Purchasing the Right Horse Trailer - From the Horse's Point of View

By Tom and Neva Scheve

Before you go shopping for a horse trailer you should give some careful thought as to what your personal needs are, and equally important and often overlooked, those of your horse. This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many people are influenced by fads, advertising, and just plain false information.

It's not so difficult to determine your own needs. Budget is usually the first and most apparent consideration. There are decent horse trailers in most price ranges, but the less money you have to spend, the more careful you must be. If you don't have a large budget, it may be more logical to purchase a better used trailer than a new cheap one. If you are looking for a new trailer, you're more likely to get good value for your money if you know which features are important and which are not. Even if you have an unlimited budget, you probably don't want to spend extra money for the wrong features.

How Much Will You Use Your Horse Trailer

Be realistic about how much you will use the trailer. You certainly don't need to buy a brand new state of the art trailer if you're only going to use it a few times a year. It's always necessary that the trailer is structurally sound and that brakes and lights are working, but a nice used trailer can do the job. If you use the trailer regularly, then you should buy the best and toughest trailer you can afford.

How many horses will you be hauling? If you are only hauling one or two horses, then a two horse should be adequate. It's never a good idea to buy a trailer to haul horses for your friends, unless you don't mind losing the friendship.

Buying a trailer that holds more than two horses requires a heavy duty towing vehicle, so you will be spending more money not only for the trailer, but for the necessary truck to pull it. There are more vehicle choices for a tag-along trailer, which means there is also a better chance to pick the wrong one. (See Tow Vehicles in this issue.) Many people believe that a gooseneck trailer is safer than a tag-along, but that is not exactly true. If the tow vehicle is properly rated and equipped with the proper hitch, a tag-along two-horse trailer can be just as safe as a gooseneck. For more than two horses, a gooseneck is the better option.

Do you show or camp? If so, a dressing room or living quarters may be a necessity for you. Adding the extra length of a dressing room onto a two-horse trailer actually adds stability to the combined unit as long as the tow vehicle is properly rated.

Although it's fairly simple to figure out the human needs when shopping for a horse trailer, some careful consideration of the equine perspective of horse trailers may result in some unexpected conclusions.

From the horse's point of view, he doesn't belong in a trailer at all. Horses are creatures of the prairie. They are designed for life in the wild open spaces and because they are prey animals, they have a highly developed "flight or fight" response. When danger threatens, horses run away. That's how they have survived the last few million years. Feral horses who don't run away quickly enough or fast enough, end up as dinner. A small, closed up space like a trailer makes a horse claustrophobic because he feels he has no where to escape. To further complicate things for the domestic horse, evolution has taught members of the equine species to be wary of unsteady footing to protect them from falling into a tar pit or quicksand. The unsteady feel of a horse trailer is instinctually frightening for an inexperienced horse.

It's obvious we have to consider this flight response in all our training and handling of horses, but we should also think about these natural instincts when choosing a trailer in order to make traveling a pleasant experience for all involved.

Even though domestics horses learn to put their natural instincts aside and do what we ask, it may not be comfortable for them, and they can suffer stress in ways that we don't even notice. We may not realize that illness and injuries can be avoided by design features in a trailer that make trailering less stressful for the horse. Some trailering problems have become so commonplace that people just accept them as part of the process. Episodes of refusing to load, breaking halters, cutting legs, and even breaking the trailer itself are some of those acceptable risks that can be avoided. These problems and health risks like shipping fever, dehydration, colic, and even the acute stress of injury can be prevented by a stress free trailering experience and a well designed trailer.

Stress can be defined as an external stimulus that is beyond the control of the animal. When a living creature is exposed to stress the autonomic nervous system kicks in to physically prepare the animal the react to the stress. Heart rate elevates, adrenaline and epinephrine are secreted and other body functions, such as hormone levels, change to enable the animal to react. For horses, this is usually to run away to avoid the object of stress. Once the object of stress has been outrun or successfully fought, the system returns to normal and the horse is alive and well. However, if the horse cannot escape the object of stress over a long period of time, the health of the horse begins to suffer. The chronic stress can also have a negative impact by changing immune functions that predispose the horse to disease

What features are best to reduce stress for the horse? Enough room, light, ventilation, and safety in design.

