Choosing the Right Horse Trailer

Ready to hit the road with your horse? Choosing the right trailer and accessories is essential for smooth sailing. In this guide, we'll teach you about trailer construction, safety innovations and luxury living.
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Ready to hit the road with your horse? Choosing the right trailer and accessories is essential for smooth sailing. In this guide, we'll teach you about trailer construction, safety innovations and luxury living.

Ins and Outs
If you've ever had a horse that's hard to load or unload, you know what a difference some trailer features can make. And when you're thinking about a new trailer, loading and unloading with ease and safety may be a central consideration, in addition to the trailer's configuration and capacity. Taking a few minutes to consider the pros and cons of each can pay off in the long haul.

Step-Up. Traditional straight-load, step-up trailers can work well for loading, but may present challenges when unloading. Most require a horse to back out, and as he does, his hind legs can easily slip underneath a step-up trailer, especially if he scrambles backward on slick footing. And searching for the ground behind him while unloading can cause a horse to panic or develop a long-term phobia, especially from high-floored trailers. It's possible to add a ramp to some step-up trailers.

According to the experts, straight-load and slant-load trailers each have their own advantages. | Photo courtesy of Featherlite Trailers

According to the experts, straight-load and slant-load trailers each have their own advantages. | Photo courtesy of Featherlite Trailers

Loading Ramp. A ramp can make unloading easier, but slick, steep ramps can also cause a horse to slip and panic, so shop for one that's long enough to offer a low, gradual slope, has a sturdy, non-slip surface, and is easy to lift, assisted by springs.

At a Slant. In many slant-load trailers, horses can be turned around inside and led out head-first, easing some of those loading and unloading headaches. The slant-load design allows more horses to fit into a shorter trailer, and two-horse and three-horse slant-loads with dressing rooms are popular among recreational riders. However, if a horse in the front stall has a problem, the horse(s) behind him must be unloaded to reach him, unless there's a front- or side-load ramp, too.

Straight Shot. In a two-horse straight-load trailer, either horse can be unloaded without removing the other. Also, straight-load trailers can give a horse more stall length to extend his neck. Federal law limits trailer width to 102 inches (8 1/2 feet), so slant-loads can't provide as much stall length, a problem for large horses.

A Question of Comfort
Do horses travel more comfortably and safely in straight-load or slant-load trailers? Expert opinions vary. Several companies, including Sooner, Sundowner, Elite, Featherlite, Hart and CM Trailers, offer both designs--although many customers reportedly prefer the slant-loads.

However, Tom and Neva Kittrell Scheve, authors of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining and Servicing a Horse Trailer, and Chris Barr, president of Brenderup Real Trailers Inc., contend that a straight-load design is better for horses. "In addition to shorter stall space, a slant-load requires a horse to balance himself with his right front and left hind legs when accelerating or decelerating, causing fatigue, soreness, and even lameness over time," says Tom Scheve. "Straight stalls allow him to use both front and hind legs evenly."

Two or Three? Unless you're on the show circuit hauling multiple horses, you're probably looking for a two- or three-horse trailer. Choose carefully based on your needs and your tow vehicle's capacity. "There's a huge difference between a two-horse and a three-horse trailer," says Tom Scheve. "We believe that hauling three horses really necessitates a gooseneck-style trailer to better balance and handle the weight. A three-horse trailer is substantially longer, wider, and heavier--not counting the extra horse's 900 to 1,500 pounds--so you also need a larger, heavier, stronger tow vehicle."

Going Solo. One-horse trailers are also an option. Brenderup Real Trailers offers lightweight Euro-style single-horse trailers designed to be towed by vehicles that Americans don't typically think of as hauling vehicles, including passenger cars. Brenderup Vice President Simon Barr says, "It's so common to see a two-horse trailer with only one horse inside. For those who aren't concerned about extra space for a second horse they don't have, a one-horse trailer is ideal."

