Have You Checked Your Nuts Lately?

Equestrians are nuts, we all know that. But have you checked your nuts lately — your lug nuts, that is.  Don’t  miss these five tips that could save your horse’s life.

Photo by Mary Ann Johnstone

By Mary Ann Johnstone

We finally got our dream trailer. It’s a roomy, three-horse gooseneck, extremely safe, newly serviced, and in excellent shape. We’ve double-checked the lights, floors, supplies, tire condition, and pressure.

The fillies’ tails are neatly braided, their legs cushion wrapped, and their hay nets are fastened in place. After a transformative three months at our trainer’s barn, the girls calmly load in and we’re ready to go home.

I’m following the truck and trailer in my SUV and every mile I monitor the horses’ safety and comfort using a video camera we mounted inside the trailer. I can see them enjoying the view from their windows and nibbling hay as we travel down the smooth highway, four hours from home. I take a breath and start to relax.

What happens next could have killed us all.

An hour north of San Diego the left rear wheel of the horse trailer spins off the axle and bounces across all the lanes on the freeway. As my head whips back around I see the horse trailer still tracking upright. I thank God and every single guardian angel that must be on board. I call my husband driving the truck. He doesn’t believe me at first since he hadn’t felt anything. The fillies are still happily eating hay, manes gently blowing in the breeze from the open windows.

After what feels like an eternity we find a safe off-ramp and head for a shady place to park. Shaking from our hats to our boots we step out on wobbling legs to inspect the damage. Then we call for help… which incidentally was very difficult to find.

Photo by Mary Ann Johnstone

Did you know…

Many trailer repair shops are closed on Mondays?

Almost all towing companies will not tow a horse trailer?

Reputable insurance companies might leave you stranded?

My husband and I call every tow truck number we can find on Google, pleading for a repair or a tow. No one says “yes.” We call so many we can’t remember who called who.

The horses are calm but the shady place we found to park turns out to be the back entrance of the Prado Olympic Shooting Park and all the guns in the west start firing off. It’s impossible to think straight.

My trainer ultimately saves us. He drives north, transfers our horses into his trailer and helps us find a mobile repair guy (earth-angel) who usually fixes broken down semi-trucks stuck on the side of the highway. He’s willing to come out in a few hours. It’s rush-hour in L.A. now and we are losing light and heat fast. Here in the desert, it was ninety degrees when we left, it’s fifty now and I start shivering, only partly from the cold.

From the warmth and comfort of my couch now, I can plainly see our ignorance was life-threatening and after sharing our mishap back at the barn, we found many friends who were also unaware of this potential hazard. Here’s what I want to share with anyone who trailers horses:

 Tip #1: Always Check Your Nuts! They Could Be Too Tight!

No matter what, check all your wheel lug nuts before you leave. Don’t assume just because your trailer has been to the shop recently everything is okay. If your repair shop used an impact wrench to tighten your lug nuts, as most shops do, the nuts could also be over-tightened and cause the wheel studs to snap off causing you to lose a wheel. This is creatively referred to as a “Wheel Off” and is unfortunately very common and very deadly. And this is likely what happened to us.

Photo by Mary Ann Johnstone

Tip #2: Torque Rating is King

Lug nuts need to be torqued to a specific pound rating. Go buy a good torque wrench and get the correct information on what your nut number is. Check your trailer manual or go to a tire store to find out. Also, the nuts need to be tightened in a specific order depending on how many lug nuts you have. Wheels vary.

Tip #3: Your Nuts Could Be Too Loose!

Lug nuts loosen up over time. Experts suggest checking them every 10, 15, and 25 miles after any service is performed. The reason for this is when you’re being a good horsey-citizen, having your trailer brakes and bearings serviced, the wheel is removed and then replaced which could cause the lug nuts to loosen up later. Some hauling experts say to check every 100 miles others say every 300 miles.

In other words, just to be safe, along with checking your tire condition and air pressure, which you probably do anyway, stay on your hands and knees five minutes longer and check your nuts.

I am unsure who is responsible for this major design flaw, but I would like to have a closed-door meeting with them. And I would like my big Italian brother to be there. He can be rather intimidating. Along with his big muscles, he has a big brain to go with it and the vast mechanical experience gleaned from fixing everything with wheels, including airplanes. His long-distance calls and expertise helped so much in the days following to get us safely back on the road. He shared many of these tips with us.

Tip #4: How Big Are Your Nuts?

And what about your spare wheel for that matter? We ended up with a smattering of each size. Lugnut wrenches that come in the handy little toolbox in most trucks and trailers are often the wrong size. Many aluminum wheels need a 22 mm deep, thin socket, and steel wheels can be 21mm. These specific sockets need to be in your trailer toolbox because they are uncommon in the lug nut world and tow trucks do not have all of them on board.

Tip #5: Make Sure You Have a “Plan B”

Arrange ahead of time who will rescue you if you have a problem. After seven calls and five side-of-the-road dark and cold hours, my insurance company was no help at all and left us stranded with absolutely no resources to turn to.

I am so grateful we have a gooseneck trailer as the stability during this crisis probably saved us and our horses. The cameras paid off too for my mental wellbeing. Seeing that the girls were unruffled during all of this drama helped immensely. I wish I could say the same for myself. Most of all, I am so grateful no one was hurt and that I have wonderful friends and family who helped us out.

Here are two great checklists to give you an idea of what else you might need to do before safely heading out:

Don’t Go on the Road Without It!

Trip Preparation: Last-Minute Check List

Happy trails to you all