The horse should have enough room and light to feel comfortable. A dark interior may cause him to balk when loading because horses' eyes do not adjust quickly to light changes, and walking from daylight into a small dark trailer can be frightening. Windows or slats, doors, and a light colored paint make the trailer seem more open and inviting. Height, width, and length should be proportionate to the size of the horse. All three are equally important. He should be able to use all four of his legs to keep his balance. This means that he should be able to spread his legs apart if he needs to, and to slide them forward or backward with freedom of choice. He must have enough headroom so that he doesn't feel cramped and so he can use his head and neck for balance. It is also very important for his health that he can lower is head and cough to expel hay dust and other contaminants from his respiratory tract.

This mention of the respiratory system leads to the next important criteria, ventilation. The environment inside the horse trailer is easily contaminated by dust and mold spores from hay and shavings, and noxious gasses from urine and manure. Studies have proven that when horses inhale contaminants and cannot lower the head to cough them out normally they are at greater risk for shipping fever. When the linings of the lungs are compromised, the lungs become susceptible to contagious infections.

Extreme temperatures, hot or cold, may also cause stress to the horse. Smart management techniques and a properly ventilated trailer can control the environment. Adequate windows or slats, and roof vents are necessary to provide good ventilation, even in cold weather. (Use a blanket to keep him warm, don't close up the trailer) Floors also aid in ventilation. Natural flooring material such as wood breathes and does not conduct heat up from the road like aluminum can do. The spaces between the planks provide airflow.

The fourth characteristic that must apply is safety in design. This means that the trailer should be safe for both the horse and handler. There should be no sharp edges or objects that could injure a horse. All latches, tie rings, breast bars, and dividers should be strong enough to withstand wear and tear from the largest, strongest horse that will be hauled in the trailer. Always keep in mind that horses are always capable of doing the unexpected.

The entrance of the trailer should be non-threatening to the horse, and the handler should be able to exit the trailer quickly, if need be, without the horse following. It should be possible to reach each horse separately in the case of emergency, and best if each individual horse can be removed without unloading the other horses to do it.

Dividers, posts, butt bars, and breast bars should operate freely and be easily removable by quick release in the case of emergency. Dividers should not restrict legroom. Ramps should be solid, low, and non-slippery, and long enough to provide a measure of safety from a kick to the head of the person who is leaning down to lift it. A good ramp is safer than a step up - not so much for loading, but for unloading. Step up trailers should have enough width to allow the horse to turn around to unload headfirst instead of backing out, especially if the trailer is high off the ground. A front unload ramp is an excellent addition to a step up trailer.

The floor and underbraces should be in perfect condition. There is no compromising on this point. All lights, brakes, and breakaway brake should be in working condition. The same applies for tires and suspension. The construction material should be strong enough to handle the size, weight, and strength of the horses and equipment being hauled in it, and to hold up as well as possible in a traffic accident.

A feature that should be included under Safety in Design is rubber torsion suspension. Unlike the familiar drop leaf or shackle spring suspension used on all horse trailers in the past, rubber torsion suspension increases the safety margin by its design. Neoprene cords run through the axle and absorb about 97% of the road shock from the floor of the trailer. By absorbing so much of the shock and vibration, rubber torsion greatly reduces the stress to the legs and hooves of the horse, which also reduces the stress of riding in a moving vehicle. As an added safety feature, if one tire goes flat, the trailer can ride on the remaining three wheels and the coupler until you can get off the road and onto a safer place to change the tire.

There are additional features that can greatly improve the well-being of the horse and handler such as removable hay bags, mats, screens, bar guards on the windows, removable or no rear center post, and water tanks. It goes without saying that the tow vehicle and the hitch should be adequate to haul the trailer and it's full load.

If we look at some of the common styles of horse trailers from the horse's point of view, it may look somewhat different than popular opinion dictates.

If you don't have a large budget, a well made stock type trailer is a good choice. This type trailer meets most of our criteria. It is open and airy. The horses can easily step up into the trailer and turn around to come walk out headfirst. (Backing out of a step up trailer is risky - unfortunately it's a common occurrence for horses to slip under the trailer when unloading)

The disadvantages of a stock trailer may be finding one with rubber torsion suspension, but they do exist and if you are buying new, you can order it as on option. Also, since most stock trailers are built for the livestock industry, quality construction and safety features for horses may be somewhat difficult to find. Most stock trailers are built to be tough and last for a long time, but appearance may suffer after a while.

