Are You Trailering Safely?

By Tom Scheve
towing horsesJudy pulled her Jeep Cherokee and two-horse tagalong trailer into Southern Pines Tack and Saddlery's parking lot. Out of habit, I glanced at her hitch - saw she wasn't using weight-distribution bars. I strolled over, introduced myself, and said, "Do you know you're pulling 5000 pounds with a 2500-pound hitch?"

"What do you mean? The Jeep salesman told me the hitch was rated at 6500 pounds."

"Yes and no," I answered. " Only one model of hitch fits that Cherokee. If you look at its rating sticker" - hers, I pointed out, was on the back of the hitch - "you'll see two ratings. The weight-distribution rating is the weight you can safely pull if you're equipped with weight-distribution bars to spread out the load - and yes, that's 6500 pounds. But without them, the weight-carrying rating applies, and that's just 2500 pounds."

Judy thanked me - and promised that the salesman would be in for an earful when she called him on Monday…

Like Judy, most of my customers are intelligent, safety-conscious women pulling two-horse tagalong trailers. But here's something I don't understand: Though most women today are willing to question just about everything we men say, they don't question information men give them about mechanical "stuff" - including trailers and hitches.

That's unfortunate, because - much as it pains me, as a man, to say it - a lot of us husbands, brothers, boyfriends, salesmen, and mechanics pass on a lot of information that's wrong. And in trailering, wrong information can be disastrous.

What You Need to Know

With a two-horse tagalong, you're pulling more weight than just about anyone else except professional truck drivers. What's more, you're towing live weight that's stacked badly. As any truck driver will tell you, the way to stack big loads is to put the heavy stuff on the bottom and the lighter stuff on top to minimize weight shifts that can cause sway and loss of control. But with horses, most of the weight is four feet above the trailer floor - and it shifts at will!

Unfortunately, many tow-vehicle dealers and service technicians haven't a clue about the dynamics of a loaded horse trailer. Some, as we've seen, don't even understand hitch ratings. So, for your horses' safety and yours...

If you have a hitch, you need to check for yourself that it's up to standard.
If you're buying new, you'll want to make sure you're getting what you need.

This article will help you in either case.

Here's the guideline to remember about hitches:

The rating of a hitch and each of its components must be equal to or greater than the loaded weight of the trailer it's pulling.

(You'll have the best chance of getting a quality hitch, correctly installed, that meets this guideline if you buy a hitch by one of the large manufacturers, such as Draw-Tite or Reese, who constantly research and test their products, and who support their dealer with training.)

Choose the Right Hitch

First, though - even before we get into ratings - let's be clear that you can't safely link up a fully loaded two-horse tagalong to a tow vehicle's bumper. Why? It weighs too much - so it's likely to pull the bumper off your tow vehicle.

The kind of hitch I recommend (and a number of states require) for any tagalong trailer is a frame-mounted receiver hitch. In this, the hitch ball is bolted to a square-steel-tube slide-in ball mount; the mount slides into a receiver tube and is secured with a heavy metal pin held in place by a cotter pin. Slide-in ball mounts come in two-inch-increment "drops" to permit level connections between trailers and high-off-the-ground four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) - and can be inserted upside-down to level with vehicles that sit lower than trucks.

Check the Hitch Rating

On the back or bottom of any quality frame-mounted tagalong hitch, you'll find a sticker with two ratings.

  • The weight-carrying rating, as I said above, is the weight the hitch will safely hold on its own, without weight-distribution bars.

  • The weight-distribution rating tells you the amount the hitch can safely hold if you're using weight-distribution bars (sometimes - incorrectly - called "sway bars")

(Besides being rated, hitches come in several classes; horse trailers need a Class III or Class IV hitch. Class III hitches usually have a weight-carrying rating of 5000 pounds and a weight-distribution rating of 7500 pounds; Class IV, a 7500-pound weight-carrying/10,000-pound weight-distribution rating.)

Later we'll talk about how to determine the actual weight you're asking your hitch and tow vehicle to handle. For now, though, here's another guideline to remember.

You need weight-distribution bars to tow a fully loaded standard tagalong with a vehicle other than a full-size truck (half-ton and up) or or if the weight of the loaded trailer exceeds the weight carrying capacity of your hitch.

Here's why.

How Weight Distribution Works

A hitch with weight-distributing ability has a head (called a trunnion head) attached to a large, heavy, adjustable slide-in ball mount with steel flanges on either side. The two steel weight-distributing bars - also called trunnion bars - attach to the flanges at one end and at the other to snap-up brackets on either side of the trailer tongue. You attach chains on the bars to the open snap-up brackets, then close the brackets and pin them. The sheer force of closing the brackets actually returns the rear of the tow vehicle to its height off the ground before the trailer's weight pushed it down.

Once connected this way, the bars take much of the tongue weight off the hitch ball and the tow vehicle's rear axle, spreading it evenly through the steel bars and the tow vehicle's frame. Besides leveling the two vehicles, this eliminates the risk that the trailer's weight might cause the tow vehicle's front to "float" (bounce up and down) and lose control - or, in the case of some lighter, short-wheelbase SUVs, even lift off the ground. (See more about our variety of horse trailers for sale.)

With a full-size truck, you don't need weight-distribution bars to prevent floating; the truck's long wheelbase and its heavy engine sitting over the front axle do that. But you do need bars (or a higher-rated hitch) if the weight of your loaded trailer exceeds the weight-carrying rating of your present hitch. With something like a Suburban or Expedition, you need bars if your loaded trailer weighs more than 7000 pounds. (And even with bars, midsize trucks - Dakotas and S10s, for example - and smaller vehicles just aren't up to pulling a fully loaded standard two-horse tagalong.)

