Why truck and trailer safety is important all year round, not just during show season
Reprinted from the May 2014 Issue of USDF Connection
By Tracy Gantz
The day that Leigh and Pete Gray were scheduled to discuss trailer safety with USDF Connection, a wildfire broke out in the Glendora, CA, foothills, about 10 miles east of their home base in Bradbury. If the fire continued west, all of Bradbury, a small community with many boutique show stables and racehorse lay-up facilities, would have to evacuate.
The incident pointed out only too well the importance of ensuring that your rig is road-ready—not only for a long haul, but also for a short one at literally a moment’s notice. No spring show-season preparations will matter in January if you have to move your animals out of a fire’s path or rush a sick horse to a veterinary clinic, only to have the trailer break down because you haven’t kept up the maintenance.
Ultimately, the Grays didn’t have to evacuate, as firefighters successfully contained the blaze. But that was only one weather- related catastrophe waiting to happen to anyone who hauls horses. Mother Nature bombarded the eastern half of the US all winter with polar vortexes, record-setting snowfall, crippling ice storms, and everything else designed to snarl roads.
Horses can be challenging to transport in perfect weather with no traffic. Add in the usual crazy drivers and those who don’t know how to drive in snow, ice, and—believe it or not—even rain (this means you, southern California), and it becomes more imperative that anyone hauling a horse does everything possible to keep that animal safe.
The Grays transport horses several times a week year-round as part of Leigh’s management of Winner’s Circle Ranch, a lay-up facility. Leigh has also shown and hauled extensively to dressage and eventing competitions, and she runs Thoroughbred Rehab Center Inc., which finds homes and second careers for racehorses. Pete handles much of the maintenance at Winner’s Circle, which includes keeping trucks and trailers ready to go.
For this article, we asked the Grays and other trailer-safety experts to share their best safety and maintenance tips.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The first thing both Pete and Leigh Gray mention are tires.
“Every time I get in the rig, I first go around and check the tires,” says Leigh. “I check the tire pressure, which needs to be a minimum of 50 pounds (expressed as PSI, or pounds per square inch). You might have come home from your previous trip after dark, and you won’t know that you picked up a nail. And always be sure you have a good spare.”
The Grays diligently check the amount of tire tread, especially the inside portion, which isn’t as visible.
“Trailer tires wear out quickly,” says Leigh. “When you make a turn on asphalt, it really rubs off the tread on the trailer tires.”
USRider, which provides roadside emergency assistance for equestrians throughout the country, published a list of safety items to consider during the recent harsh winter. Tire pressure was number one on the list.
“If you are traveling from a warm climate to a cold climate, air pressure in your tires will drop,” the USRider advisory states. “On the other hand, when traveling from a cold climate into a warm climate, the air pressure will rise.”
USRider recommends using traction tires on tow vehicles in the winter months in areas where snow and ice are a concern. Tires must have “at least an eighth of an inch of tread and be labeled Mud and Snow, M+S, All-Season, or have a Mountain/Snowflake symbol,” the USRider advisory states. Check to see whether tire chains will be required where you are traveling. And always consult the weather forecast for where you’re headed before you depart so that you can prepare appropriately.
Clint Lancaster, managing director of the Trailer Safety Institute, is the co-author with fellow trailer-safety expert Richard Klein of The Trailer Handbook: A Guide to Understanding Trailers and Towing Safety. Lancaster has created a handy checklist for haulers to use before every trip. In addition to checking tire pressure and tread, the list includes ensuring that all lug nuts are tight and that wheel bearings are fi m, not loose.
“Watch your wheel-bearing grease, especially when you are traveling in [wet] weather,” says Lancaster. “Hot axle hubs that suddenly hit water can dissipate, causing your hubs to lock up on the axle.”
Pete Gray regularly maintains trucks and trailers, both before and after trips. He does everything from oil changes and brake jobs to replacing worn windshield-wiper blades and anything the truck engines might need.
“You need to have the wheels of the trailer off the ground once in a while and check those wheel bearings,” Pete says. “Make sure they aren’t making any noise and that they roll OK.”
Hitches, Wiring, and Structural Integrity
Pete stresses the importance of having the correct size trailer ball for the truck and of greasing that ball regularly, especially with a gooseneck setup, so that the hitch connection remains smooth.
“It’s a good idea to grease it when you change the oil in the truck,” he says.
Because different-sized trailers require different-sized ball mounts and the Grays pull several trailers, Pete stocks many sizes. If you have more than one trailer, your truck must be powerful enough to pull the biggest and heaviest one, he notes. And according to Lancaster’s checklist, the hitch and ball’s weight capacity should exceed the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).
Other items on our experts’ pre-trip checklists: testing the truck’s battery; checking all electrical connections, especially that the turn signals are connected and working properly on the trailer; ensuring that the emergency brake wire is attached; having a working fire extinguisher big enough for the size trailer being pulled; and making sure that the two safety chains are properly attached to the tow vehicle.
Leigh Gray frequently checks the trailer’s floor mats to see that they—and the structure underneath—are in good condition. She periodically pulls the mats out to examine them even closer.
“You can get an idea of what is wearing where on the mats,” Leigh says. “Are your horses standing in a particular place? Are they pawing? Is that getting more worn than the back part of the trailer? I also check for cracks in the welds of the trailer.”
Between trips, she cleans the trailer, using disinfectant to minimize the chance of a horse’s passing on any disease or virus he might be incubating. She also periodically checks the trailer’s roof for evidence of leaks.
Your area’s climate plays a role in how best to outfit the trailer interior. The Grays’ trailers are equipped with small fans in each corner to boost air circulation in warmer weather. