The trouble with towing a horse trailer – and how to stay out of it

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There are several safety factors to consider when towing a horse trailer.
There are several safety factors to consider when towing a horse trailer.

Make sure those outings to the beach or horse show become treasured memories and not nightmares. Former motoring editor Neil Clarkson offers some advice for safe trailering.

Towing a horse trailer (or horse float, if you’re in Australasia) is not without risks. A pleasant outing for horse and rider can turn into the day from hell if things start going wrong.

It’s impossible, of course, to eliminate every potential problem, but it’s surprising how many factors we do have control over. By applying a little common sense and knowing how to deal with some of the problems, we can greatly reduce the chances of disaster.

Here are 10 areas to think about:

1. Tires

A worrying number of serious road accidents result from tire blowouts, regardless of whether a trailer is involved. People, not roads, play the biggest part: A worn tire is many more times more likely to suffer a puncture than one in good condition.

Overseas studies indicate that 75 per cent of blowouts are caused by under-inflation, which can cause dangerous heat build-up in a tire. It will also cost you money in extra tire wear and extra fuel consumption, and will affect the way your trailer is tracking behind your vehicle.

Check your tyre pressures regularly (always when the tyres are cold), and inspect the tread area for stones and other foreign objects that can cause damage.
Check your tire pressures regularly (always when the tires are cold), and inspect the tread area for stones and other foreign objects that can cause damage.

Check your tire pressures regularly (always when the tires are cold), and inspect the tread area for stones and other foreign objects that can cause damage.

Check the sidewalls (inside and out) for cuts and bulges, both of which can spell trouble.

Don’t forget to inspect your spare. While you’re at it, check that all the wheel nuts are tight.

Should you suffer a blowout, it’s important to avoid jumping hard on the brakes. The response of your vehicle will depend upon which tire goes, but most likely your vehicle will lurch left or right.

This can be quite violent if you’re in a four-wheel-drive with high-sidewall tires. Maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel and try easing the vehicle and trailer gently off the road. Lose speed gradually — you can change down through the gears — and come to a stop.

If you must steer to control a slide, turn gradually in the direction of the slide.

If you’re able, flick on your hazard lights as soon as possible to warn other motorists of a problem.

Finally, if you don’t use your horse trailer much, it’s possible you may have bought those tires off Henry Ford himself. Rubber perishes with age, so if you reckon the tires are over 10 years old, get your friendly tire center to check them.

Extra info! Are you running your trailer on car tires?

A tandem-axle horse trailer may weigh more than two tonnes with two horses on board. It’s much safer to run on light truck tires than car tires. Light truck tires are built tougher and are designed to take bigger loads.

They’re more expensive, but your chances of a puncture or blowout will be greatly reduced. They should carry an “LT” marking.

Car tyre or light truck tyre? Light truck tyres should carry an LT marking.
Car tire or light truck tire? Light truck tires should carry an LT marking.

Under-inflated tires not only increase the chance of a dangerous blowout, but also ruin your fuel economy and raise the risk of fishtailing. A British study found 75 per cent of blowouts were caused by under-inflation. The same study found that one in four tires were at least 10 per cent under-inflated, meaning there’s a pretty good chance that one of your tires will need air right now!

2. Fire!

Just because horses don’t play with matches is no reason to forget about carrying a fire extinguisher. The most likely cause of fire in a horse trailer is overheated brakes, either through leaving the handbrake on or through them locking on while in transit.

A dry-powder fire extinguisher is an important addition to your travelling kit.
A dry-powder fire extinguisher is an important addition to your travelling kit.

The greatest risk with hydraulic brakes is when you’re facing a long downhill stretch, which can make the brakes engage. Brakes can generate tremendous heat so the risk is very real. There’s plenty of wood in most horse trailers, and that bale of hay in front will burn pretty well, too.

