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Horse Trailer Maintenance
and Trailering Safety
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
Fact Sheet #607
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
When purchasing a horse
trailer consider the following needs:
- First, when
selecting a towing vehicle it is important to make sure that the
weight of the trailer and load (horses) does not exceed that of the
towing vehicle. Often smaller pulling vehicles, like sport utility
vehicles, have the power to “pull” the load but not to stop it, and
often end up jack-knifed or in a ditch when the trailer pushes them down
- Ample height (7-8 feet) and width (6-8 feet) for the horse(s)
- Rubber mats on the floor and loading ramp to provide traction and
cushion during loading, unloading and travel.
- Tie ropes or chains of adequate length with quick release safety
- Adequate padding on chest bar and stall sides.
- Interior lights for night time hauling.
- Air vents on the roof and along side panels.
checks should be performed on a horse trailer every time it is
used. Routine items include:
Tires need a minimum amount of 1/4" of tread
(check with your state Division of Motor Vehicles for the
measurement); they should be adequately inflated and have no
signs of dry rot cracks. Spare tires also should be checked.
Jacks and safety triangles or reflectors should
be in good working order in case of breakdown. (Ignitable flares
should not be stored in the horse trailer because of fire
Floorboards should not be rotted or in weak
condition. Replace any boards that are questionable. To help
lengthen the life of a trailer floor, mats should be lifted
after use and the floor swept or hosed out. If the floor is
hosed be sure it is dry before the mats are replaced. Yearly
applications of a weather sealer on the floorboards will also
extend their life.
Any screws, bolts or nails that may have worked
loose and are protruding from the inside of the trailer should
All lights (marker, tail, brake, directional and
interior) should be working and bright.
Hitch welds, safety chain welds and snaps should
be in good repair.
Grease hitch ball as necessary.
Wheel chocks should be in good condition. Use
them any time the trailer is unhitched from the towing vehicle.
Inspection of frame for cracks, and wires for
loose connections and frayed covering.
Repair or replacement of rotted or rusted metal.
Greasing of all hinges, springs, etc.
Inspection of ramp hinges and springs for
weakness and cracks.
Wheels should be pulled and bearings checked and
Inspection of spring shackles for wear.
Inspection of brakes and emergency break-away
cable, pin and control box.
Preparing the Horse
- Practice loading and unloading the horse in the trailer well in
advance of any scheduled events, especially if the horse is unfamiliar
with trailering. A battle getting into the trailer is an unpleasant way
to start a journey or end what has been an enjoyable day.
- Horses should be trailered
in a leather halter, or nylon halter with a breakaway piece. In an
emergency situation (such as the halter becoming snagged) a leather
halter will break more easily and is less likely to injure or burn the
- Wrapping a horse’s
legs for travel not only protects the legs from injury, but adds
support. It is important to ensure that the wraps extend below the
coronet band to protect this area (see Fig. 1). Wrap
must cover bulbs of heels as well and extend to below the knee. If wraps
are not long enough, a standing wrap with a bell boot will also cover
the key areas.
Shipping wrap with pad underneath and
diaper pins as fasteners
(Velcro is also acceptable).
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.
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.
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
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 (See
Fig. 2). 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.
Quick release knot.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.