Choosing a Tow Vehicle - It's All in the Numbers

by Neva Kittrell Scheve
Do you really need a full sized pick up truck to tow your horse trailer or will a sport utility vehicle or small truck do the job?

There are so many trucks and SUV's in today's market that making a decision can be almost overwhelming, but if you know how to add up the numbers, your choices will quickly narrow. If you are hauling a gooseneck trailer, it is obvious that you will need a full sized pick up. But, because of the many alternatives, choosing the best tow vehicle for a tag-along trailer can be more confusing.

Your first step is to choose the horse trailer that will most fit your needs, and even more importantly, the needs of your horse(s). Once you have chosen the proper trailer, you are ready to choose the tow vehicle, but before you go shopping determine the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW or actual loaded weight) of your trailer.

How much does the trailer weigh?

Somewhere on your trailer will be a manufacturer's sticker that lists the GVWR of your trailer. This is not the weight of the trailer. The GVWR of your trailer is the manufacturer's recommended maximum allowable weight of this trailer when it is fully loaded. You should be aware of this rating so that you do not overload your trailer, but the actual empty weight is much less, and even when the trailer is loaded it may never weigh this much.

In some cases, the manufacturer will list the actual empty weight of the trailer on the sticker, but usually the only information you may get will be listed on the Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin that comes with your trailer. However, even if this information is included, it will probably be the generic weight of the standard trailer of that particular model without optional equipment such as mats, spare tire, extra length or height.

The only way to be really sure is to weigh the trailer at a scale. You can find vehicle scales at gravel yards and truck stops where you can get a weight certificate for just a few dollars. Don't go to a weigh station on the highway. If you are going to tow with a full sized vehicle and the trailer is an average trailer, approximate weights will do, but if you are going to downsize, it is very important to be accurate.

Once you know how much your trailer weighs you must add the weight of the horses being hauled in it and any equipment, feed, water, etc. The total is your Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW or actual loaded weight)

For instance, we can start with a two horse tag-along trailer that weighs 2400 lbs. including mats and options. One horse weighs 1000 lbs. and another weighs 1500 lbs. Add 50 lbs. for one bale of hay and another 50 lbs. for one saddle and bridle and a small tack box. The GVW is 5000 lbs. As long as this total is equal to or less than the GVWR you will be within the safety limits of the trailer, but in this case you could not add one more thing to this trailer. (Even though we are using these weights as an example, in reality, you would be better off by getting a trailer with a higher GVWR - at least 7000 lbs.)

Armed with this information, you are ready to go shopping for a tow vehicle. Every automobile manufacturer publishes a trailer-towing guide listing trailer-towing ratings for each model. (However, it may be difficult to find one at the dealership) Since many car salesmen are not well educated in towing requirement for horse trailers, make sure you see for yourself that your desired vehicle is rated to tow your trailer. Also, check any footnotes that are written in fine print. Sometimes those ratings are dependant upon certain hitch requirements or extra optional equipment.

So using our 5000 lbs. (GVW) trailer as our example, the tow vehicle must be rated to tow at least that much. Most vehicle ratings are based upon camper and boat requirements on average driving terrain, so remember that towing horses puts more demands upon the vehicle because of the shifting of live animals and the top heavy weight distribution of the horses. Vehicle tow ratings are determined by the combination of engine size, transmission, and axle ratio. (Four wheel drive will not increase towing capacity if the rest of the equipment is inadequate.)

If you choose a vehicle that has a towing capacity of 5000 lbs., you have no room for error. By moving up to a more heavily equipped vehicle, you have added a safety margin. One final rating that must be taken into account is the Combined Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (CGVWR) of the tow vehicle. This is the manufacturer's recommended maximum allowable weight for the combination of the vehicle and trailer together.

Usually this includes the weight of the vehicle with fuel and other fluids plus the driver and one passenger. If there are more people aboard plus luggage or other equipment, this weight must be subtracted from the weight of the trailer. For instance: If a tow vehicle has a Combined Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 9500 lbs. and the vehicle itself weighs 4000 lbs., a 5000 lb. trailer will sum up to 9000 lbs. However, if there are 3 extra passengers at 150 lbs. each and 200 lbs. of luggage in the vehicle, the combination is overloaded by 150 lbs. (9650 lbs.). At least 150 lbs. must be subtracted from the trailer.

This is a very dangerous situation; especially this rating is determined for driving on flat terrain! This combination would be severely inadequate for driving in the mountains.

An inadequate tow vehicle is a danger on the road. For safety reasons, the tow vehicle should be able to perform as well with a trailer as without. The chance of an accident is increased when the tow vehicle is sluggish, or doesn't handle as quickly on the road as it should. Braking becomes ineffective. Loss of control may cause the loss of your life and the lives of those travelling with you as well as other people on the road. The extra wear and tear will also damage the engine and shorten the life of the vehicle, so in the long run you may not be saving money. It is much better and safer to be over rated than to be as closely rated as our example.

Some other important tips: A long wheel base such as found on full sized pickups or Suburban type vehicles will give you more stability on the road. Vehicles with a short wheelbase like sport utility vehicles must have an equalizer hitch with stabilizer bars to distribute the weight more evenly thought the combination and to increase hitch capacity. (Many manufacturers do not make it clear that the factory-installed hitches are not adequate without stabilizer bars.) Also, if the vehicle is too light, the trailer may act like "the tail wagging the dog" and cause the combination to turn over or lose the trailer. In most cases, an automatic transmission will increase the towing capacity.

No matter what vehicle you select, it is absolutely mandatory that the hitch is adequately rated to tow your trailer and that the trailer is level. The brakes, lights, and turn signals must be working, the breakaway emergency brake must have a fully charged battery, and the safety chains, on both tag-along and gooseneck trailers, must be attached.

I, personally, never haul a horse trailer in anything other than a full sized pickup or suburban. Unfortunately, the popularity of sport utility vehicles and inadequate or incorrect information about them has caused enough confusion to result in many unsafe vehicle/trailer combinations on the road. Of course, it is possible to be safe with a downsized vehicle, but it is so important that every aspect is correct.
Add up the numbers - and then add a margin of safety.

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