Tire blow-outs on horse trailers are common. Tire blow-outs on your horse trailer can and do happen to anyone, but they can be especially dangerous when you're hauling a horse trailer.
If you've ever stood on the side of the interstate, close to the traffic lanes, and felt the terror of having vehicles and transfer trucks pass your horse trailer at 70 miles per hour, imagine how terrifying it is to the horses standing inside the horse trailer. They, too, hear the loud whoosh of passing traffic, and feel the shockwaves of air rocking their world.
It can happen without warning. You're driving a wee bit fast in a 65 mph zone on a four-lane highway hauling a bumper-pull trailer and two horses with your truck. Just as you drive under an overpass, a horrific "bam" shocks you into dropping your cell phone and grabbing the wheel with both hands. Milliseconds later you look in the rear-view mirror and realize the left rear tire on your trailer has blown.
Would you know how to safely react in this situation? While truck and trailer maintenance perhaps could have prevented the incident, how well prepared you are for the event can lessen the severity of the situation if and when a tire does blow.
Start by regularly checking your tires for appropriate tread depth, bubbles or misshapen areas on the surface and walls. Look for any evidence of the tire being cut or pierced by road debris. This is especially important if you use your trailer infrequently (less than once a month).
You can also help keep your tires in good condition by making sure when you turn that you take as much room as possible. That will prevent dragging a locked tire on pavement (especially with gooseneck trailers) and scraping the sides of the tire along the curb.
Keep a pressure gauge in the truck and use it to check the air pressure in the tires whenever you stop. Tires should be inflated to the level of pressure recommended by the tire manufacturer. Many people put less than the recommended amount of air in the tires for a smoother ride, but this is never a good idea for trailers.
"One-third of all our reported disablements are tire-related," reports Mark Cole, managing member of USRider.org. "Other than a small percentage of axle or bearing issues, flat tires represent almost all disablements relating to the trailer." Cole tracks this type of information for horse trailers as a part of the organization's business service to horse owners.
Can a blown tire cause a trailer accident? The good news is, rarely. The biggest contributor to turning a simple blown tire into a trailer accident is a mismatch between the size of the vehicle and the size and weight of the trailer.
Prevent That Blow-Out
Here are ways to prevent tire blow-outs and to keep you and your horses safe if one occurs.
- Practice good trailer maintenance (greased/packed wheel bearings, correct tire air pressure, working lights and brakes, no broken springs or bent axles, etc.).
- Drive the speed limit, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and be a defensive driver. Maintain your awareness of the position of other drivers. Stay in the right lane whenever possible to be able to quickly shift to the emergency lane.
- Weigh your loaded truck and trailer at a truck stop, then weigh just the truck and subtract to get the weight of the trailer. It may surprise you how heavy your trailer is with all your stuff in it. Use the appropriate vehicle for the trailer to be towed. It's better to oversize than undersize.
- Use high-quality tires that are correctly rated for the weight you are hauling.
- Rotate tires on the trailer as well as the truck regularly (every 5,000 miles of trailer usage, similar to recommendations for your vehicle).
- Consider putting a tire odometer on the trailer to keep track of the mileage between maintenance.
- Consider getting nitrogen in the tires for less heat buildup in the trailer and truck tires.
- Be sure to have good working lights and brakes on both the truck and the trailer.
- Teach your horses to be good travelers. Load a single horse on the left in a straight-load trailer to balance the weight on the crown of the road.
- Don't purchase single-axle trailers.
It is not so important that you be able to pull the trailer, but that your vehicle can stop the trailer. The weight, engine power, and torque of an appropriately sized vehicle are what allow you to control and counteract any sway or vibration of the trailer, especially if a tire blows out.
One big difference in hitching mechanisms is that much of the weight in a gooseneck trailer is on the hitch and rear axle of the towing vehicle. A bumper-pull trailer has less weight on the hitch, so the shifting weight of the horses can make the trailer sway. The amount of weight on the hitch can change significantly as the animals shift, or after a tire blows out.
