Hitting the Road With Your Horse: Finding the Right Horse Trailer

We think there are “wrong” choices, but other options depend on the individual buying the horse trailer.
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We think there are “wrong” choices, but other options depend on the individual buying the horse trailer.

Cue the “Mission Impossible” theme song and come along with me as this writer ventures into the intriguing world of buying a horse trailer. But not just any horse trailer. This one has to have the room and the strength to carry my over-sized, nearly one-ton registered Percheron mare. It won’t be an easy mission as we factor into the equation not only the needs of my horse in terms of her “plus” size but also other issues such as safety (which should always be your number one concern), model and quality of trailer construction (Buying a horse trailer is a big investment), my vehicle’s towing capability (for once, the horse isn’t doing all the work), the legalities of horse trailers (you knew there had to be some!), and of course, budget (hint: I am not Bank of America). Download a PDF of this article here.

Owning your own trailer means packing up and heading to wherever you want to ride. (Thinkstock)

Owning your own trailer means packing up and heading to wherever you want to ride. (Thinkstock)

So off we go. Like any other investment, before buying, it’s very important to do your homework. First some bad news: Being an informed horse trailer consumer involves doing some math along with becoming familiar with some motor-vehicle terminology. Bear with me. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.

How Much Can Your Vehicle Tow?Before buying a horse trailer, you need to determine whether your towing vehicle is up to the challenge of hauling one. To do this, you need to compute your “Gross Vehicle Weight” (GVR), which is the actual weight of both your car/truck and the actual weight of your trailer with their complete loads. For the towing vehicle, that means the weight of the vehicle plus the weight of passengers and any equipment on board. For the horse trailer, the GVR equals the weight of the trailer plus horses, tack, feed, hay and equipment.

Next, you will need to know what the towing capacity (the weight that your vehicle can safely pull) is for your car/truck. This information can be found in your vehicle’s user handbook and is dependent on such things as your vehicle’s engine size, rear axle ratio and transmission.

You will also need to know the Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR), which is the stated weight that a tow vehicle and trailer can weigh according to the manufacturer of the tow vehicle. This is determined by your towing vehicle’s axle, tire and coupler capacity.

It is always wise to get the input of a reputable trailer dealer when matching a trailer to a towing vehicle. Experts advise that your towing vehicle should weigh at least 4,800 lbs. and be able to pull at least 10% more than the trailer’s GVWR.

Getting Hitched:Connecting your car/truck to your horse trailer is the “hitch,” which is bolted or welded to the frame of the towing vehicle and has a square receiver into which slides a ball mount. It is important that the hitch is rated to match the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the horse trailer. This rating will be imprinted on the hitch itself. In fact, there are two hitch rating classifications stated on the hitch. One is the weight- carrying classification, which states the maximum weight the hitch can support with the trailer’s weight without weight- distribution bars. The other is the weight-distribution rating, which is the amount of weight that the hitch can safely handle with the trailer and weight distribution bars. In addition to the hitch ratings, the ball and ball mount will also have their own ratings to be considered.

Weight distribution bars (also known as stabilizer or equalizer bars) distribute the combined load of the tow vehicle and trailer and prevent the tow vehicle from being lifted up due to the trailer’s weight. These bars (not to be confused with sway bars) are especially important with smaller, more light-weight tow vehicles with a short wheel base or when a longer trailer is being pulled.

Gooseneck or Bumper Pull? Congratulations, you made it through the worst of the math and motor vehicle terminology part of this article. Now on to the fun parts. Horse trailers come in two models: goosenecks and bumper pulls (also known as tag-alongs). There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you’re hauling more than two horses, a gooseneck trailer is the better way to go. While they have a smaller turning radius than a bumper pull and offer more space for sleep and feed, they are generally more expensive than a bumper-pull trailer and require a pick-up truck for a towing vehicle.

For fewer than three horses, a bumper pull will suffice. These models are less expensive than goosenecks and can be pulled with either a car or pick-up truck meeting towing capacity requirements.

Both gooseneck and bumper-pull trailers come with either straight-load or slant-load options. Straight-load trailers allow the horse to stand looking forward while slant-load trailers position the horse’s head toward the side of the trailer. While some experts suggest that slant-load trailers are better for transporting three or more horses that are of smaller size, and straight-loads are better when transporting less than three horses of greater size, others say that this can be more a matter of a personal preference.

The experts agree, however, that having a functional, easy-to-use escape door and adequate stall room for the size horse you are transporting are both important. And that leads to one of the reasons people sometimes avoid slant loads: A problem with the middle horse can become a disaster quickly because you cannot easily access that horse or worse, a handler is trapped inside the trailer.

