Know What You Need In A Towing Vehicle

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Before you get out that checkbook for the down payment on your new towing vehicle, know what you’ll be towing, how often and under what conditions. You need to know if the vehicle has the weight and power to do the job — your specific job. You may need to consider a different vehicle if you only drive to the occasional show 10 miles away versus being on the road every weekend in every state in the Midwest.

Buying a vehicle that is not enough truck for pulling your horses and trailer presents safety and durability issues. If this vehicle is constantly being over stressed mechanically, something’s going to give.

On the flip side, why pay $40,000 or more for a big diesel, four-wheel-drive truck if you’re only pulling a small one- or two-horse trailer' A small truck, such as the 250 horsepower Dodge Dakota or an SUV (sport utility vehicle) might be all you need. If you’re also planning on using your new wheels for everyday driving, a huge dual-wheel truck might be a little tough to park in front of the dentist’s office.

You need to consider torque and horsepower, transmission, cooling system (it’s got to be heavy duty — period) and rear end. Tell the dealer how much weight you’ll be regularly towing up front so you don’t waste time looking at vehicles that won’t cut it. Now we’ll help you communicate your vehicle needs intelligently and accurately.

Load Weight
Towing vehicles have limits on how much they can safely pull, so the first step is to weigh your trailer — loaded in a typical manner. You don’t want the “tail wagging the dog” scenario, where the trailer dominates the towing vehicle.

If you already have a horse trailer, hook up to the vehicle you’re currently using. Load the horses. Also load any hay, tack, bedding and gear you would normally take with you.

Weigh your truck and trailer loaded (you may find truck scales in your Yellow Pages or talk to your feed store, which may have a scale), then go back home, unload and return to weigh just the truck. Subtract its weight from the total you recorded when the trailer was attached. This gives you a Maximum Loaded Trailer Weight, which you can check against truck capabilities in the dealer trailer-towing brochures, being sure to note whether you have a bumper pull or gooseneck. (If you don’t own the trailer yet, call the trailer dealer for its weight and grab a pencil, adding up the pounds you’ll carry.)

You’ll see terms on the dealer’s charts like Base Curb Weight, which is the empty weight of the vehicle itself. Cargo Weight consists of any optional equipment that has been added to your new vehicle, but it also includes anything that is placed inside the vehicle.

For example, passengers are figured into this weight. If you load six kids, a Great Dane, tack, and four bales of hay, you’re adding to the Cargo Weight. Even fuel factors in. Gasoline weighs six pounds per gallon. Do the numbers, and you can see how your Cargo Weight climbs.

All of this adds up to the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), which is what your fully loaded new vehicle would register if it were driven onto a scale. Each new vehicle will have a Safety Compliance Certification Label, which will show the maximum allowable weight, including passengers and cargo, that it can handle.

Gross Combination Weight (GCW) is the total of the loaded vehicle and loaded trailer. What all this leads up to is the grand finale — the Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR), which each towing vehicle has. It is, in simple terms, how much weight this vehicle can handle safely without the risk of costly damage. Every truck dealer we spoke with strongly cautioned that the GCW must never exceed the GCWR.

How Often, How Far and Where'
But we recommend you consider more than the GCWR, depending on your circumstances. If you occasionally go to a show 10 miles from your house via flat roads, you won’t need as much vehicle as you would if you were frequently traveling in the Rocky Mountains.

If you’re pulling distances, or it’s a tough haul and you travel at higher speeds, then you risk inflicting serious damage onto that big purchase if your vehicle isn’t equipped to handle it. We suggest you may want to purchase a vehicle that is capable of more than you want to haul, if you’re a frequent traveller. Excessive overloading, whether due to terrain, weight or wear-and-tear, can lead to mechanical breakdowns on the road or premature wearout, which can be costly to repair and extremely dangerous.

Transmissions
Standard versus automatic transmission is usually a matter of personal preference. However, automatic transmissions might allow a smoother ride for both you and your horses.

Standard transmissions are available as four, five and even six-speed options among the different makes.

Most drivers nowadays prefer an automatic transmission — some dealer’s lots don’t have many standard transmissions on hand anymore. Part of the reason is fewer people actually drive standard transmissions well. We’re not talking about actually making the vehicle “go.” We’re talking about the ability to shift gears smoothly without a marked hesitation/jerk when you shift, which will transfer right back to your trailer and give the horse an uncomfortable ride.

If you drive a standard shift well, you may find the transmission will last longer than an automatic. If you don’t, it won’t — and you’ll likely be replacing the clutch every 25,000 miles or so.

