You can haul your horse all year long, even in the dead of winter, as long as you do so safely. Here, I'll first tell you how to ready your rig for winter hauling. Then I'll go over how to help keep your equine friend comfortable when you haul him in winter conditions. Finally, I'll give you six ways to ease trailer-loading in snow and ice.
Note: You may wish to sign up for USRider Equestrian Motor Plan, which covers both your towing vehicle and your trailer, and will help you find a safe place for your horse, in an emergency. (USRider is a sister company of The Trail Rider and EquiSearch.com.)
Ready Your Rig
Before you set out with your horse in tow, you need to ready your rig for winter conditions. Here's how.
- Apply reflective decals. Apply extra reflective decals on the back and sides of your trailer, so that other drivers can see your rig in poor conditions. One good source for trailer decals is Caution Horses Safety Products.
- Invest in good tires. Invest in quality tires for your entire rig. Check tire pressure before every trip; comply with the manufacturer's recommendations.
- Check all lights. Recruit an assistant to help you check all lights on your towing vehicle and trailer. Replace any non-functioning lights.
- Carry chains. Keep quality chains handy if snow and ice are significant enough to use them. Check your state's chain requirements. Generally, if you have to chain up the drive axle of your towing vehicle, you should have chains on the trailer as well.
- Top off the fuel tank. And don't let your fuel tank get below a half-tank. If you'll be driving in remote areas, carry extra fuel.
- Top off the windshield-wiper fluid. And make sure the windshield wipers are working. Place a long-handled windshield scraper in your vehicle.
- Comply with local brake laws. Every state has its own laws related to trailer brakes. To find out the laws in your state, consult AAA's website.
- Turn off the Jake brake. Engine brakes are wonderful for towing vehicles — they do a fantastic job slowing the rig to minimize brake wear under dry conditions. But a diesel engine's compression-release engine brake (also referred to by the brand name Jacob's brake, or Jake brake) can lead to a jackknife if used in slick road conditions, since they slow your towing vehicle first.
- Sync the brakes. Make sure the trailer brakes complement the brakes of your towing vehicle. When you're on a steep downhill in slick conditions, you might need to slow the trailer with brakes greater than your vehicle's brakes.
Consult the manufacturer's instructions. Generally, brakes are best set on dry, flat ground at a slow speed and need to be adjusted for the load. Position the electronic brake so you can manually engage it via the thumb control.
- Turn off cruise control. If you get into a slide, the precious second or two that it takes to turn off the cruise control may doom your chances of maintaining control.
- Weight your towing vehicle. If you'll be towing an empty trailer, note that it'll jackknife more easily than a loaded one. For better control, place concrete blocks or bags of sand into the back of your truck to add weight over the rear axle.
Pack cold-weather gear. For the horses, pack extra hay and at least 10 gallons of water (non-frozen). For you, carry a cell phone with charger, emergency blankets, jackets, high-energy snack foods, and a thermos of hot drink, in case your towing vehicle or trailer breaks down and you need to wait roadside for help.
Keep Him Comfortable
Here's how to help keep your horse comfortable while hauling him in the winter.
- Provide good-quality hay. Even in really cold weather, horses create more heat than you think they do. The best way to keep your horse warm in the trailer is to provide good-quality hay.
- Watch over-blanketing. It's easy to over-blanket your horse. Most trailers are poorly ventilated, so they tend to get very warm with body heat, even in below-freezing temperatures. A light sheet or blanket is sufficient for most horses.
- Apply leg protection. Apply leg protection, such as polo wraps or shipping boots. In winter, it's especially important to protect your horse's precious lower legs from slips and kicks.
- Increase ventilation. Humidity and condensation buildup from your horse's breath can cause respiratory illness. Improve the indirect ventilation in your trailer to counteract this risk.
- Avoid drafts. That said, make sure that there are no direct drafts hitting your horse, especially on his face and eyes. Freezing-cold temperatures with wind can result in damaged corneas from frostbite.
- Monitor your horse. On the road, check your horse frequently. If there's sweat under the blanket, he's cooking inside. If he's clipped and lacks natural insulation, carefully monitor him for sweat or shivering.
Here are six ways to ease trailer-loading in snow and ice.
- Train your horse. Prior preparation and good training are important to make sure your horse is a good loader; if he rushes in or out, he can easily slip.
- Wear good boots. Slipping, falling or breaking a limb is really a downer on your planned trip. Find good-quality boots that will keep your feet warm, protect your feet, and provide good traction.
- Lay in supplies. Keep sand/shavings/salt and a broom/shovel in the trailer so that if you must load in icy conditions, you can minimize the chance of injury.
- Find traction. Park so that the trailer's ramp is positioned on the best traction you can find. Dirt is preferred, but snow is better than ice or asphalt.
- Check the trailer stalls. Check the inside of the trailer. Frozen urine and manure are slippery. A fall inside the trailer can lead to serious injury and even death.
- Create an inviting environment. Put fresh hay in the bags and a little grain in the manger. Open the doors and windows, so there's plenty of light. The more inviting you make the trailer's interior, the more likely your horse will feel confident enough to step in.
Rebecca Gimenez, PhD (animal physiology), is a primary instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. A Major in the United States Army Reserve, she's a decorated Iraq War veteran and a past Logistics Officer for VMAT-2. She's an invited lecturer on animal-rescue topics around the world and is a noted equine journalist.