The Nuts & Bolts of Horse Trailer Construction: Any horse trailer represents a sizeable financial investment and, as a buyer, you will want to get the best that you can afford. Along with price, it’s important to consider the trailer’s weight and durability. You should also consider how well a trailer will withstand a panicky horse or, worst-case scenario, an accident. Additionally, you need to take into account weather and climate in your trailer construction decisions.

The bodies and chassis of horse trailers are made of steel, aluminum or a combination of the two. Steel provides the strongest material for trailer construction. Additionally, it yields to stress and is generally less expensive. However, steel has a bad reputation for rusting. Trailer manufacturers have attempted to resolve the rust problem by utilizing “galvanealed steel,” which is carbon-coated steel coated with zinc and heated to combine and form a zinc-iron alloy.

There exists a weight debate concerning steel versus aluminum trailers. Critics of steel trailers complain that they are heavier than aluminum ones, while critics of aluminum trailers dispute this. They claim that most aluminum used in horse trailers is only one-third as strong as steel and 70% the weight. In other words, the aluminum in a horse trailer must be three times thicker to match the strength of steel and this would end up weighing as much or more than a steel trailer.

Featherlite, a maker of aluminum trailers, calls this a myth and says that the aluminum alloy used to construct their trailers is substantially stronger than pure aluminum. More aluminum is used, but the result is still a trailer that weighs on average 10 to 15 percent less than a trailer made of steel.

Aluminum trailers have the advantage of not rusting, but they do corrode, especially when they come in contact with horse urine and manure. Trailers with aluminum construction may not be as strong as steel trailers. They provide less “give” and tend to be more brittle. Additionally, some report that welding and repair of aluminum can be more difficult than such repairs made to steel. The pro-aluminum camp disagrees and says that aluminum welding and repair has become just as easy as that of steel. Both steel and aluminum are strong heat conductors, which can add heat to the inside of the trailer.

Most high-end trailers are constructed with a hybrid of steel and aluminum and possess the advantages of both. Steel may be used for the frame and chassis while aluminum is utilized for the exterior and flooring. Experts report that trailers of hybrid construction compare more favorably to all-aluminum trailers for weight and are actually stronger.

One concern about steel-aluminum trailers is that corrosion will result with direct steel-to-aluminum contact. Most trailer manufacturers are aware of this and use Mylar padding or protective coatings on places where the aluminum and steel come in contact.

Flooring: The floor of your horse trailer is another area of safety concern. One of a horse owner’s worst nightmares is the catastrophic failure of a trailer floor while a horse is in transit. In most cases, by the time the driver realizes that the floor has given way, the horse has been dragged enough of a distance that serious damage has been done to it and euthanasia is not an uncommon outcome.

Today’s horse trailer floors are usually constructed of wood or aluminum. Wooden floors are generally made of treated wood such as Douglas Fir or pine. Wooden boards should be at the very least two inches thick and six inches to 12 inches wide (wider boards provide greater strength than thinner boards). Plywood is never acceptable for a horse-trailer floor. The boards are then reinforced with steel braces underneath. The advantages of wooden trailer floors are that they provide slightly more “give” and that repairing and replacing the wood is easier and less costly than aluminum.

The obvious disadvantage of wooden floors is that they can rot, especially in hot, rainy climates. As a general rule, you should expect to replace a wooden trailer floor at least once during the trailer’s lifetime. Cleaning and applying a water repellant may help prolong its life. It’s important to periodically check the condition of a wooden trailer floor for rotting by pulling up the mats and visually inspecting the floor (including the underside) and by probing the wood with a sharp knife or screwdriver to test for soft spots, signs of dampness, mold or insect damage.

Aluminum floors, in comparison to wooden floors, are lighter, rust- and rot-resistant and tend to last longer. However, corrosion has been reported as a problem with aluminum floors that have come in contact with urine and manure. Signs of aluminum corrosion include pitting and the presence of whitish powder on the surface. Extruded (molded) aluminum is considered to be stronger than wood or aluminum sheets.

Floors that are constructed with sheets of aluminum do not allow for urine drainage, which could contribute to corrosion. In comparison, floors made with planks of extruded aluminum with spacing in between allow for greater urine drainage. While aluminum has its advantages, it can make for a noisy ride. It can also be slippery and a strong conductor of heat. Thus, the use of rubber mats along with bedding on an aluminum floor is important.

