Trailers are awesome! They give you a new degree of freedom with your horse. No longer are you stuck at the barn. You can transport yourself (and maybe a friend) to clinics, camps, shows, off-site trainers, and other facilities.
I love the freedom my trailer brings to our horse experience. But admittedly, driving the trailer with Charlie Brown in tow is a lot like that first trip in the car when we brought my daughter home from the hospital. You feel every little bump in the road. And you’re afraid you’ve forgotten something. We won’t even start on the other drivers on the road. Puh-leeze!!!
So when you hook up your trailer with your precious equine cargo inside, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Use a proper tow vehicle
It took a lot of research by “Barn Dad Bob” to figure out all the intricacies of what constitutes a proper tow vehicle. There’s a lot that goes into it, most notably gearing ratios for the axle,
When it comes to towing, there are basically two types: SUVs and pick-ups. We’re more of the SUV type. We were willing to buy a used one, but most used vehicles are the result of fleet sales (corporate, rentals, etc.). And while it seems obvious now, it took us a while to figure out that used SUVs from fleet sales aren’t likely to come with the proper towing package. So we wound up having to buy a new SUV in order to get the right towing capabilities.
They may all look the same to the naked eye, but not all Tahoes or Yukons are the same. Some of them can handle towing the 8,000-odd pounds of trailer, horse, and gear you need to move, and other would strain under the load. When you’re towing your precious equine passenger, you don’t want the engine straining to make it. The basics of the tow package are this: 1) a “lower rear end” meaning the axle rotates about 4 times for each revolution of the tire, as opposed to about 3 times on a regular truck, which is what allows you to pull an extra 8,000 pounds behind you, 2) an oil cooler, and 3) a transmission cooler to keep the truck’s systems from overheating when they’re working hard pulling a load.
- Have a checklist
Have a checklist on how to properly hook up and disconnect your trailer from your tow vehicle. Follow it religiously, every single time. Memorize it until you can recite it in your sleep. Or better yet, keep a copy of your checklist on your phone.
To attach my bumper pull trailer to my Tahoe, there are 7 steps:
- Lower the hitch on to the ball
- Release the collar
- Attach the cotter pin
- Cross and hook the left chain
- Cross and hook the right chain
- Loop and connect the braking cable
- Plug in the electrical cable
I still have the original list the trailer dealer texted to me when I bought it, and I refer to it each time just to be sure I haven’t forgotten anything. It’s also handy to have if you ever lend your trailer to someone else so they can have the concrete steps they need to take with your particular trailer.
- Have a buddy to help you
Hooking and unhooking properly is a two person job. For safety reasons, you want one person to do the hook up (or unhook), and another person to confirm that everything was done, and done right.
And unless you have a neck as long as a brontosaurus, it takes two people to test your lights — one person behind the wheel of the truck, and one person behind the trailer. Once the cable has been connected to your truck, confirm that your turn signals, hazard lights, brake lights, and headlights correspond with your towing vehicle.
Have a navigator ride with you whenever possible. It’s a lot easier for your passenger to wrestle with the GPS, than for you to try to multi-task while driving with a horse in tow. And sometimes it takes an extra pair of eyes to make a safe lane change.
It’s even better if your buddy is also able to drive when pulling a trailer. I like to drive to the event site because it gives me something to focus on besides my nerves. Then, when I’m exhausted after the clinic or competition, it helps to have a relief driver to take the wheel. It’s not that I sleep on the way home. But a fresh set of reflexes are better than mine would be after riding and grooming all day.
- Make yourself visible
Make sure the trailer has plenty of reflective tape and signage on it. Outline the edges of your trailer. Think what you would appreciate if you were driving around a horse trailer in low visibility. What would you want marked or outlined? Then put some reflective material there.
Warn other drivers that there are horses on board. There are straightforward signs that say “Caution Horses.” Others have more of a sense of humor, like “Whoa! Back off! Horses on Board.” Other drivers – even non-horse people – tend to be more careful when they know what you’re hauling. Otherwise they just think you’re a big, annoying trailer.
