Owning a horse trailer equals freedom! And before we hit the road, we need to follow safety procedures and do some fundamental systems checks to help assure confident and safe horse trailering. A few hours spent now will prevent future disasters on the highway.My name is Norma Gurkin, and I have been involved in horses since I was six years old. During a lifetime and career of owning, boarding, breeding, and training regional and national level horses for both myself and my clients, I have logged many miles pulling a horse trailer behind me. My horse travel miles have been completed safely, but I have witnessed several unfortunate incidents that other people have experienced while hauling horses, and it has deepened my appreciation of what can go wrong, and the need to avoid it!
I have seen firsthand that there is no substitute for proper preparation, attention to detail, and a properly executed travel plan when taking horses out on the road. My sincere hope is that the following horse trailer safety checklist will insulate you from having the wrong kind of travel “adventure,” and contribute to your safe arrival at your destination.
Safe Horse Trailering Checklist – Know before You Tow
There are important concerns you must pay attention to before you haul, during your haul, and after you complete your haul.
Safe horse trailering calls for thoughtful planning and experienced foresight. We want to reach our destination trouble-free while keeping our four-legged travelers as comfortable as possible. The following information is divided in what I consider the four parts of traveling with horses. These tips are for anyone hauling their horses either short or long distances and cross-country hauling.
Part 1: Pre-Trip Horse Trailer Inspection
As a hauling veteran, I believe one of the most important things I can do to help ensure a safe, smooth road trip for myself and my horses, is to make a “pre-trip” inspection of my horse trailer and equipment. The following suggestions will help set you up for a successful trip:
- Flooring: One essential task that I routinely perform is the inspection of the floor in my horse trailer. It is a good idea to inspect under the mats in the bottom of the trailer prior to each trip. At least once every six months I remove the mats entirely from the trailer, and check the flooring for any weak spots that may have developed since my last inspection. If your floor is aluminum, check for corrosion from contact with urine and manure. Even if rust is not a concern with aluminum construction, corrosion over time is still something to keep an eye on, since it can contribute to structural decay.Always make sure that you have slip-proof mats over top of aluminum floors since this type of floor readily transfers road heat and becomes extremely slippery when your horse voids. If your trailer floor is made of wood you will absolutely need to check each time for rot. Check for rot, dry rot, or dampness both visually, and by using a sharp object to push into the wood. If the sharp object easily pushes through, then the flooring will need to be replaced.
- Floor Support System: Another area that I visually and physically inspect before hitting the road is the floor support system underneath the trailer. I look for any signs of trouble underneath, such as rust, corrosion, or weak spots. You should never ignore a bad trailer floor; your horse’s life always depends on it being in excellent shape!
- Grease: I make sure all parts of the horse trailer that need grease get it. There are grease fittings located in different areas that enable you to grease and maintain these systems. Remember that over-greasing can also turn into a problem, as well as not greasing enough. If you are unsure about using the proper amount, you should get a qualified mechanic to do it for you.
- Interior: Safe horse trailering requires inspecting the interior of the trailer before putting anything into it. I make sure to inspect all surfaces for any broken or cracked areas that could potentially injure a horse. In addition, I feel for any metal or plastic “snags” that could pose a problem. I check all latches and dividers to ensure that everything is in pristine shape, and working well. I pay attention to, and make sure that there are no wasps, bees, or rodents that have moved in, or built nests, in between trips.
- Batteries: I check all batteries (such as on the breakaway system) with a battery tester to make sure they are fully charged. If you do not feel comfortable doing this, you should enlist the help of a friend knowledgeable in this area, or get a mechanic to do it for you.
- Safety Chains: Make sure that your horse trailer is equipped with safety chains. If your trailer does not have safety chains, have some installed by a professional. Be aware that most of the states in the U.S. require safety chains.
- Ramps: Inspect all ramps attached to your horse trailer. All ramps should be of substantial construction, and be covered in a non-slip mat or material for loading and unloading horses. I also think it is a good idea to check rear doors, exterior escape doors, and all latches to ensure that they are in top working order, and can be latched securely.
- Trailer Hitch: I always inspect the trailer hitch for any issues, and make double sure that it is in proper working order.
