Hauling precious cargo is a huge responsibility. Lisa Morrison gives us a course in trailer safety, from preparation to driving techniques to what to do if you run into trouble on the road.
With the show season winding up, it seemed like a good time to look into trailer safety and what to do when things go wrong.
Before you go…
Be familiar with your truck and trailer (even if it isn’t yours) and take good care of it.
- Make sure you have the right hitch – the hitch, ball mount and ball must all have a GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) higher than the total weight of your loaded trailer. Don’t know how much it weighs? Take it to a gravel yard or truck stop to get it weighed (unhitched from your tow vehicle).
- Depending on your state, trailers or combined truck and trailers weighing over 10,000 lbs may require a commercial license, which comes with many more regulations to comply with.
- Make sure the ball on the hitch is the right size for the trailer. One of the most common trailering accidents occurs when a trailer pops off a too-small ball.
- For tag-along trailers, a frame mounted Class III or Class IV receiver hitch is required by all states.
- Ensure that the trailer sits level. If not, the trailer will not travel properly and the horses travelling in it will have to deal with gravity as well as the usual start, stops and turns – making the journey even harder on them.
- Some states require a breakaway brake, which engages the brakes on the trailer if the cable between the towing vehicle and the trailer is disconnected. Regardless of the requirements, a breakaway brake is a good safety measure.
- Most states require safety chains on tag-along trailers and many require them on goosenecks. Chains should be long enough to allow the trailer to turn properly but short enough so that they don’t touch the ground. They should cross underneath the trailer so that they will catch the trailer in a cradle of sorts if the trailer comes off the hitch.
- Have your trailer serviced regularly. This includes: inspecting brakes, wiring, tires (including spare), hitch, frame and floor for rust and rot; lubricating all moving parts and making sure the trailer and the towing vehicle are in good working order.
It is worth doing some homework before you hit the road to have peace of mind that you and your horse are travelling in the safest possible way. Also, if you are in an accident, and your vehicle or trailer is not up to standard (as defined by state regulations), you may not be covered by insurance.
One of the most important items in your trailer is an emergency contact card to provide details on your horse in case you are incapacitated. Put it where emergency personnel can easily find it – in the trailer – and boldly mark it “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY”. The contact card should include the following information:
- Horse’s name and description (color and markings, age, sex, breed)
- Your name, address and phone number
- Insurance information, if your horse is insured
- Emergency contact – name, address and phone number of someone who can provide information and make decisions if you are injured
- Veterinary contact – name, address and phone number of your regular vet
As with any vehicle, it is important to have a vehicle emergency kit. It is a good idea to have the following in your trailer:
- Flashlight and batteries
- Fire extinguisher
- Trailer-Aid or trailer jack, plus small board to put under jack on soft ground
- Four-way lug wrench
- Wheel chocks
- Flares or emergency triangle
- Jumper cables
- Tool kit that includes at least the following: crowbar, hammer, flat and Phillips screwdrivers, pliers, set of wrenches
- Duct tape
Depending on what your travel plans are, you may want to bring along a standard first aid kit for your trip. No matter where you are going, you should also have an emergency first aid kit in your trailer that stays there – and remains fully stocked. Some key items to include are:
- Spare halter (leather) and lead rope (stud chain is ideal)
- Towels (2)
- Gauze squares (4” x 4”)
- Cotton roll
- Vetwrap (2)
- Spare set of wraps and bandages
- Duct tape
- Diapers or maxipads – very absorbent so they are great for controlling bleeding
- Sharp knife – for emergency use only so that it stay sharp (no cutting plastic bags or bailer twine!)
- Something to use for ear plugs (cotton batting in a nylon would work; be sure to leave a “tail” on so you can remove it easily)
- Something to use to cover eyes (fly mask with small towel would do or simply duct tape the towel in place)
- Water – at least 10 gallons
You may also want to consult with your vet about any drugs or medications they recommend you had on hand for emergencies.
Before you go…
Before you load any horses, check that:
- The trailer is mounted properly on the ball and safety chains in place.
- All signals and running lights are working properly.
- All tires (on truck and trailer) are inflated to the right pressure.
- If the trailer has a breakaway brake, the battery is fully charged.
- The trailer clean and free of any hazards.
Once your ride is ready to go, it’s time to get your horse on board. Your horse should be wearing a leather halter as well as leg protection (shipping boots or wraps). It is also a good idea to use a head bumper (poll protector) to keep your horse’s noggin protected.
A few safety tips for inside the trailer:
- Attach the quick release end of the trailer tie to the trailer (vs. the horse) so that, if it does release, you will have a short lead to grab your horse with (same concept applies to cross ties). To ensure an even faster release, use bailer twine (cheap but ugly) or a quick release ring, such as the Equi-Ping (much better looking).
- Before you load your horse, make sure you have a clear escape route in case things get crazy. Keep the area between you and your exit uncluttered.
- Put up the butt bar and/or chest bar before attaching the trailer tie.
- Make sure any loose items in the trailer or gooseneck are stowed securely so they don’t go flying if you have to make a sudden stop or turn.
Hitting the road
If you are traveling with only one horse, is best to load them on the driver’s side (left side of the trailer). This puts the weight closer to the center of the road, which is typically higher than the outer edge, making the trailer more stable.
It is a good practice to stop at the end of your driveway and do a final check of the trailer. Walk about and make sure the hitch is connected properly, the tires are inflated and all the latches are secured.
As you drive, consider the experience of the horse – it is noisy in a trailer and they can’t see or anticipate what is happening. Stopping and starting, going around corners and curves can easily throw them off balance. Try it yourself some time – just around the farm, mind you; it is illegal for people to ride in trailers on the roads. And no holding on!
Drive defensively – keep your lights on; stay alert to what is going on in the road in front of you; anticipate what other drivers may do; keep a good distance between you and other vehicles; know where you are going and anticipate turns. For your horse’s travelling comfort, ease in the stops and turns and gently accelerate. If a horse has a bad trailering experience, it may be difficult to get them to load the next time around.
What to do if things go wrong…
If you are in an accident, stay calm. Easier said than done, but do try to keep your wits about you.
- Assess the situation and call 911, if necessary. It’s best to err on the side of caution so, if you think you need help, make the call. Be sure to tell the operator that there are horses involved. Once the fire department (or rescue squad) arrives, they are in charge and their first focus will be on securing the scene.
- Call your vet and explain the situation. (Make sure you have your vet’s number programed into your cell phone.) It’s a good idea to check with your vet in advance about their availability for emergencies. If the vet is coming to the scene, find out how long it will take for them to get there.
- Call a friend. Depending on the situation, you might need moral support, knowledgeable advice or a few burly men to help move a downed horse. Think about who you would call – in advance – and have their numbers handy (or create a telephone tree).
- Put one person in charge. Maybe it’s you, maybe it the vet, but make sure it is someone who can see the entire horse and give direction. Communication is key – everyone needs to listen to the person in charge, but they also need to communicate with each other.
While you wait for help…
Stay calm! Take a deep breath. Don’t jump into action for the sake of doing something.
- Assess the situation – how is the trailer positioned, are there any hazards in the area, where is the horse, how does it look?
- Don’t do anything you are not comfortable doing.
- If what you’re doing isn’t doing anything, stop doing it.
- Talk to your horse – in a quiet, monotone voice.
- If the horse is down and it needs to stay down (to be safe), try to keep its head up and neck down so they can’t use them as leverage to get up.
- Be careful – flying hooves and thrashing heads can inflict significant damage to a person. The goal is to have both horse and human in the best condition possible.
- Don’t be afraid to step aside, if that’s the best thing for thing for the situation. Your adrenaline may impact how the horse reacts.
Both you and your horse are precious cargo. Take care to ensure that you both arrive at your destination in great shape.
About Lisa Morrison
I am a recently transplanted Canadian and former competitive event rider. I live in Virginia now and am (for the time being) a horseless recreation rider. Although I do miss competing, I love to ride – any horse, anytime, anywhere. I keep my riding gear in my car just in case I came across a random horse to ride.
In my work life, I am a marketing consultant for retail, sport and technology organizations – my specialty is developing communications campaigns to reach and interact with customers and prospects. I also love to photograph horses and have recently resurrected my horse photography business, HoofPrints Photography.