Put silhouettes on the trailer — it attracts the attention of kids who are passengers in surrounding cars, and who point out the pretty horse stickers to their driving parents who may be unaware. Use stickers whose color contrasts with the color of your trailer. My trailer is silver, and we can disappear on cloudy days, or in the road spray of a rain storm, unless we are covered in reflective black and red stickers. You don’t have to be a Vegas hotel sign, but it’s better than being invisible.
- Have the proper support equipment
Make sure you have a block or other support piece to put under the wheel on the front of your trailer when you park. Without it, you could dent your asphalt parking surface. Worse yet, you could sink into a muddy field, and have a hard time getting the truck hooked back up again.
Remember to get wheel chocks too. I once parked in a hard dirt field, that seemed pretty flat. I set my chocks with a little space between the wheel and the chock. When I unhooked the truck, the trailer started to slide. Thank goodness for those chocks!
- Be prepared for stupid driving by others
Some drivers are just idiots. And unfortunately, you can’t fix stupid. So be prepared to be the target of some dumb driving by others when you haul your horse.
Don’t necessarily try to keep up with traffic. If the rest of the world is going 90mph, let them! Stay in the more right hand lanes to show that you aren’t going to speed along at mach 12.
In my short span of trailer ownership, I’ve seen some doozies! I’ve been passed on the right. I’ve been passed on the shoulder. I’ve been cut off when the other driver was changing lanes. I’ve been cut off when I was changing lanes. I’ve been cut off when I try to merge onto a highway. I’ve had drivers hop from lane to lane with nary a turn signal. I’ve even had a pair of motorcycles race around me. I wonder how flat a motorcycle would get if it were crushed by a 2 ton truck and an extra 4 tons of horse trailer? If it weren’t so dangerous, it might be funny.
- Be prepared to acknowledge nice driving by others
Not everyone on the road drives so poorly. Some people are horse people who just don’t happen to be towing their own trailers at that particular moment. Or they’re just plain courteous. They will back off and let you in when you signal to change lanes or merge onto the highway. When this happens, and the car then pulls around you, wave if you have a chance. Or have your passenger wave. The nod of appreciation will go a long way.
- Drive defensively and conservatively
Think back to your driver education classes, and take those basics to heart. You’ve got precious cargo back there!
Be patient. Build in some extra time to get where you’re going. If Google Maps says it will take you 90 minutes to get where you’re going, figure on two hours. This isn’t the time to press your luck and try to set land speed records.
Keep your cool! Losing your temper behind the wheel could cost you a whole lot more than you bargained for.
Be prepared for the unexpected. You have a 1200 pound passenger in the back (maybe two), and sometimes they get a little itchy, or hot, or uncomfortable, or nervous. That’s when they start trying to move around in the trailer. And that can make you sway a lot more than you think. How will you handle it?
Always, always, always use your turn signals. You know where you’re going, but everyone around you doesn’t.
Have an exit strategy. If someone pulled in front of you right now, where would you go?
Stick to the right or right center lanes, in general. Slower traffic stays to the right, so this should buy you some freedom to not go so blazingly fast.
If you’re making a left exit or something similar, try to get in the lane you need early and stay there.
Think about your stopping distance. Momentum is a physics concept that takes on a whole new level of meaning when you have a full load in tow. Stopping takes a little longer than normal — sometimes a lot longer than normal. Give yourself plenty of room to stop.
Practice with an empty trailer. It’s a lot less nerve-wracking to figure out your truck and trailer without the added stress of your horse being in there.
Learn to back up. I was embarrassed when upon arrival at a camp recently, I was unable to back up my own trailer to park. My host was gracious and backed it up for me. When I returned home, I started practicing backing up on my own. And while I’m nowhere near an expert at it, I’m at least able to get into a generously sized space. I’m pretty darn good at backing the truck up to get the trailer attached, but my trailer backing skills still need some refinement.
How do I know all this? Don’t ask. I think I’ve made most of the possible trailering mistakes already, and I’m pretty new to this. For instance, my first time driving in the dark, I was alone, I was tired from a hard schooling ride in hot and humid conditions, and it was raining. Not a great way to learn how to drive at night! Or in the rain. Or when you’re exhausted. I planned poorly, and that was the result. I have since practiced a fair bit with an empty trailer through various challenges like narrow lanes on the road, rain, night, and rush hour traffic.