Two-Wheel vs. Four-Wheel Drive
Depending on your personal needs (if you’re not hauling in ice, snow, mud or on bad roads), a four-wheel drive vehicle might not be necessary. This can save you as much as $2,000 at the time of purchase. And, four-wheel drive units are heavier-weight trucks that will cost more at the fuel pump.

However, before you make your decision, remember that most horse competitions are held in fields, which can become muddy and slippery in rain, and many access roads are sloped gravel. Again, a situation could arise where four-wheel drive is a lifesaver.

Gone are the days when you had to get out of the truck to turn the wheel hubs before engaging the four-wheel drive. Most trucks allow you to simply flip a switch when you need it, and the four-wheel drive will engage. There are also vehicles that have an automatic 4x4 capability. This means whenever rear-wheel slippage is encountered, the 4x4 will kick in itself — making the decision for you.

Torque And Horsepower
Torque and horsepower are major factors. In simple terms, torque is what gets your load moving. Horsepower sustains it.

Torque is the measurement of power applied as a twisting force, which is transferred to the drive wheels. The more torque, the more strength, which makes it easier to start an object, such as a loaded truck and trailer, into motion.

Engines with higher torque output are desirable to allow the roll out of a load and take it up to a road speed as quickly as possible. Once the road speed is obtained, the engine’s horsepower is what maintains the vehicle that is set in motion.

Depending on what you haul and where, horsepower can be affected. For example, on the flatlands of the Midwest, as you pull your trailer you will enjoy your vehicle’s full horsepower and its capabilities. But, if you pull in high altitude, you can lose as much as 4% of horsepower for each 1,000 feet elevation you climb. Turbo diesels experience a minimal power loss, compared to gasoline engines at high altitude.

Diesel vs. Gas
Diesels are usually big trucks designed to pull large loads. They’ll cost you as much as $4,500 more at purchase but can offer a bit better fuel economy.

Diesel power is a growing trend with truck buyers. Gone are the days of light-built diesel engines that had premature breakdown problems. The new generation eng ines are available from all major truck makers today. These engines have been improved and designed to earn a good reputation from high-mileage users.

Diesel engines provide a lot of torque output at a lower RPM, which gives you the greatest power advantage when starting to roll out with a heavy pull, from the start of the load right up through gear-shift changes, as you obtain your highway speed.

However, gasoline-powered engines remain an excellent choice as well, especially for those who make frequent short trips. If you won’t be doing high-mileage daily driving, and heavy-load towing is not a regular full-time job requirement, a gas engine may be just fine for you.

Today’s fuel-injection gas engines offer improved fuel economy and performance, compared to years past. They provide quicker acceleration than diesel engines. That alone may be a deciding factor for buyers who use their light trucks for daily commutes on highways or freeways.

Rear Ends
Rear-end ratios are the final gearing options you have to transfer the engine’s power to the drive wheels. Your ratio choices are generally limited to two. The high-gear ratios (such as the 3:21, 3:55) and are desirable for daily commuting and light-load hauling because they yield the highest fuel economy.

However, some towing situations may require special consideration to selecting the lower geared rear end, such as a 4:10, to obtain the towing power for the make and model of your vehicle. The higher the ratio, the slower the wheel-turning speed will be, for each engine revolution, yielding more pulling power.

Wheel Base
Years ago, many considered wheel base a big issue, with numbers from 110 to 129 inches considered minimums by different manufacturers. Now, it’s less of a factor than the vehicle’s suspension (spring-carrying capacity), and many short-wheel-base vehicles have a capacity heavy enough to haul a two-horse trailer.

We recommend heavy-duty suspension, often part of your “towing package,” for horse trailers. We feel it’s important, especially for shorter vehicles, that they are equipped with a receiver hitch (which is attached to the frame of the vehicle, not a bumper), sway bars and load levelers. Indeed, load levelers can make a difference in how your rig handles, and your hitch-installer will instruct you on the adjustments for loaded or empty trailers.

Otherwise, if the manufacturer confirms that the vehicle is capable of hauling the weight you need — possibly with additional options — the wheel base has already been factored into the equation. All you have to decide is whether or not you like how the vehicle handles.

Bottom Line
Unfortunately, we can’t tell you which vehicle will best suit you. We can stress that you must not underestimate the weight of your trailer and cargo. And, of course, we all know how bad most of us are at guessing our horses’ actual body weights.

If you get out your pen and pad, our information should help you avoid a mistake. Know what to consider. It will also help you compare vehicles and realize there can indeed be quite a difference among them. Your towing vehicle is a big investment. The safety of you and your horse literally rides on it.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Horsepower/Torque."
Click here to view "Towing Capacity Maximums At A Glace."
Click here to view "Unloaded Trailer Weights."
Click here to view "Truck Capacities."