- Tires: One of the most important things that I do before hooking up is to check all tires (including the spare) for any signs of bald spots, serious wear, wires that are exposed, and any dry rot that might be present. Either yourself, or a mechanic, should check all the lug nuts to make sure that none are loose, and all are tightened properly. I take the time to check the air pressure in all the tires before each trip. Every tire is marked from the manufacturer with the proper air pressure amount that is recommended. Anyone who pulls a horse trailer should own a tire pressure gauge, and get instruction on how to use it properly. If my trailer tires are older than four years old, I replace them. No one who pulls a horse trailer wants to be stranded on the side of the road late at night with a blown-out tire! What a nightmare!
- Windows: If your horse trailer is equipped with either sliding, or drop-down windows, be sure that there are screens in place to protect the horses from flying debris while on the road. Bars will keep the horses from sticking their heads out, but without safety screens all sorts of debris can still get in (i.e. lit cigarette butts, stones etc.)
- Safety Gear: Make sure to get out any safety gear that you will use for traveling with your horses, such as head bumpers, quilted leg wraps, and safety halters. Check all safety tie straps that will be used on the horses, and be sure that they are in good working order.
- Lights: This is also a good time to check all interior and exterior lights to be confident that they are functioning correctly. When I ordered my horse trailer, the addition of interior lights inside the trailer for checking on horses at night, and exterior loading lights for nighttime loading and unloading, were some of the smartest option choices I made. Having these lights are “must haves” for me, and I feel that they provide an added layer of safety for dealing with horses at night when traveling. It is no fun dealing with an upset horse at night inside of a pitch-dark trailer! If you are considering the use of a flash light, then be assured that it is a poor substitute compared to dedicated interior lighting, plus the flashlight itself can upset the horses.
- Reflective Aids: Apply reflective material on the rear ramp or doors of your trailer to aid in visibility to other motorists. Personally, I like the idea of adding a caution message on the rear of the trailer. The text might say something like, “Caution – Horses – Please keep a safe distance.”
- Roominess: I try to be sure that any horse I am hauling has plenty of room in the trailer that I am using. I make certain that a horse has ample head room, and enough space to fit properly in the trailer (not scrunched into it). The last thing you want on the road is a horse that is panicked due to his confinement. If possible, the trailer should feel light, airy, and roomy to the horse.
- Stocked Tool Box: I never leave home without a tool box inside my tow vehicle or trailer in case of a break down, or equipment adjustments that I might need to make while on the road. An adequately stocked tool box is invaluable for emergency repairs that you might have to make “on the fly.” If your mechanical knowledge is limited, then you should consider taking a class, or getting some instruction from a friend on what to do in case of a breakdown. You don’t need to know nearly as much a full-fledged mechanic, but sometimes knowing just a little can help you “limp back to civilization.”Keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to get a truck that is attached to a horse trailer towed. Most towing companies (AAA, etc.) will not tow you, unless you unhook from your trailer. I have firsthand experience with this! Not a pleasant situation! Fortunately, in my case, we could do a temporary fix to get back home. I don’t know of any horse owner who would readily leave a trailer full of horses (or even one horse) parked on the side of the road unattended! I do recommend to people that they might want to consider membership with a specialty company —such as US Rider.org — that can handle that type of tow job, and assist with the horses if an overnight stay is necessary while waiting for your truck to be fixed.
- Emergency Road Aids: Be sure to carry emergency flares and emergency triangles for use during the day or night in the case of a breakdown on the highway. Emergency flares and triangles used at night can help to protect you, your horses, and other people in passenger vehicles from a tragic accident due to poor visibility.
Part 2: Hitching Up
Whenever I haul horses, I never load them into the trailer until the very last thing. There are still areas to attend to before you are ready to load. Be sure to pay attention to all details, even the smallest, and put the odds of having a safe trip in your favor; not left to chance!
That old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is very relevant to safe horse trailering. Other things to do before loading include:
- Hook Up: I hook up the trailer and truck, I check the hitch apparatus, and make sure that the coupler, breakaway brake system, and safety chains are secured and attached properly. Double checking and triple checking is appropriate when making sure everything is hooked up correctly.