Drivers must make sure that the safety chains and hitch are correctly engaged so that the trailer/truck combination can survive the sudden weight shift of a blow-out. You should have a minimum of two axles on the trailer. That way if a tire fails, you have the other to support the weight of the load temporarily. Data from USRider.org supports the idea that the great majority of serious accidents with horse trailers are not tire-related. Rather, they are related to improper hitching issues and/or trailers being towed by an inadequate vehicle.
Ensure that the emergency breakaway braking system is working. The trailer braking system should have a battery located on the nose of the hitch in bumper-pulls, or behind the nose of the gooseneck trailer. There should be a cable from the switch to the towing vehicle, again attached to the frame. It is designed to lock the brakes on the trailer and stop it if for some reason the hitch and the safety chains should fail. While this may not be an enjoyable experience for the animals inside, a freewheeling trailer going 60 miles per hour down a flat roadway can roll over a quarter-mile and threaten other human lives.
Safety chains should be as recommended by the manufacturer, and strong enough to keep the trailer attached to the towing vehicle in case of a hitch uncoupling. The chains should be crossed and attached to the frame of the towing vehicle or the manufactured receiver. Both gooseneck and bumper-pull trailers should have these chains in place.
If a trailer is hitched correctly, the attachments are extremely strong. There are documented cases of horse trailers involved in high-speed collisions, impacts with trains, and even vehicles going over the edge of a cliff, in which the trailer kept the towing vehicle from going completely over the embankment because the two were properly hitched and did not separate.
Flat Tire Emergency Kit
It's helpful to have the following in case of emergency.
- Flashlight (but don't shine it into trailer because it may terrify the horses
- Charged cell phone
- Wheel chocks made for trailers
- Flares or warning triangles (do not use people for traffic direction if at all possible)
- Brightly colored and reflective jacket
- "U.S. Stabling Guide" or similar resource for out-of-town stabling services
- Membership in an equine roadside assistance service with service for both truck and trailer
- Tire iron
- Tire jack (drive-on type preferable) or trailer jack
- WD-40 or petroleum-based lubricant
- "Next Exit" or similar book (available at truck stops or online) with information about local veterinarians, hospitals, tire and vehicle repair shops, etc.
- Two spare tires on the correct size wheel, filled with air and ready to go
- Reflective stickers on the rear of the trailer and bright brake/flasher lights
Plan of Action
If you do have a blow-out, you can maximize the safety of you and your horses and minimize the damage with the following plan of action.
1. Turn on your warning flashers for safety. Your trailer should have reflective tape on the rear to increase visibility to other drivers, as well as working lights to warn oncoming drivers that the vehicle is stopped. If you have ever come up behind a fire truck or emergency vehicle, you realize how bright that reflective tape makes the back of a vehicle. Many gooseneck horse trailers have reflective tape on the sides due to Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, but the amount on the back may be negligible.
2. Find a safe place to pull over with plenty of room to change the tire. You'll need a minimum of 12 feet from traffic lanes. You might consider limping the trailer slowly to the next ramp off of the interstate or a parking lot, particularly if it is dark. While that may destroy the rim of the wheel, you will be able to safely deal with the situation without getting hit by other drivers. If the left side tires are blown, pull the trailer as far off to the side of the road as possible. No one wants to get killed changing a tire so close to traffic lanes, which is a very real risk.
3. Try to decelerate and brake smoothly until you come to a stop. While you'll want to stop the truck and trailer as soon as safely possible and in as safe a position on the side of the roadway as you can, you do not want to cause an accident by whipping over to the side or by losing control.
Even though our natural reaction is to drive along and listen to strange sounds while trying to determine what is making them, you should stop expediently on the roadside whenever you hear or feel anything unusual (rocking of trailer, excessive vibration, loud noises, screeching or metallic sounds). There are a lot of other reasons for unusual vibrations, including a tire ready to blow, a horse that has fallen down in the trailer, a locked up axle or wheel, or trapped road debris.