Trailer manufacturers are also touting the advent of newer floor materials and coatings designed to minimize the rot and corrosion problems of wood and aluminum floors respectively. A material known as Rumber is now showing up in trailers around the country. Rumber is 60% recycled rubber and 40% recycled plastic. The rubber and plastic are melted down and molded (extruded) into planks or sheets for trailer flooring. Rumber floors provide easy cleaning by simply hosing them out. The disadvantage of Rumber floors is that if they are not grooved, they can be quite slippery. Some people have reported that Rumber grooves tend to wear down quickly. Additionally, Rumber can add considerable weight to the trailer. There are questions about its ability to hold large amounts of weight without warping or splitting. An additional concern is that Rumber is highly flammable.

Another invention to help aluminum floors resist corrosion are floor coatings. Polylast is made of recycled rubber and is often used on playgrounds and running tracks. Some aluminum trailer owners are getting it applied to floors (it is sprayed or poured on). When it dries, this material protects the floor yet is porous to allow for drainage. Critics of Polylast have commented that the small pores in its surface collect dirt and debris which are not easily removed and that chunks of it may chip off.

Another trailer floor coating being advertised is WERM (which stands for We Eliminate Rubber Mats). WERM floors are completely non-porous so urine and manure cannot seep into the floor beneath. WERM must be trowled on by a trained WERM dealer and costs around $10 to $13 per square foot. It’s important to note that neither Polylast nor WERM can be removed once applied to a trailer floor.

Most trailer owners use rubber mats on their floors to protect them and to provide traction for their horses. Rubber mats are available at many farm supply stores. They can be cut to size, installed over any floor, are water-proof and relatively inexpensive. However, most rubber mat users use a coating of bedding to soak up urine and manure. Mats will wear out and are extremely heavy.

When considering the floor of your horse trailer, remember that eternal vigilance is the price of your horse’s safety. Clean your trailer floors after each use. Take mats out at least once or twice a year and pressure wash the floor. Frequently inspect the floor inside (especially in corners and around edges where urine tends to collect) and on the underside to look for signs of corrosion, rot or damage. Don’t delay corrective repairs. Your horse’s life could depend on it.

Them’s The Brakes: Another essential safety feature of a horse trailer are the brakes. Horse trailers have been made with two kinds of brakes: electric and hydraulic. These days, electric brakes are more common and are activated when the driver steps on the brakes in the vehicle pulling the trailer. In a situation where the driver needs to correct a swaying trailer without applying the brakes of the towing vehicle, a control box on the dashboard within the driver’s reach can be activated to regain control of the trailer.

Hydraulic brakes operate when the tow vehicle slows down and the trailer pushes up from behind. It’s important to know that some states prohibit the use of hydraulic horse trailer brakes. This is particularly true if the trailer is classified as commercial.

Most horse trailers also have a breakaway brake, which is a separate braking device found on the trailer coupler. The breakaway brake takes over by releasing a pin if the trailer disconnects from the towing vehicle. This brake is battery operated and, to be legal, the battery must be charged and able to operate the trailer brakes for 15 minutes. Breakaway brakes are standard on most horse trailers. Newer models come with rechargeable batteries. All commercial trailers are required by law to have breakaway brakes, and 17 states require them on privately owned horse trailers. Believe it or not, there are some people who will pull a horse trailer without brakes. Not only is this a potential formula for disaster for the horse in the trailer, but also for other motorists on the road. Those who make the choice to haul a horse trailer without brakes run the risk of incurring a stiff fine if caught and greater liability in the event of an accident.

Safety chains are an additional protective device in case your trailer comes off the ball mount. Currently, 46 states require safety chains for bumper-pull trailers, and 29 states require them for goosenecks.

State and federal regulations have been enacted to protect motorists. Before you get on the road with a horse trailer, be sure to check with your state’s department of motor vehicles to see what the law requires for your horse trailer while traveling intrastate. Check with the federal Department of Transportation if you plan interstate travel as there could be additional legal requirements.

Cushioning the Ride: Riding in a horse trailer can be a tiring and stressful experience for your horse who must constantly balance itself through speed changes and turns. Your trailer’s suspension system plays an important role in making the ride easier on your horse.

There are two types of suspension systems: the older spring torsion suspension system and the newer rubber torsion suspension system. Rubber suspension greatly reduces the amount of shock your horse has to absorb. An additional bonus is that these systems will maintain the trailer on three wheels until you can get to a safe place to pull over if you get a flat. If you have a trailer with the older spring suspension system, be sure to check all bolts, links and other parts of it for signs of wear and tear.

