Marjorie R. Margentino, Program Associate in Animal Science; Karyn Malinowski, Ph.D., Director Equine Science Center; and Carey A. Williams, Ph.D., Extension Specialist in Equine Management
Horse owners will usually find it necessary at some point in time to trailer their horses. Trailering may be necessary at time of purchase, for horse shows, trail riding, or a medical emergency. Whatever the need, it is important to be prepared and knowledgeable about trailering safety. Poor preparation of the horse, trailer or towing vehicle can turn a pleasurable outing into a horse owner’s nightmare. Poor truck and trailer maintenance can result in traffic accidents or breakdowns such as a flat tire; a broken axle, spindle or spring; and motor failure. In more extreme cases, broken welds can cause a trailer to become detached from the towing vehicle. Perhaps the most serious problem that can result from improper trailer upkeep is having a horse fall through rotted floorboards, especially during travel. This fact sheet will provide the basic concerns involved in horse trailer maintenance and trailering safety.
When purchasing a horse trailer consider the following needs:
Regular maintenance checks should be performed on a horse trailer every time it is used. Routine items include:
Yearly maintenance checks include:
Preparing the Horse for Travel
- Always remove all tack (saddle, bridle, harness) from the horse when trailering.
- If the trailer is a stock trailer or has open vents, wet or clipped horses should be blanketed.
Loading the Horse
- Make sure that the trailer is securely and properly hitched to the towing vehicle before loading a horse. Never load a horse or leave a horse in an unhitched trailer. Do not unhitch a trailer with a horse still inside. Trailers are very unstable and can easily tip on end.
- Whenever loading or unloading horses, it is best if two people are available to do the job.
- Use a cotton lead rope or leather lead when loading or unloading horses. This is advisable in the event that the horse rushes backwards pulling the lead through your hands. Nylon leads will blister, burn and cut hands when pulled quickly.
- It is safest to ask a horse to walk on the trailer by itself but if the horse isn’t trained to do so, leading it on the trailer may be the only option.
- Before walking a horse into the trailer, make sure that chest bars and escape doors are unlatched (but not obviously open) for the handler to exit safely. The doors should remain apparently closed to discourage horses from trying to exit through them. If leaving the chest bar up, make sure you are capable of ducking under it easily before attempting to lead the horse on. Never attempt to climb over dividers, chest bars or the horse to exit the trailer. Never leave yourself in the position of being trapped in the trailer with the horse between you and the exit.
- When loading a single horse, place the horse on the left side of the trailer. When trailering two horses, place the heavier horse on the left side. This will make towing the trailer smoother and the ride easier for the horse because of the crown contour of the road surface.
- When approaching the ramp make sure the horse is in the center of the ramp so that the horse does not step off the sides.
- Always secure the butt bar/chain before tying the horse’s head. If the horse is tied and pulls back before the butt bar is in place it runs the risk of breaking the tie, the halter or falling down. Do not stand directly behind the horse when hooking the butt bar in case the horse flies backwards.
- When tying the horse’s head use a safety-quick-release knot or a tie with a panic safety snap. Make sure the horse has enough rope length to permit head movement for balance, but not to get its head down or over to the horse traveling alongside it.
- Most horses take to trailering naturally, while for others it is often a traumatic experience. It is important that a horse be happy and secure when being trailered. One bad experience in trailering is all it takes to make a horse a bad hauler. A bad hauler is hard to cure.
- Before traveling, check to see that the horse is comfortable, that ventilation is adequate, and that the hay bag or manger is securely fastened so that the horse cannot become tangled in it.
- Test all doors to make sure they are secure, and check that the hitch is tight. Safety chains should be in place and all lights and brakes functioning in accordance with your state’s Division of Motor Vehicle codes.
- Turns, starts and stops should be very slow and steady.
- Do not exceed the speed limit. Remember to allow extra stopping distance when towing a trailer. Moving horses and the weight of the trailer will push against the towing vehicle.
- Do not allow anyone to throw lit cigarettes or matches from the window of the towing vehicle. Wind currents often suck the cigarettes or matches into the trailer, causing a fire.
- Check on the horse(s) at every stop or every 100 miles. At this time also check the hitch, safety chains, lights and hay bags. Keep hay bags full and offer the horse(s) a drink of water.
- Avoid backing up with the trailer if at all possible. If backing up is necessary it is advisable to have a person outside the vehicle to watch and guide you.
Unloading the Horse
- When lowering the ramp keep feet and hands out of the way.
- Untie the horse before lowering the butt bar.
- Do not stand on the ramp or directly behind the trailer when a horse is exiting in case it leaves the trailer quickly. It is not advisable to allow a horse to fly back quickly as this soon becomes a bad and dangerous habit.
- Try to keep the horse straight as it backs down the ramp so that it does not step off the side. Walk the horse around after trailering for an extended distance to restore circulation and ease stiff muscles.
Other Safety Precautions
- When tying a horse to the outside of a trailer, use a safety-quick-release knot or panic snap. Make sure the rope is short enough that the horse cannot get a leg over it, but long enough to allow free motion of the head. Never tie a horse to a trailer with a rope length long enough to permit grazing. This is where the most serious trailer accidents occur.
- The ramp to the trailer should be in an up position when tying a horse to the outside of the trailer, especially when the tie rings are located towards the rear. A ramp in the down position leaves space between the back of the trailer and the springs where a horse can easily get a foot or leg stuck. The ramp is also the right height for the horse to injure its lower legs on.
- Never leave a horse tied to the outside of a trailer unattended. When leaving a horse inside a trailer, make sure the chest bar and butt bar are secure, especially if an escape door is left open.
- Do not tie a horse to the outside of a trailer when it is unhitched from the towing vehicle. Horses are stronger than we think and a panicked horse can and will drag an unhitched trailer behind it.
Trailering your horse is a fun and rewarding experience. As long as common sense is used and the safety guidelines above are followed, trailering accidents are less likely to occur.
1. Basic Horse Safety Manual. American Youth Horse Council in Cooperation with the American Horse Council. 1989.
2. Trailer Safety Checklist. Equus Magazine, 151. May 1990.