4. Apply the parking brake to make sure the vehicle or rig does not roll or accidentally move when you are trying to change the tire or assess the situation.
5. Turn off the vehicle and take the keys with you. This way no one can accidentally move the trailer while you are working with the tire or jack. Many people have been seriously injured by vehicles rolling or falling on them while they were trying to help.
6. Put on a reflective or brightly colored vest or jacket. Just as it's important to have reflective tape on the back of the trailer, you need to be visible to oncoming traffic.
7. Chock the wheels so that there is no chance for the truck and trailer to roll by any available means. It's preferable to use commercially available wheel chocks, but use rocks or logs if that's what's available. Stabilize the trailer and do not separate the vehicle from the trailer. The truck, with the parking brake on, is the best way to make sure that the trailer stays put, especially with the weight of potentially upset horses on board.
8. If there was an accident, have someone call 911 and give particulars.
9. Check on the horses through a window or opening. Do not let anyone get into the trailer or open a door. Any stimulation may cause the horses to get excited and try to back out or scramble. If the horses seem okay, consider giving them hay to munch on to help them relax while you are fixing the tire. If a horse appears injured, call a local veterinarian immediately.
10. Coordinate for alternate trailer transport if the trailer has suffered severe damage. If you have an equine roadside trailer assistance service, call them to assist. For example, USRider.org has lists of local hauling services, veterinarians, and even overnight boarding facilities while your truck or trailer are being fixed. Note that Triple A (AAA) does not assist with horse trailer disablements.
11. Do not let any horses out of the trailer without halters and lead ropes to restrain them. In fact, it is preferable not to let horses out unless there is a very good reason to do so, and certainly not until you have help. Unloading a horse on the side of the road is a very dangerous scenario. They may get loose and cause a secondary accident.
Changing the Tire
Once you've worked through this plan of action, only then should you turn your attention to changing the tire.
First, remove one of the spare tires and ensure that the bolt attachment pattern on the spare is the same as the tire you are replacing. If it isn't, you may have to remove the damaged tire and limp to the next exit or safe pull-off, or call roadside equine trailer assistance.
Use the tire iron to slightly loosen the nuts on the affected tire before driving the trailer up onto the trailer jack. With the weight of the trailer on what is left of the tire and wheel, it will be easier to slightly loosen the nuts without the tire rotating. If the nuts are stuck, spray them with a WD-40 type of lubricant to help loosen them.
Drive the trailer up onto the trailer jack or use a bottle-type jack to raise the trailer. Try not to stick any part of your body under the trailer at any time. If the jack you are using should fail, or the trailer should roll, you could get severely injured or killed.
Loosen the nuts completely. Pull the tire and wheel straight out from the bolts and set them aside. They will be heavy.
Check to make sure that the blown tire did not damage or remove parts of the trailer, such as wiring to the brakes or lights, or tear off part of the wheel well. Sometimes the damage may not be easily fixable on the side of the road.
Mount the spare tire onto the bolts that are exposed. Spin all the nuts loosely onto the bolts to hold the tire in place.
Use the tire iron to tighten the nuts a few spins at a time in an alternating "star" pattern. This will ensure an even tightening of the wheel onto the axle. Tighten as far as possible until the wheel starts to rotate.
At this point, back the trailer off the jack so that the tire is in contact with the ground. Do a final tightening of every nut, as tight as you can.
Don't simply drive off, figuring you have the problem solved. As soon as you can get to a tire shop, have the mechanics use a torque wrench to correctly adjust the tightness of the nuts. Mark Cole relates the story of someone who replaced a flat tire and did not properly torque the nuts. The wheel later came off the trailer, crossed the interstate, and struck and injured a motorist.
Sure, a blow-out while you're hauling horses can ruin your day. But if you're prepared, you can keep it to merely an inconvenience instead of something that can injure you, your horses, or others.