of a second before the truck’s brakes. This will improve handling. Don’t be afraid to manually activate the trailer brakes (a little) when you are coming down a hill or to stop trailer from swaying. It will straiten the trailer right out. Brake controllers usually have an indicator light on them that tells you the brakes are connected (if the trailer is plugged into the truck). If your light goes out, stop and check your connections. If your trailer has a “Break-Away Box” for emergency braking in case of the trailer breaking away from the truck, make sure it’s battery is charged. This battery activates the electric brakes if catastrophe happens, and doesn’t do any good if it can’t power the brakes. Not all trailers have this, but it can be installed on any trailer with electric brakes. Also, the break-away cable that activates the battery should be firmly attached to your truck, so the brakes will be activated when the cable gets pulled (hopefully this will never happen). Lights and wiring should be checked as well - on your truck as well as your trailer. If you must use an adaptor plug to attach your trailer’s lights to your truck, make sure it works and isn’t too loose. Take a piece of string and tie your adaptor to your truck. I’ve lost too many of those things when making sharp turns into gas stations and the like. At $15 each, you best protect your investment. Make sure your license plate light works, and that it shines on a plate that is valid and up to date. In Texas, “Farm Trailer” registration is only $6. It’s not worth getting a ticket for not having a valid plate.
I hope this helps you in your horsey endeavors. Remember, if it not safe, then it is not worth doing. I may not be a certified mechanic, or commercial driver, but I know how to err on the side of safety. I have probably driven more miles with a trailer than without. I have never had a mishap that resulted in any damage to person, property or horse. Without proper maintenance, the few incidents I have had could have been major problems.