Horse trailers are taken for their regular warrants of fitness to assess roadworthiness, but how often are they checked to ensure they’re safe to carry horses?
While roadworthiness is an essential part of float safety, there are many other elements of float construction that will often determine whether your horse transporter is safe or just downright dangerous.
When was the last time you conducted a safety audit on your float?
Unsafe features usually result from cost-saving, or simply because the engineer that built the float had no idea that his solution or design could endanger a horse.
Sometimes they arise from poor or non-existent maintenance.
We ask a lot of horses when we load them on a float.
We’re asking an animal with a herd instinct that is accustomed to wide open spaces to stay put in a small box while we carry them from A to B.
The least we can do is minimise the chance that they will hurt themselves while loading, unloading, or being transported.
Here’s what to watch for:
Ramps are usually locked shut in three ways. There are over-centre latches which clamp shut, with a metal pin being essential for some added insurance. These latter-day additions to floats are great in that there’s nothing sharp on them that could do a horse harm.
The other two methods employ your standard-issue trailer fastener. If used, these must be done in such a way that they can be swung out of the way when the ramp is down. These pose a terrible danger if welded directly onto the back of the float. It’s easy to forget to flick the fitting into its “safe” vertical position.
Horses can easily move sideways and gash their throat badly. I know of one that nearly died of blood loss through doing just this. Change them.
There’s nothing like a little help in getting that heavy ramp up and down. The safest is unquestionably a single centre-mounted spring that ends up underneath the ramp when it’s down.
However, many floats have springs at each side, providing a dangerous triangle through which a horse can shove a leg during loading and unloading.
It’s not a major job for an engineer to mount a centre spring. If you’re not in a position to make the modification, organise some blocks of wood that can be put in position to block the holes before loading or unloading.
There are two elements here. Get under the float and make sure the steel that supports the floor has not badly corroded. If there’s surface rust, brush it off with a wire brush and paint it with a suitable anti-rust primer or use a zinc spray. Check that all welds are intact and not cracking. If in doubt, get your local engineer to take a quick look.
The floor itself will be either thick plywood – probably 30mm thick marine-grade, or 50mm thick treated pinus radiata, white pine (douglas fir), macrocarpa, or similar. The marine-grade ply is superb and found on many modern floats. It’s light, very strong, and resistant to rot.
Kiwis use a lot of treated pinus. It’s cheap and resistant to rot if you match the right grade of treatment with the job at hand. The main drawback with pinus is that it can go brittle as it gets old. That’s why so many farmers use white pine for their cattle yards. It’s harder and, when older, will maintain strength far better than pinus radiata.
In short, your treated pine floor will resist rot better but may become brittle with age. A floor of white pine is more prone to rot if areas get wet and stay wet, but its longer-term strength is better.
Either way, remove mats and give it a thorough test. Probe with a screwdriver for rot or weakness. Big knots can weaken timber. Are any boards flexing more than others? I like to apply a good timber oil to both sides of a float floor.
It helps seal the wood and the oils will help keep rot at bay. While you’re at it, check the ramp and sidewall timbers or plywood in the same way.
Floats generally need some extra steel here and there for bracing. This is often added either side of the ramp, providing a handy place to mount lights and indicators. It’s surprising how many floats have dangerous gaps here just asking for a horse’s leg to go through. They need to be blocked up, or bars welded in to prevent any mishaps.
A good, reasonably priced solution is treadplate aluminium. It’s light, quite easy to cut (use a metal-cutting blade in a jigsaw), and can easily be bent and drilled so that it can be riveted onto your float.
A sheet of 3mm thick treadplate, measuring 2.4m by 1.2m, costs about $165. A 2mm sheet is around $120. One sheet will provide plenty to fill any worrying gaps around your float.
Perhaps you could split the price of a sheet with a mate intent on doing the same thing? It also looks smart and won’t rust.
When you attach it, be sure to file smooth any sharp edges, and put some silicon sealer underneath if there’s a possibility water might get underneath and rust the steel.
It’s a big gap, but plenty of horses have nevertheless managed to get tangled and suffer a nasty injury, particularly if they end up near the brake assembly.
You don’t see it often (possibly due to cost) but this area is safest if covered in. If some strengthening is welded across the drawbar arms, you could even cut some treadplate aluminium and rivet it into position.
The most elegant solution I’ve seen is simply mesh welded into the space, but the mesh size must not allow a hoof through.
The spare tyre
It’s safest mounted around the front of the float. It may not look as good as on the side, but if your horse tie-up points are near the spare, be warned.
There have been cases where tied-up horses have moved and managed to get their rope caught around the spare.