Check the Hitch Components

Besides checking your hitch rating, you need to check that the ratings of all its components - hitch ball, slide-in ball mount, coupler - are at least equal to the rating of the hitch itself.


  • Hitch ball: Its rating, etched on top of the ball, relates to the thickness of the ball's threaded shaft; the thicker it is, the more weight it can take. (The ball size - 2 or 2 5/16 inches - is also etched here.)
  • Slide-in ball mount: The rating is usually etched into its side - and isn't always easy to read! If this rating matches your hitch ball's (either 2 or 2 5/16 inches) - as it must for safety - the shaft should fit snugly in the mount. Make sure it does, with no play.
  • Coupler: Its rating (as well as its size - 2 or 2 5/16 inches, like the ball) is etched into the metal - and, again, not always easy to read. Most manufacturers weld correctly rated couplers onto their trailers, but I've seen some older trailers with couplers rated for less than the trailer's loaded weight.

Note: Always check that your coupler is the same size as any hitch ball you want to hook up to. A 2-inch coupler won't fit on a 2 5/16-inch ball; a 2 5/16 coupler will drop onto a 2-inch ball - but it'll pop off again on the road.

Weight-distribution bars have ratings etched in, too - but instead of matching your hitch rating, they need to match your trailer's tongue weight: usually 500 or 700 pounds. With a name-brand hitch and a trained installer, you have little risk of a problem here.

Ratings tell you how much weight you can pull safely. So now it's time to:

Determine Weights

To make sure you're not asking your hitch or tow vehicle to do more than it can, establish these weights for your rig.

  • Trailer weight: This weight may be listed on your Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin (MCO), or on the sticker insider a door that also lists the trailer's GRWR and axle ratings - but the number may not reflect factory-installed modifications (such as added length). The same goes for what your dealer tells you unless he weighs your trailer with the add-ons installed.

    So what do you do? Weigh your trailer yourself - at a gravel yard, recycling yard, garbage dump, or truck stop (but not a highway weigh station; neither the officials nor the long-distance truckers who must stop at these busy places will welcome you). Make sure the scale is clear; pull on so your horse trailer is on the scale but not your tow vehicle; then unhook the trailer. Someone in a nearby booth will give you a weight slip, the cost will probably be $5 or less.

  • Gross vehicle weight (GVW): to your trailer weight, add the weight of your horses (determine with a weight tape from your feed store) plus everything else you normally haul - hay, grain, tack buckets, water, et cetera - to get your GVW. Or load everthing but your horses, go back to the scale, unhook, and weigh as before; then add the horses' weight. For safety, your GVW must not exceed your trailer's GVWR - or the rating of your hitch or any component.
  • Combined gross vehicle weight (CGVW): This time, put the whole rig - vehicle and loaded trailer - on the scale; then add your horses' weight. Your CGVW must not exceed your tow vehicle's gross combined vehicle weight rating (GCVWR).
  • Tongue weight: Your dealer can give you a figure, but (again) it won't reflect added options. To get the weight yourself, drive your empty trailer to the scale but stop before the trailer tires roll on; disconnect the trailer, crank down the trailer jack so it's supporting the tongue, and drive your tow vehicle off.
For safe towing, a tagalong's tongue weight should be ten to twenty percent of the empty trailer's weight. (I like it around seventeen percent: for a 2200-pound trailer, say, a tongue weight of 374 pounds.) Well-designed trailers balance the horses over the axles in such a way that the tongue weight is about the same with the trailer loaded or empty.

Generally, more tongue weight (within that recommended percentage) is better for stability and tracking. (Next time you see a tractor-trailer, notice how far back the wheels are; the reason's the same). So a longer trailer with a dressing room up front is likely to pull better than a shorter trailer. But with the popularity of shorter-wheelbase SUVs, some companies are producing trailers with a lighter tongue weights by moving the trailer axles forward, putting more of the horses' weight behind the wheels - where unfortunately, their moving around is more likely to cause "fishtailing" than when they're centered over the wheels. You're wiser to pick a trailer with a tongue weight within the percentages recommended above - and support your hitch with weight-distribution bars.

Spread the Word

An unsafe trailer is a risk not only for you and your horses but also for everyone else on the road. But now that you know how to make sure you're hitched up properly, you're equipped to make your own trailering much safer.

That being so, let me make two final requests: Take pleasure in the accident no one will ever see because you prevented it happening, and don't keep your knowledge to yourself. Check the trailers and hitches of your friends and barn buddies. Any time you see a trailer that's not level, or that's hooked up wrong, tell the owner. Or leave her a copy of this article, saying "Thought you ought to know."

Oh yeah - give your mechanical-stuff-know-it-all men friends a copy, too.

Installation Info

A tagalong hitch generally runs between $250 and $350. (If you're financing your trailer purchase, you may be able to include the cost in your financing package.)

Most new trucks and SUVs offer factory-installed hitches. If the hitch really is factory-installed, you can usually trust its installation and quality. If the dealer is doing the installation, check that you're getting a name brand and check the training of the installer - who may be a local hitch specialist. Such specialists, found in every major city, carry name-brand hitches, plugs, electric brakes, and hitch-related products. Supporting them are the name-brand companies' good documentation and programs that teach correct installation and maintenance through individual training, videotapes, and manuals.

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