- Check Brakes: While the horse trailer is still unloaded, I check out the trailer brakes and brake box to ensure that the braking system is functioning and adjusted properly. Keep in mind that once the horses are loaded, your braking system will still require adjustments while under way.
- Check Lights: Next, I check all the signal lights, running lights, and brake lights. You will probably need to employ the help of an assistant for this part. Let your assistant watch for the signals while you employ them from the driver’s seat. You can check the running lights on your own, if needed.
- Check Vents: I check to make sure that any vents needed for ventilation are open prior to loading the horses. The overhead vents in the roof of the trailer are usually hard to access once the horses are on board. Always ensure that the horses have ventilation, even in the wintertime. Without proper ventilation at all times, moisture, heat, and harmful odors are trapped in the trailer and can’t escape.Bear in mind that closing all the vents and windows in a horse trailer can be a real mistake. I once shut all the windows in my trailer during a winter time haul. I thought that I was doing the horse a favor by protecting him from the cold, but instead, my plan backfired. This small stallion was the only horse in my large enclosed gooseneck trailer, and did not have a blanket on at all.I traveled one hour before checking on him. As soon as I dropped down one of the windows, steam came pouring out from inside. Although it was the middle of the winter, the stallion was sweating just as badly as he would have been during the middle of the summer.From that time on, I always made sure to open at least a few top vents and crack a window behind the horse for winter travel. For summer travel, I open everything available; windows and vents. Lesson learned; always make sure to properly ventilate the trailer, even during the winter months.
- Bedding: If possible, make sure to bed the trailer floor as deep as you can. By making the bedding thick, it will help to cushion the ride, help to eliminate odors, and absorb urine. You can also wet the bedding to create a sort of “air cooling” effect inside the trailer, and to keep fine particles and dust from going airborne. Never dampen the bedding without non-slip mats in place to cover flooring that will become slippery when exposed to moisture.
- Water & Hay: Now is the time to hang any water buckets and hay bags that you want the horses to have access to on their ride. Just be sure that anything you hang inside the stall for the horse is attached with safety in mind. You never want to have anything that the horse will get hung on, or hung into, while on the road. If I use hay bags, I prefer to use the kind that are constructed out of solid material, instead of netting, to remove the possibility of the horse getting a leg or head hung up.
Part 3: Loading Up
Anyone who has ever had substantial dealings with horses is keenly aware that they are highly intelligent creatures. I always keep in mind the fact that they are not only extremely smart, but they also have a flight or fright response deeply ingrained in their instinctual nature. Any horse, no matter how smart and well-trained, has the capacity at any time to become scared, panic, and hurt the handler by accident.
Add to that scenario any horse that is not comfortable loading, and you have the ingredients for a major wreck if something goes wrong. The following safe horse trailering suggestions can aid in keeping the horse loading procedure from “going off the rails.”
- Begin Loading Horses: It bears repeating that loading the horses is the last task before leaving. I have everything checked, double-checked, and ready to go before bringing the horses up to the trailer. I put any head bumpers, wraps, or blankets on the horses before removing them from their stalls or pastures. You do not want to be putting these items on the horse inside the horse trailer.
- Have a Loading Order: Whenever I haul more than one horse, I pay special attention to the loading order of the horses. This is especially important when using a slant load trailer, since access to certain horse stalls inside the trailer can be limited (for example, the middle stall in a three-horse slant).If I know that I have a horse that hasn’t trailered before, travels nervous, or is easily upset, then I make sure to put that horse in the rear of the trailer so that I can unload it quickly, if the need arises, without having to move or unload other horses first.
- Be Mentally Ready: Make sure that you are calm, and in the right frame of mind for handling and loading the horses. Sometimes a horse (even a seasoned veteran) can become nervous about getting into the trailer, and may require a little patience.If you are in a hurry, impatient, or angry, the horse will sense this. Your job will quickly become much more of a challenge. When the handler gets upset with a difficult horse, this tends to wind it up even more. Things between horse and handler can quickly spiral out of control – and even the most careful and safe horse trailering plan can fall to pieces.