The wheel and mud guards
There’s often a nasty gap between the tyres and the guards. Even worse, little attempt is made to minimise the sharp edges of the guards. If your guards are rounded and provide no opportunity for a leg to get in, you should be right. If not, have them redesigned or use rubber or similar materials to cover the sharp edges. Some cutting-edge floats are even using flexible plastic or rubber for the entire guard assembly.
If you have chains, are they covered with some form of padding? Bars or gates are a much safer option but, again, should have plenty of padding. Check for sharp edges everywhere – anything a horse could catch their hide on.
Don’t forget to run your eye over the ceiling area. Damaged fibreglass can sometimes have sharp edges. Patching kits are reasonably priced and the process isn’t difficult. Watch for the ends of bolts sticking out from nuts, which can inflict a nasty injury.
Chest bars that can be quickly removed will be best, making it much quicker to free a horse that may become stuck over the bar.
It’s understandable to think that horses like a panoramic view from the confines of their float. In my experience, horses are much more interested in looking at their mates than the scenery. There have been cases of horses climbing over the front bars, popping a window, and attempting to climb out. If you’ve got generous windows, consider whether some safety bars or a grille might be a sensible addition.
The last thing you want is a slippery surface. This applies to the floor as well as the ramp. Wooden strips across the ramp are probably safest. While they may not be the most comfortable thing to walk on, a horse will get some traction, regardless of whether it’s wet or dry. Rubber floors that are too smooth can become slippery when wet with water or urine. Put down sawdust if you feel this will help your horse’s stability.
Firstly, they must not be of such a shape that they would cause a horse an injury if it brushes past. Equally important, they must never be too low as this will significantly increase the risk of a horse suffering a serious injury if it pulls back. If your tie-up points are anywhere near a side-mounted spare wheel, consider moving the spare wheel elsewhere.
There are a number of views on the safest kind. They need to be tall enough to discourage horses that might be tempted to scramble over the top. But the greatest danger lies in the space between the bottom of the divider and floor.
From a safety viewpoint, this space should be either very generous, or hardly there at all. If a horse goes down, you don’t want it getting up and catching a leg under the divider. Thus, you can have a deep divider with so little room that a horse cannot get its legs or a hoof under, or one with such a large amount of space that if it does get in trouble, it’s unlikely to get its legs trapped when standing up.
Some argue that the really deep centre dividers limit a horse’s ability to place its feet where it feels safest and most comfortable. It’s probably so, as you’ve only got to see what a beating they receive after a few years on their lower half.
Conventional wisdom would suggest dividers with plenty of space underneath, but there will be a good number of float owners with a boot in the other camp.
Partitions should never be so low that they might entice a horse to try scrambling over it.
These have the potential to unnerve your horse and make his or her journey far less pleasant. Rocking inside a float will soon reveal whether your float is noisy on the road or not. The commonest cause of rattling and drumming is vibration between the sheetmetal covering of your float and the metal framing.
Rivets will have either worked loose or come out altogether. It’s possible you may need to replace them and possibly add a few extra. If you can drill a hole and put a screw into a piece of timber, you can do your own riveting. Rivets are measured by diameter and length. You’ll also need to borrow or buy a rivet gun, costing only a few dollars. You need to drill out the old rivets, using a drill bit which is the same diameter as the old rivet. Typically, it might be 4mm. They’re aluminium and soft, so it will be an easy job. When doing float rivets, tackle three or four at once holding the sheetmetal to a length of framing. Drill them out, then go inside the float and run a bead of silicon or RTV between the metal and the frame. This is some insurance against new rattles developing.
Then head outside again, put the rivet in the gun, stick the rivet in one of the holes you made and pump the handle until it pops. Opening the handle wide will release the leftover piece of the rivet and you’re ready to start again.
Most hardware stores carrying rivets in a range of colours, so you should find something that’s a near match to your paintwork.
Two things to watch: don’t drill a hole that’s going to be bigger than the rivets you intend using, and make sure the rivet shaft is long enough to get inside the steel framing and get a grip when you pump the trigger. If in doubt, get a knowledgeable friend to come round for a coffee and show you how.
Their demonstration will take less than 10 minutes and you’ll know everything you need to affix rivets all afternoon. Armed with this life skill, you’ll be attaching treadplate aluminium to your float in no time.
Keeping your float roadworthy is not the responsibility of the person who conducts your warrant of fitness checks every six months or year. It is your responsibility to keep it up to scratch at all times. With winter approaching, now is a good time to make sure you have plenty of tyre-tread depth for wet and icy roads, and that all the bulbs are in working order for dull or foggy days, or night driving.
Finally, it is worth remembering that safe floating is about managing risk. The more perils you can eliminate, the better your chances of a happy and uneventful outing.
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The horse lover’s guide to trouble-free towing
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Basic Float Training
This article first appeared on Horsetalk.co.nz in July, 2006.