Creature Comforts
Modern trailers are generally much larger than their predecessors, offering light, roomy interiors at least 6 feet wide and more than 7 feet high compared to the old 5-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall trailers. But what goes into the design--from ease of use to safety--can make a big difference in day-to-day operation. A few details to consider:

Windows Within Reach. With such tall trailers, some door and window latches can be hard to reach. Sundowner has addressed the problem by moving handles from the top to the bottom of its drop-down head doors for quicker access to the horses inside.

Safer Latches. Smooth latches--such as the "slam latch" found in Exiss trailers--and handles that fold flush to the surface have improved access door and divider safety.

Secure Locks. Many door handles now have deadbolt locks, but they should never be used on horse doors while hauling horses. The need for keys can greatly slow rescue crews in an accident. However, deadbolts are great protection against theft on tack room and dressing room doors.

Safer, Larger Vents. Larger, better-positioned vents and larger windows with safety screens have improved ventilation.

Floor Space and Feedbags. Many trailer models have abandoned the traditional fixed manger. Though you can still find them in some new trailers, you may want to look for breakaway breast bars, which allow floor space for a horse to balance. Removable fabric or vinyl feed bags replace the often-dusty fixed mangers.

Inviting Interiors. Many modern straight-load trailers also have done away with fixed interior posts and dividers. With removable rear posts and dividers that swing to the side, trailers are safer and appear more open, encouraging reluctant loaders.

Safe and Smooth
Safety is a key concern for any horse owner, and new trailers offer features from smooth-as-silk suspension to technology that helps you keep an eye on your horses in transit.

Smooth Rider. Almost all trailers now use rubber torsion suspension, also known as "rubber ride" axles, for silky-smooth road performance and independent suspension at each wheel, a benefit in case of a flat tire. There have been some new developments in "air ride" suspension, but because of the expense and installation, it's generally only available on van-sized trailers for six to 12 horses.

Video-Monitoring Systems. This eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head technology can make trailering safer and easier. A visual monitor allows the tow-vehicle driver to see the horses in the trailer, or to see the ball and coupler when hooking up. A good system will cost $600 and up, but can be worth every penny if it helps avert disaster on the road.

Bright Ideas. Another innovation toward road safety is the new LED (light emitting diode) lights that are replacing bulb lights for trailer turn signals, brake lights and running lights. They're much brighter, last longer, burn cooler and use less power.

Balanced Loads. Today, you'll see sport utility vehicles used to haul horses, but their relatively light weight and short wheel bases make them more likely than heavy-duty pickup trucks to be unbalanced and overwhelmed by a horse trailer's weight. A weight distribution system (often mistakenly called "sway bars") helps spread and balance the load, which increases the vehicle's safe towing capacity and prevents its front end from floating. EquiSpirit Trailer Company installs weight distribution brackets as standard equipment on all trailer tongues to encourage use of weight distribution systems.

Luxury Living
If your budget allows, a little luxury can go a long way toward making life on the road more comfortable.

Walk-In Wonders. Check out the spacious walk-in tack and dressing rooms offered on many trailers. Floors are covered in sturdy, non-slip mats or durable, low-weave carpet, and safety-tipped bridle brackets and hooks are plentiful. Swivel-style blanket bars swing out for easy use and back against walls for storage. Saddle racks utilize the stacking system to keep the bulkiest items in a tidy vertical column, and often slide on their frames and are removable for easier cleaning.

Space You Can Live With. If year-round competition or an equine business takes you and your horses on the road, consider a trailer with living quarters. You can cook a meal, take a shower, kick back under an awning, watch a DVD, and get a good night's sleep without leaving the show grounds.

In-Slide-Out. Most living-quarter trailers now offer the option of "slide-outs." When the trailer is parked, these side-to-side wall extensions increase interior space without making the trailer longer. Sooner focuses on the premium and custom market, but sister company Exiss Trailers also offers slide-outs in the mid-range aluminum market.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Horse & Rider magazine.

Ready to look for a trailer? Search Horse Trailers For Sale on Equine.com, the Equine Network's premier classifieds site.