A dry powder extinguisher should cover most eventualities. Be familiar with its operation and have it checked or replaced at the recommended intervals. They’re no good on cooking oil and fat fires, so if you have built-in accommodation and regularly enjoy fry-ups, you may need an additional class of extinguisher. All will be clearly marked.

Check and double-check when you hook up your horse trailer.
Check and double-check when you hook up your horse trailer: Coupling properly on and locked in place, chains connected, electrics hooked up and lights checked, trailer handbrake off, and the reversing lock disengaged.
3. Getting hitched

Be systematic. Never do half a hitching job. When the horse trailer and towing vehicle come together, hook them up there and then.

How many people have driven to an event only to find they left the lever across which allows them to reverse without the brakes locking? Or taken off with the trailer brake on?

Connect the coupling to the ball and check it is locked into place. Ensure the reversing lock is disengaged and the trailer handbrake is off (unless you’re on a slope).

Connect the electrics and have someone check the lights. Connect the safety chains. Two are much safer than one. If you have two, cross them over underneath the coupling. This means if the trailer comes off the ball, the chains will catch the towbar, much like a cradle.

If you have two chains, cross them over beneath the coupling, but be sure there is still enough slack to allow for cornering. Crossed chains are able to "catch" the float if it comes off the ball.
If you have two chains, cross them over beneath the coupling, but be sure there is still enough slack to allow for cornering. Crossed chains are able to “catch” the trailer if it comes off the ball.

With one chain, you don’t want the front of a disconnected trailer digging into the road or it could flip, so make sure your chain length is just right. You also don’t want chains that are so short they prevent turning. When you head off, quickly re-check the coupling after a hundred metres or so to make sure everything is working as it should. Re-check everything before you begin the journey home.

4. Get the balancing act right

Even weight distribution is crucial to a safe outing. A well-designed trailer will be nicely balanced with horses on board. If you have raised suspension on a four-wheel-drive towing vehicle, fit a properly rated drop-down tow bar so the trailer tows nice and level. Distribute saddles, feed, and luggage evenly between the trailer and the vehicle.

Distribute saddles, feed, and luggage evenly between the trailer and the vehicle.
Distribute saddles, feed, and luggage evenly between the trailer and the vehicle.

Don’t put everything at the front of the trailer, especially if it’s heavy, as this can place undue weight on the tow ball and ruin the towing dynamics. Generally, place heavier objects as close to the floor as possible, and never put too much weight behind the trailer axles. Make sure your vehicle is rated to safely tow the weight of the laden horse trailer. Getting any of this wrong can have disastrous consequences. If the trailer starts fishtailing from side to side, not only you, but your horses and other nearby road users face serious danger.

Extra info! Fishtailing is one of the scariest experiences you’re ever likely to have when towing a horse trailer.

It’s effectively a case of the tail wagging the dog: the trailer begins swaying from side to side, pulling at the towing vehicle. If you’re unable to control it, the trailer is likely to overturn, pull you off the road, or you’ll jack-knife, possibly sliding into the path of oncoming traffic.

You need to bring a fishtailing trailer under control gradually. Hitting the brakes hard is likely to end in an immediate jack-knife. You need to gently lose speed by easing off the accelerator while trying to keep the towing vehicle in a straight line. Do not attempt to “correct” a fishtailing trailer by steering. This is likely to make the problem worse. Concentrate on staying straight and losing speed. Once you begin to slow the trailer should fall back into line.

You then need to address the root cause to prevent it from happening again. There are several factors, or combinations of factors, that contribute to fishtailing — and it may not be the trailer at fault. You could have been driving too fast. It could be that your vehicle’s wheelbase is too short, its suspension too soft, or it’s simply too light for the horse trailer. It’s possible you’ve loaded the trailer poorly, with uneven weight distribution, or that you’re carrying too much weight too high. The trailer suspension could be too soft. Mismatched tires and uneven inflation can often play a part.

If your vehicle-trailer combination has a habit of beginning to fishtail, it’s time to start looking at whether you have the ideal combination.