It will cost more to buy a trailer that is built specifically for horses, but there are some advantages when it comes to safety features, construction, and appearance. Walk-through type trailers are a better choice than those with mangers for several reasons. Manger trailers force the horse to hold his head in a small area with his hay, and since he is restricted, he is unable to lower his head to cough out the contaminates from the hay dust. This isn't so much of problem for horses that are only in the trailer for a short time, but a walk through type is healthier for horses that are being hauled for longer trips.

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Loading a horse into a manger trailer can be hazardous to the handler since the only way out of the trailer is though the small escape door and horses quite often climb up into the manger. A horse can go up and over a breast bar, but it happens less often than in a manger trailer, and when it does it's less of a problem as long as the breast bar is equipped with a quick release function that will operate when the weight of the horse is on it.

Although slant load trailers are very popular, they are not the best choice for all horses, especially when we consider the requirement enough room. Most slant load stalls measure 10 feet from corner to corner. The actual space usable to the horse should be measured from front center to rear center, which is only 8 ½ feet.

For horses over 16 hands, or shorter horses who happen to be long in the body, this is not enough room unless you want him to stand with his nose in one corner and his butt in the other. When the horses is cramped into this position, he is unable to use his head and neck for balance and, if he spends enough time in the trailer, stiffness and even lameness may develop. Often this type of problem may not be attributed to the trailer, but is caused by it just the same. It doesn't really work to add more length to the stalls by slanting them more because it makes a rather distorted shape.

If you have smaller horses, a slant load may work for you, but bear in mind the advice to be able to reach each horse in the event of an emergency and to be able to get one horse out without unloading the others. You can solve that problem by adding a front unload ramp for a two horse trailer and double unload ramp for a three horse and more.

One problem that is not so easily solved is that horses hauled on a slant must always brace on the front right leg and shoulder during deceleration and the hind left during acceleration. For horses being hauled longer distances this can be very tiring and may be another cause for unevenness of gait. It would be better for the horse to be able to change positions, but a moving horse is a road danger to a trailer in motion unless the trailer is designed for it. A straight load position allows the horse to absorb the stress of motion evenly though his spinal column and two legs at a time instead of just one. It doesn't matter if he facing front or back, but never put a horse in a trailer backward if the trailer is not designed for that. The balance of the trailer can be disastrously affected.

For multiple horses, a center load meets all our equine criteria and safety requirements as well. In a four-horse centerload, the front two horses face backward and the rear horses face forward. It works the same way for a six horse except there are three horses side by side. There is more than enough head room for each horse and they can all see each other, a fact that makes herd animals feel more comfortable. Each horse can be unloaded separately without taking off the others. This not only works well during an emergency, but it makes for a good show trailer at a one-day event.

The choice of construction materials is an important and complicated subject of it's own. Steel has gotten a bad reputation because of rust and weight, but for strength, which transfers to safety, it's still the best value. Rust is not much of a problem anymore since many quality manufacturers use galvanealed steel. Since aluminum (alloy) is one-third the strength of steel and 70 percent of the weight of steel there is really not as much difference in weight between a two horse steel trailer and an all aluminum trailer of equal strength.

However, as the trailers get larger, the difference becomes more pronounced. Hybrid trailers that are built with a combination of materials can be a compromise. By using the strength of steel in the frame, and aluminum and other materials such as fiberglass in non-structural parts to reduce the weight, the trailer will be comparable in weight to an all-aluminum trailer. The cost for a hybrid will generally be higher than an all-steel trailer and lower than an all-aluminum trailer. No matter which material you choose, each must be kept clean and dry to maintain long life.

Shopping can be confusing when you talk to different sales people. Make certain he or she has your best interest in mind and he isn't trying to sell you a trailer because it happens to be on the lot. Be confident that by making the final decision to purchase your horse trailer from the horses' point of view, along with your own preferences, you will be able to find a trailer that will make traveling with your horse a safe and pleasant experience.

This horse trailer safety article is provided by EquiSpirit Horse Trailers.
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