- “I’ll just force him in!” (not): Never attempt to force a reluctant horse into a trailer. A horse is a lot bigger than you are, and you can’t MAKE him do anything! By attempting to force a horse into the trailer, it only makes the situation worse, and endangers both the handler and the horse. It is much preferred for the horse to think that it is his idea to go inside the trailer. This is accomplished through patience, skillful handling, and knowledge of how to handle this type of situation.If you have a horse that is difficult to load, and the scenario is more advanced than your skill set, then you would be ahead of the game to get someone to help you who is experienced in loading difficult horses. By approaching it this way, you can now observe what is done, and learn by example.Ideally, you should always do your preparation ahead of time; work with the horse, and practice loading long before you actually need to go somewhere.
- Make Sure You Have a Way Out: Always be aware of your position in relation to the horse and the trailer. You do not want to end up pinned into a corner, or a tight space by any horse, no matter how trustworthy it is. My worst “horse wreck” happened while working with a youth mount; a very trustworthy horse, no doubt, but I was injured nonetheless. I also remember a lady who got kicked and injured one time saying, “he never did that before.”Bottom line; ANY horse can hurt you by accident. Even a very gentle horse can accidentally “squash” you on a divider or a trailer wall. The danger is magnified when you are working with a frightened horse and manage to get trapped in a bad spot. Always be aware of what is going on with the horse, and always have a way out of the “danger zone.”
- Be Patient! If you have a horse who is nervous about loading, do your best to not rush things along. If a horse is unsure of loading, it may feel more comfortable being allowed to back out of the trailer a couple of times before it is relaxed enough to stay inside. Once the horse is loaded you should probably wait a few minutes before shutting the loading doors on the trailer. This additional time allows a nervous passenger to settle into the situation, versus rushing things and taking the chance of a blow up.
- What to strive for: If you are fortunate enough to have a horse that will go into the trailer on its own with no assistance, that is the safest way, by far. Consider yourself blessed! With this type of horse, you can lay the lead line across the neck just prior to the horse stepping in. After the horse loads, you can then go in, shut the divider, remove the lead line, and hook the horse up to the safety tie.
Part 4: Hitting the Road!
On the road, again! Once you hit the highway, try to put yourself “in your horse’s shoes” and imagine what it is like for the horses in the trailer. Always attempt to keep their comfort and safety in mind at all times.
Review the following items and use them as suggestions to help your equine passengers have a smooth and comfortable ride till you reach your destination.
- Imagine Standing with Your Horses: Visualize yourself in a noisy, cramped, and hot box where the ground beneath your feet is constantly moving and shifting. You feel every bump in the road, must shift your weight continually on tired legs, and have the added bonus of smelling exhaust fumes to boot! This is the world that the horses experience inside the trailer.Whenever I am on the road, I always drive with the horses in mind. I take corners slowly when turning, accelerate slowly from stops, and try not to slam on the brakes when stopping. Sometimes drivers will “teach” the horses by using a small, EASY tap on the brakes just before they apply the brakes for stopping or turning. Over time, this small tap becomes a “cue” for the horses (just like a cue that is used for a riding horse), and they understand that a change in momentum is getting ready to take place. This “cue” allows a few seconds for the horses to prepare for the stop or turn that is coming.
- Take Rest Breaks: If possible, I like to stop every few hours for a small break. This gives the horses a chance to relax their muscles from balancing for a little while, and also gives me a chance to offer the horses water (if not provided during travel), a chance to check if the ventilation in the trailer is adjusted properly, and affords me an opportunity to visually inspect and assess the behavior of the horses (is there one that is upset, or nervous?) This break also allows me to check on the trailer itself (are the tires and wheel bearings ok?) Keep in mind when taking a break during the summer heat, it is preferable to park under a shady spot when you can. If shade is not available, then keep the break short and get the air flow moving in the horse trailer as quickly as possible.
- Trailering Horses at Night: When I trailer in hot climates, I often like to travel at night when it will be much cooler on the horses. I also find that there is an added bonus of less traffic at night. The lack of traffic can be especially helpful if you must travel through any cities that have heavy traffic, and possible traffic jams during the daytime. I can usually make better time at night since traffic is sparse.There are a few drawbacks to nighttime travel to consider. Deer and animals are very active at night, and you have to pay close attention to any animals crossing the road, or feeding alongside the highway. Another caveat to night travel is the fact that there are fewer gas stations that are open all night long. I have found that I do not have a problem getting fuel as long as I stick to the interstate highways. Perhaps the most unsettling thought of night travel is the possibility of a breakdown. Having mechanical failures in the middle of the night can definitely present more challenges than it does during the day.