But remember, no matter how well you are set up for towing, fishtailing is an ever-present threat. A tire blowout, wind gust, or moving horse could be all it takes to set up this dangerous situation.

A mobile phone can be a lifeline in times of emergency. Make sure it's with you and charged!
A mobile phone can be a lifeline in times of emergency. Make sure it’s with you and charged!
5. It’s tool time!

You don’t need a lot: some screwdrivers, a crescent spanner and pliers. Your vehicle’s standard tool kit may suffice, but check. Add a hammer, some strong tape, a good torch, and a reflective vest for any roadside dramas (and riding). Carry a spare bulb for your trailer lights. The tools are not just for running repairs, but may be crucial in getting your horses out of a trailer in an emergency.

6. Carry a cellphone.

Consider it your very own Batphone. Use it in an emergency. If you’ve been in an accident, emergency personnel may not know how to handle horses and you might be in no condition to help. Use it to summon friends who can.

7. First aid

A kit for you, and a kit for your horses. Most horse owners are likely to leave home with the stuff to cover every eventually for their horses, but not for themselves. If you don’t have a good first aid kit permanently in your vehicle or horse trailer, ask Santa for one this Christmas.

A first aid kit for your horses ... and don't forget one for you.
A first aid kit for your horses … and don’t forget one for you.
8. Adjust your driving

Stick to the 90kmh speed limit, or slower if traffic and road conditions dictate. Some horse trailer owners will not exceed 80kmh.

Increase following distances because, aside from the longer stopping distances caused by the extra weight, who wants to slam on the anchors with horses on board?

Keep looking ahead for potential hazards and adjust your driving accordingly. Take corners wider, or your trailer will collect the kerb and frighten the horses.

Try to avoid braking through a corner, as it could jack-knife the trailer. Brake gently while still going in a straight line and slow to a speed that you can take the corner at without further braking. A good rule of thumb is not to change speed and direction at the same time.

Be courteous and let faster traffic pass when you safely can.

Use a lower gear going downhill so you use the engine as a brake. This will reduce the amount of foot-braking necessary and minimise the chance of overheating. Remember: hot brakes are inefficient brakes.

If your side mirrors are ineffective with the trailer hitched up, invest in an extension mirror.

A backing tip: Place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want the back of the float to go left, move it left. If you want it to go right, move it right.
A backing tip: Place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want the back of the trailer to go left, move it left. If you want it to go right, move it right.
9. Get that backing right

You’re best to have someone out spotting for you. Reversing is never much fun, but practice makes perfect. If you’re always forgetting which way to turn the wheel, apply this technique: Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel. If you want the rear of the trailer to go left, move your hand in that direction. If you want right-hand movement, go right.

10. Don’t forget the towing vehicle

A well-maintained trailer is not much good if the towing vehicle expires during the outing. Towing a trailer puts extra loads on the engine, the transmission, the brakes — just about every moving component. The byproduct is usually extra heat, so ensure the engine oil, coolant, brake fluid and transmission oil are topped up and not overdue for a change. Make sure the radiator cooling fins are in good nick and not clogged. Check the rubber hoses of the vehicle’s cooling system regularly as these deteriorate with heat. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge when you’re on the move, and watch for any sudden changes.

One thought on “The trouble with towing a horse trailer – and how to stay out of it

  • September 16, 2021 at 2:04 am
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    As a five year HGV/PSV B plus E driving instructor in the UK the law is about to change on September 2021 allowing all new drivers to tow trailers upto 3500kgs..
    As a veteran HGV driver with 36 experience & 25 in Europe I saw first hand the consequences of allowing 18 year olds to drive heavy vehicles..
    It’s my prediction that within three years the Government will be forced to rethink this policy with the majority of motorways are closed daily because of road traffic collisions.

    There was a good reason why training was required because there’s a great deal more involved then simply operating two vehicles.

    Reply

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