Straight Talk About Trailering Your Horse

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Hauling horses is an on-going discussion. The trailer market has changed dramatically in the last 15 years and continues to evolve. Designers continue to experiment with ideas for equine health and safety. Is a slant-load better' Aluminum' Steel' New' Used' What about the new technologies'

Joining us for the discussion are trailer designers Neva and Tom Scheve of North Carolina, authors of the excellent book The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining and Servicing a Horse Trailer (Howell Book House, NY, 1998).

Horse Journal: What are the merits of steel vs. aluminum trailers' Along with style, it’s probably the first decision a prospective buyer considers. Aluminum, of course, took the industry by storm over a decade ago, thanks to those searching for lighter weight and a rust-free material. Is the steel trailer extinct' Is there a greater margin of safety in one over the other'

Neva: There are no statistics kept by any agency about the safety of trailers for horses. There are no “crash” tests done by any manufacturer or independent agency. As long as a horse trailer conforms to road safety standards, any manufacturer can sell their trailer with no responsibilities to the safety or comfort of the horse.

Tom: Because those old steel trailers rusted out so badly, the fear of rust caused the aluminum trailer market to soar. But steel is the strongest metal available for the price, and that is why cars are made of steel. There have been improvements in the steel industry, and rust is not as much of a factor as it used to be.

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HJ: Is there a turnaround in the trend toward aluminum'

Tom: There are new technologies on the market that blend the advantages of both materials. Today, people don’t really have to choose one over the other. In the past steel would rust out, but now the new technologies include superior products such as galvanized steel, coat steel, hybrid trailers. Even stainless steel is seen, a very flashy look, though it is expensive and shows fingerprints. Now that we have non-rusting steel, aluminum, in my opinion, is no longer the best option. It makes the aluminum frame, at three times the cost of a steel frame, less attractive.

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HJ: But what about the weight issue'

Neva: As far as aluminum having the advantage of light weight, one has to compare apples to apples. I have two pipes that I use in my seminars that were given to me by a customer who is an engineer at an independent testing laboratory. One pipe is made of steel and the other, aluminum. The aluminum pipe is twice as thick as the steel pipe. As he explained to me, if the aluminum pipe was hit with the same amount of force that would bend the steel pipe, the aluminum pipe would break. The pipes are very close to the same weight, and if the aluminum pipe were to have equal impact strength it would have to be three times as thick as the steel pipe — and then it would be heavier than the steel pipe. So what’s the advantage'

Tom: The weight (of steel vs. aluminum) would be pretty darn close, especially on a two-horse trailer. For the sorts of stresses horses put on a trailer, I’d want a material that would o bend rather than rip or tear.

Neva: I believe that the trailer should be strong enough to hold up to the wear and tear of the largest horse that will be hauled in it, and it should hold up in an accident as well as a car. By using a hybrid construction, the trailer can have the strength of steel in the frame, and aluminum and Fiberglas can be used in non-structural parts to make the trailer lighter.

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HJ: Are slant-load trailers still considered a trend, or are there real merits'

Neva: It depends. Larger horses have the harder time in slant-load trailers. For horses, the most important criteria for a stress-free trailer are room, light, ventilation, and safety in design. Most slant-load stalls are too short for larger horses or shorter horses who have long bodies.

Traveling with a nose in one corner and tail in the other corner does not allow enough room for the horse to carry its body in a normal position and to use its head and neck for balance. Consequently, soreness (that may not be readily detected — except when it becomes a behavior problem) to outright lameness can develop. This is more likely the longer the trip.

Even for smaller horses, the unequal balance can cause problems. Each time the trailer stops, the horse must brace on the right leg and shoulder. Each time the trailer accelerates, the horse must brace on the left hind leg. The smaller the horse, the more easily he can move around in the stall to accommodate his balance.

Slant stalls are designed to put a particular number of horses into a trailer, not to make him comfortable. When a horse has enough room to pick his own balance, he may stand on a slant, but he is able to move around to choose which position is more comfortable to him. (Never let a horse loose in a trailer, unless there are built-in box stalls and the trailer is balanced for it.) For anyone who still insists on a slant-load, they should make sure there is access to each horse and a single or double front unload ramp.

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HJ: What about used trailers' What are the first things to break down'

Tom: Since most used trailers are steel, it’s a good idea to check the steel supports under the floor for rust. And be sure there are enough supports 18 to 20 inches on center — where the horse stands. You may have to go to a welding shop and weld in some extra supports.

Used all-aluminum trailers, especially older ones, should be checked over for stress fractures in the frame and floor supports, and the welds should be intact. The floor should be checked for corrosion. Check where the axles and coupler are attached to the frame to make sure that bolts have not worn loose.