Ramp or Step Up: Horses are naturally leery of dark, cramped spaces that don’t allow for their innate tendency to flee from danger. So asking any horse to happily walk into something that amounts to a foreboding tin can on wheels can present a challenge. One bad experience with a trailer is often not easily forgotten. That’s why it’s best to make taking that first step into the trailer as easy and inviting to your horse as possible.

Most experts believe that a trailer with a ramp is preferable to a step-up trailer. Horses can easily get a foot caught beneath the horse trailer if stepping in or backing out of a trailer without a ramp. Having said that, a ramp must be stable, should extend across the entire width of the back of the trailer, should have a gentle slope angle, and the surface should not be slippery. If you choose a step-up trailer, consider one that has enough room that allows your horse to turn around and exit the trailer head first rather than backward. For the sake of your back, make sure the trailer gate has functioning spring hinges and that it is light enough for you to lift without risking injury.

The Horse Trailer Interior: The first thing to consider when examining the inside of a horse trailer is whether its size is appropriate for your horse. The stall area should be big enough to allow your horse to keep its balance by moving its legs forward and sideways without relying on the trailer walls or dividers for support. A trailer that is too narrow and trailers with dividers that extend from floor to ceiling may cause your horse to panic from losing his balance.

The height of the trailer is another important consideration. Typical trailer heights run from 7 feet to 7 feet 6 inches. If your horse is taller than 15.3 hands, you should have a trailer with a height of 7'4" to 7' 6". Your horse should have sufficient head room to be able to stretch and nibble hay from a hay net or to lower his head to snort to clear the respiratory system from dust.

Carefully inspect the inside of any horse trailer for sharp edges or protrusions that could injure your horse. Most trailers come with windows, and many have drop-down windows to allow for better ventilation. Make sure that a trailer with drop-down windows have bars and screens on them to protect your horse from flying road debris.

Trailers should have dividers, walls, butt and breast bars padded with durable vinyl. Butt bars should have easy lock and release mechanisms to facilitate entry and exit. Many models have removable dividers to allow extra space for a larger horse. A few models offer mangers, but these should be considered with caution as horse have been known to get their front legs in them with disastrous results. Adequate interior lighting is also important. Wireless surveillance cameras are a good idea so that you can keep a watchful eye on your horse during the trip.

Storage is always an issue, but not at the expense of your horse's health. (Thinkstock)

Storage is always an issue, but not at the expense of your horse's health. (Thinkstock)

The Trailer Exterior: Outward appearance isn’t the only thing to consider when buying a trailer. Examine the trailer for scratches, dents, paint chipping, rust and corrosion – even on new trailers. Check all the doors to see if they close easily and completely. Inspect the quality of the latches for sturdiness. Look for signs of leakage around windows as well as the roof. Examine the coupler and jack to make sure they work and are free from rust and corrosion. Check the breakaway brake battery to see that it is fully charged and operable. Look to see the number and placement of tie rings on the side of the trailer. Check out the lights to make sure they work.

Dressing Room: One very handy option provided by most trailer manufacturers is a dressing room. These are invaluable for storing tack, grooming supplies and your riding wardrobe. Most come with carpeted floors and walls, saddle and bridle racks and blanket racks. Some models come with the option of a water tank as well as a door leading directly into the horse’s stall area.

Be careful, though, as you may find a dressing room limits the way a horse can stretch his head, just as a manger would. This might be more of a concern for large horses. An option might be an extended-front trailer where the storage area doesn’t have a wall that separates the cargo from the horses (you obviously have to secure the cargo). An extended-front trailer is longer than a two-horse standard but not usually as long as a trailer with a dressing room.

What about Stock Trailers? Where once upon a time stock trailers conjured up images of animals crammed into a rusted out and barely road-worthy vehicle, today’s trailer manufacturers now offer stock trailers that are suitable for safe and comfortable horse transportation. They are constructed with the same materials (steel, aluminum) that horse trailers are made of but are generally less expensive. Additionally, many have some of the same features as horse trailers: dividers, butt and breast bars, ramps and dressing rooms.

Stock trailers generally have slatted, open sides. These can be fitted with Plexiglass to enclose them. Since stock trailers are often built with less height than horse trailers, if you are considering one of these, make sure that the model you pick has adequate head room. A new stock trailer, depending on the make, model and features will typically run between $4,000 to $14,000.

