Trailer Safety 101
Tuesdays with Tony
It will never cease to amaze me that horses willingly get into those dark boxes you humans call horse trailers and rattle along down the road. I’ve seen a few protests, but with a little training, encouragement, and some food, they comply and walk right on. You just try getting me into a cat carrier that easily! Since your horse trusts you enough to go against his natural instincts and get into that tin can, we’re going to discuss some very important safety tips to make sure you take good care of him while trailering. From loading to unloading and everything in between, there are opportunities everywhere for things to go wrong.
Before the trip
The most important thing, whether you are planning on hauling a horse around the country or around the corner, is to make sure your trailer is in good working order. Maintaining the functionality of your trailer is critical to the ease and safety of transport.
Inspecting the floor of your trailer is an essential part of trailer ownership. If you have floor mats, pull them up regularly and check underneath. Look for wood rot, rust, holes, and broken welds. Areas of weakness increase the risk of your horse falling through the floor. As you can imagine, a leg through the floor can result in a life-ending injury.
Next, be sure to check your door latches and hinges for any pieces that may be rusty, loose, or missing. As a cat who manages a vet clinic, I see way too many lacerations sustained on horse trailers. Please also check the interior of your trailer for screws or other sharp things that your horse could find to hurt himself on.
Check your trailer brakes, as well as brake lights, taillights, and turn signals before heading out. There could easily be a short in the wiring even if you just drove it yesterday. I see so many trailers come through the clinic with the lights not working. That’s just begging to get rear-ended, which doesn’t end well for the horse.
It’s always good to do a “circle of safety” just before driving away with your trailer. A circle of safety is where starting at the driver’s side door, you walk ALL the way around your truck and trailer until you return to that door, looking for anything amiss. Make sure you kick every tire, and make sure your spare is still inflated. Under-inflated tires are the #1 reason for blowouts, and blowouts are the #1 reason for trailers flipping over. A small air compressor is a lot cheaper than new tires! Look for dry rot, even if your tires aren’t old. The Florida sun is one of my favorite things. I love basking in it while taking my morning, midday and afternoon naps, but it sure is hard on tires when it comes to dry rot.
I highly recommend yearly maintenance by trailer professionals. Your wheel bearings should be repacked once a year – when was that last done? Has your trailer’s emergency brake battery been checked to make sure it will stop your trailer if it were to become detached from your truck? Maintaining a safe trailer in good working condition will reduce the risk of accidents and make for smoother hauling of your most precious cargo.
As you know, horses like to injure themselves or colic at the most inopportune times. It’s often necessary to transport your horse to a clinic or hospital for treatment. During an emergency is not the time to be teaching your horse how to load or unload.
Spend time in your usual day-to-day training teaching your horse to load and unload calmly and quietly. Take time to make sure that your horse is comfortable loading and unloading in all different conditions. Weather and time of day/night can affect your horse’s willingness to get on the trailer. Practicing trailer loading/unloading in normal circumstances will help to ensure your horse remains calm while loading in times of urgency.
What should your horse be wearing?
The first choice is whether or not to tie your horse. There are positives and negatives to both schools of thought, but also some firm rules.
When your horse is loose in the trailer, he can maneuver and stabilize himself in whichever way he feels safest. He can also lower his head and neck more easily which allows him to rest while on a long ride. Lowering his head can help to reduce the chance of a respiratory infection because he can clear his nostrils of dust, dirt, mucus, and germs when he coughs or sneezes. Tying your horse’s head high prevents this very normal behavior and may result in a sick horse.
Some very small horses or ponies might be at risk of turning around in the straight stall of a trailer if they are left loose, or they may find themselves under a bar or panel where they could get injured by another horse. However, most horses find comfort in a bag of hay in front of them and the ability to move around as necessary.
If you do choose to tie your horse, make sure you use a method that can be easily released in case of a problem. My favorite method is to hang “Blocker Tie-Rings” in the trailer and use those to attach the lead rope. These tie rings allow a horse to pull slack in the lead rope if he panics or falls. Similarly, they are quick release if you need to free him fast. You may also choose to use a quick release knot when tying your horse. Whichever method you decide on, make sure the lead rope and any extra equipment is secured safely out of the reach of your horse.
Possibly the most important thing to remember when tying your horse in the trailer is what type of halter you use. Please, listen to this old cat on this one. Please, please, please put your horse in a leather halter, or at the very least, a break-away halter. Halters that don’t break, including rope halters, are incredibly dangerous whether your horse is tied or not. If a horse slips and falls or there is an accident, and your horse is tied with a rope halter or one that doesn’t break, you risk him breaking his back or neck. Similarly, if your horse is in the trailer and has a halter on that is not breakable, you risk him getting caught on a part of the trailer, panicking and injuring himself. And if your trailer is on its side or upside down, it can be nearly impossible to get them out if they are too securely attached. The longer it takes to get them out, the more they will suffer, and the less likely they are to survive. Trust me, this is something that is so easy and can prevent CATastrophe.
I’m a big believer in putting wraps or boots on your horse’s legs for trailering. Horse legs are soooo delicate and they have almost no cushioning over the important bones and tendons. Remember, it doesn’t matter if your horse is good at trailering and you’re a good driver, because someone else on the road who’s not so careful can still cause a wreck. You can use old-school standing wraps or modern shipping boots. Boots are super quick and easy to apply. They’re basically fool-proof and offer good protection. Get your horse used to wraps or boots before attempting them for a trailer ride though.
Positioning in the trailer
If you have a straight-load trailer, you always want to load the heavier horse on the driver’s side. If you’re only hauling one horse, he should likewise go on the driver’s side. The reason behind this has to do with the pitch, or slant, of the road. When paved, the road is actually taller in the middle than at the shoulder. If you were to put the heavier load on the passenger side, the combination of the pitch of the road and the uneven weight would cause the trailer to pull hard to the right. And if the tires on that side go off the pavement, having all the weight on that side can cause a rollover.
If you have a slant load, the heaviest horse should go at the front (closest to your truck), to reduce the chance of your trailer fishtailing out of control.
Think safety first
When driving your trailer, practice defensive driving at all times. It seems today fewer and fewer people on the road understand trailer safety, so you have to be extra cautious. Give yourself more than enough stopping distance. Take turns slow and wide. Leave extra time and don’t speed. And my personal favorite: don’t pull in anywhere you aren’t sure you can get your trailer out of!
At rest stops, check your horse to make sure everything is hunky-dory. Remember to offer your horse water when you stop, to prevent colic on a long trip. I recommend always carrying extra water with you while you are shipping your horse. You may be going five minutes away or five hours away, but either way, extra water is very important. A trailer on the side of the road full of horses can get dangerously hot very quickly.
Carry a first aid kit and an extra halter and lead rope in a safe, easily accessible place. For more info on packing a good first aid kit, see one of my First Aid blogs.
I could keep giving you Tony Trailer Tips all day, but a cat’s gotta nap. I think the most important thing to remember is that you have some very precious cargo onboard! So do your work before you ask your horse to step on the trailer so you can enjoy safe travels and good rides!
Until next week,
P.S. The humans made a really good video about trailering. You can watch it here. While you’re on my YouTube Channel, make sure you subscribe and check out all the other great videos!
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!