Neva: Tires may be the first thing to go. Dry rot can set in before the tire shows a lot of wear. If the tires have worn unevenly, there may be some problem with the axles. Or the previous owner may not have had the trailer properly hitched. Or the tires may not have equal or ideal air pressure. All moving and mechanical parts should be checked. Brakes and the emergency breakaway brake should be in working order. Sometimes they are just out of adjustment and can be easily fixed Look inside the coupler. There could be enough wear that the ball could be too loose when the trailer is hooked up.

With floors, rust and corrosion to the support beams can be a problem but, as Tom mentioned, can be fixed. Rotten wood floors are easy to replace. Wood offers a softer support to the horses’ legs and does not conduct heat from the road into the trailer. If rust is not too bad, a steel trailer can be repaired rather easily. An aluminum trailer will be more expensive to fix, and if the frame is bent, it may not be able to be put back to its original strength. Most used trailers can be restored to satisfactory condition, but sometimes it may cost more than the trailer is worth.

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HJ: How does stall width/length factor into enough space for the horse to ride comfortably'

Neva: Comparing straight-loads to slant is difficult because there are so many inadequate trailers of both styles on the market. When the horse has enough room to feel non-claustrophobic in a straight-load, most traveling and loading problems disappear after a while. Most horses have learned behaviors from previous trailering experiences. A horse that leans can learn to stand on his own if he is given enough room to figure it out. The suspension is also important to the horse. If the slant-load has rubber torsion suspension, the horse may haul better in it than a straight-load with drop-leaf suspension.

Width is just as important as length. The horse must be able to spread his legs for balance. Most people concentrate on height, and even though this is very important, length and width may be even more important.

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HJ: Many people think a tight trailer helps the horse stand up.

Neva: This is one of the most common misconceptions we hear. So many people say, “I have to have a full center divider because my horse scrambles.” We have to do some talking to convince them that the horse scrambles because he has a full center divider. If you look at any narrow trailer, the walls will be scratched up. Actually the width of a narrow trailer can be increased by using a partial center divider to give horses room to spread their legs. (Horses usually do not step on each other or kick each other. Plus, properly applied shipping boots or wraps can help the problem of minor injuries.)

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HJ: In tying the horse, we know horses need to lower their heads at times to blow dust and debris from their nasal passages, to ensure respiratory health. Is there a time factor when lowering the head becomes important'

Neva: For a healthy horse, the longer the trip, the more likely the horse will suffer enough stress to become ill, although there will be some stress even on a short trip if the ventilation is not adequate. A horse that suffers from any respiratory problems must be protected, even on shorter trips.

Tom: When you tie the horse, give him enough room to turn his head side to side, or cough, have a more natural neck position. That’s why mangers aren’t ideal in trailers. The hay is being breathed.

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HJ: How can buyers figure their tow-vehicle requirements'

Neva: Add it up. How much does the trailer weigh with the horses and equipment in it' The tow vehicle should be rated to pull the load. Engine size, axle ratio and transmission are used by the manufacturer to arrive at this rating. All manufacturers publish a trailer towing guide that should be available at the vehicle dealerships. No vehicle should be purchased without consulting it. Be aware, however, that these ratings are for boat trailers. Because horses are live, shifting weights, there are extra demands for pulling a horse trailer. Not having an adequate towing vehicle causes extra wear and tear on the vehicle, shortening its life, and more importantly, causes unsafe driving conditions.

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HJ: What kind of insurance do I need to carry on a trailer'

Neva: Most insurance companies include liability for the trailer when it is hooked up to your vehicle. Collision insurance may be added to your policy by informing your insurance company. For other situations, such as hauling someone else’s horse, you should talk to your insurance agent.

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HJ: If an owner doesn’t trailer more than once a month, is it better to pay someone else to haul your horse'

Neva: This can be a satisfactory solution as long as the other person has a safe trailer and is available. If the person is a professional, do they have adequate insurance if your horse is injured or killed' Have a signed agreement of responsibility or be prepared to sign a waiver.

If the person is a friend make a signed agreement before the horse ever gets into the trailer. Decide beforehand (in writing) what will happen if your horse is hurt in the trailer and/or if your horse damages the horse trailer.

Tom: I want to stress a point about emergencies. If you have a colicky horse, it’s real hard to get someone to haul you at three in the morning. Anyone who owns a horse really should have a trailer or at least have a pre-arranged plan with someone who does if an emergency arises.

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HJ: How practical is it to get a new tow vehicle and rent a trailer'

Neva: This can be a problem. Your trailer must be connected to the tow vehicle exactly right. It must be level. Your brakes and lights must be in perfect order. It is not always possible to rent a trailer that hooks up the way it should. The trailer must also be safe for your horse, and you have to trust that the trailer has been properly maintained.