New or Used Trailer? There’s no getting around it. Buying a brand new trailer is going to set you back several thousands of dollars. New two-horse bumper pull trailers run in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000. New goosenecks, depending on the size, manufacturer and features can run from $25,000 to $100,000. You’ll need to give careful consideration to your budget and whether you wish to make a down payment and finance it or buy it outright. There are advantages of buying a new rather than a used trailer such as manufacturer warranties and the comfort of purchasing from a reputable dealer who will stand behind his product and be knowledgeable when it comes to maintenance and repairs.

However, there are good used horse trailers out there as well. Be a careful and judicious buyer and don’t be afraid to ask questions and expect honest answers in return. Be aware that there are no Lemon Laws where used horse trailers are concerned. If the used trailer that you’re considering is in need of repairs, determine whether the cost of the repairs will exceed the value of the trailer. Find out if the seller is willing to take into account the cost of the repairs you will have to make to the trailer with the price.

Older trailer often had fully open backs, but you do want an option for closing them when necessary. (Thinkstock)

Older trailer often had fully open backs, but you do want an option for closing them when necessary. (Thinkstock)

Do your homework before you buy. Here are some of the things you should check for:

1) Evidence of rust, corrosion, dents or scratches. Give the trailer a thorough inspection, including the undercarriage, all connections and joints, the ramp and coupler. Look for evidence of paint touch-ups. It’s a good idea to ask the seller if the trailer has been repainted or had any rust or corrosion treatments.

2) Pay careful attention to the flooring. Remove the mats and check for corrosion in an aluminum floor or rotting in a wood one. Look for signs of moisture and ask the seller if the floors have ever been replaced. Again, don’t just look at the top of the flooring. Get underneath the trailer to check out the condition of the floor and its support system.

3) Leakage: Ask the seller if the trailer has had any leakage problems but do your own inspection by looking at the roof, window and door seals and caulking. Check the dressing room carpet for stains.

4) Tires: Check for signs of tire wear, cracking or worn treads. Also look at the spare. Ask the seller when the tires were last replaced and how many miles they have on them.

5) The Interior: Check for any damage to the interior of the trailer such as dents or torn padding. Look for sharp edges or other defects that could injure your horse. Check for rusty or corroded dividers, breast and butt bars. Test them out to make sure they work properly. Inspect the ramp for mats, stability and that it latches completely and securely.

6) Inspect the coupler system, the jack, battery, safety chains and hooks to make sure they are free from rust and working properly. Inquire about the suspension system (torsion or spring?) as well as the brakes (electric or hydraulic). Inspect the axles for rust or damage.

7) Check that all the lights work.

8) Ask the seller about any repairs or maintenance that the trailer has undergone. A seller should be willing to show you receipts and documentation concerning the trailer’s history of maintenance and repairs.

9) And finally here’s a vitally important detail: Make sure the seller has clear title to the trailer! Ask to see it as well as the trailer’s registration and any financing documents. Don’t accept anything less or you could find the repo truck showing up at your barn and hauling away the trailer you thought was yours.

Bottom Line. I hope you’re as excited about getting on the road with your horse as I am. Though I haven’t actually bought the trailer of my dreams yet, I’m still looking. At the moment, I am leaning toward a reasonably priced, extra-large, straight-load, two-horse bumper pull with a ramp.

I prefer an aluminum trailer and would like one with a dressing room. Many people have told me not to worry about wooden floors, but having been to a horse show years ago where a horse en route was the victim of a collapsed wood floor, I’m not convinced that I want to trust wood to support my nearly one-ton Percheron. Of course, one Percheron might equal the weight of two Quarter Horses, but with the Percheron, the weight is intensified to one side.

A quality-made trailer that provides comfort for my horse as we hit the road is important. However, safety for everyone is most important of all. Each time we put a horse in a trailer that horse’s life is in our hands, and any accident with a horse can be dangerous for the handler as well.

Because it’s rarely cost-effective to purchase a trailer a long distance from your home, such as another state, choosing the “best” trailer brand is impossible to do fairly. We have also found that available trailer models and alos available shopsto repair them can vary, depending upon your locale. For instance, try finding a place to repair a steel trailer in New Egland. Or, in some areas, bumper pulls can be harder to find than goosenecks. It can all vary, depending on the area’s climate and the terrain. We’ve included a chart of our preferred features to help you with your decision.

Finally, as you know Horse Journal, which is part of The Equine Network, is often called the “Consumer Reports for horse people. Another Equine Network holding is U.S. Rider, which is often dubbed “The Triple A for horse people.” If you frequently travel with your horse, we would urge you to consider a membership to U.S. Rider, which will provide roadside assistance in the event of a breakdown while traveling with your trailer.

Horse Journal Recommendations on Trailer Features