- Tying: When tying the horse in the trailer, always use a safety tie and/or a safety halter. Try to tie the horse loose enough to allow room for the horse to drop the head and drain the lungs, if possible, but not so long as to allow for a leg over the rope.Whenever I trailer a horse that doesn’t tie well, I always try to make allowances for that fact. For a horse that might “sit back” on the tie rope, I always make sure to leave enough slack for the horse’s butt to touch the wall before the trailer tie becomes taught. That way, as soon as the horse feels something behind him, he will react and move forward without putting any pressure on the tie rope. When I tie a horse this way, it never feels any pressure on the poll, and I take away the main reason for the horse to pull back hard.If I have a horse in a box stall set up, then I turn the horse loose, and allow it to move freely. In my experience, given the choice, a horse will turn around and ride backwards facing the rear of the trailer most of the time. This rear facing stance seems to help many horses retain their balance easier.
- Horse Trailer Camera / Monitor: If you are fortunate enough to have a monitor in the horse compartment of the trailer, be careful taking your eyes off of the road while watching what is going on inside the horse trailer. If possible, have a friend or companion ride “shotgun” so that they can monitor the horses for you. This will free you up to devote all of your attention to driving, thus making the trip safer for humans and horses. See our review of horse trailer monitoring systems.
- Keep Some Lead Ropes Handy: Whenever I pull a horse trailer I like to have at least a couple of lead ropes inside the cab of the truck with me. In the case of an accident, I will probably be able to get to the leads easier inside the truck for any horse that might get loose, versus the possibility of not being able to access the leads in the horse trailer. For example, the tack compartment might be inaccessible due to bent doors, panicking horses, the trailer breaking loose, or perhaps the trailer rolling on its side covering the tack compartment door.
- Electrolytes: For travel in hot weather, consider giving the horses an electrolyte paste which will encourage the horses to drink better on the road. Always offer clean drinking water routinely for the horses. Whenever I can, I try to take water from home, so that it won’t taste different to the horses. If water tastes funny to them, it can discourage them from drinking. In addition to offering water, be vigilant during the trip about checking for dehydration.
- Layover Stalling for Overnight Trailering: If you are going far enough that you will have to travel over several days, then you should consider stopping at lay over stables each day to let the horses stay over in stalls where they can stretch their legs, rest, relax, eat, re-hydrate, and unwind for several hours (horse show venues and fair grounds typically work very well for this purpose). Just be careful when doing a layover, and be sure to disinfect the stalls you will be using with some bleach diluted with water, or a commercial equine disinfectant.
- Unloading: Once I arrive at my destination, I try to get the horses off the trailer as soon as it is feasible so that the horses can be on “solid ground” again. Even seasoned travelers are always excited about getting off the trailer and getting “out of the cave.” Plus, the longer the horses stand around in the trailer, the more likely they are to get anxious about getting out. If a horse inside the trailer is nervous, the quicker you can get it out, the better off it will be. Once the horses are off the trailer, they will drink water better, and eat better.
Develop your own safe horse trailering plan!
In addition to horse transport, there are other uses for your horse trailer; such as hauling hay, moving lumber and construction supplies, hauling horse feed, and toting heavy objects of any type. If you are fortunate enough to own a horse trailer with living quarters, then you can even use it to take a vacation, without the horses in tow!
No matter what jobs you use your trailer for, its main purpose is the safe transport of your horse, or horses. Our horses represent a huge investment in time, money, and love. We need to always remember to do our homework before pulling out of the driveway to haul horses, and stay vigilant to changing conditions while on the road.
Develop your personal, safe horse trailering plan, follow the plan, and chances are good that you and your horses will arrive in great shape!
A horse trailer means you have the freedom for you and your horse to be mobile. It opens the door for you and your horse to travel to horse shows, trail rides, exhibitions, educational events, horse vacations and clinics, just to name a few. Read more about various types of horse trailers.
Pleasant travels everyone!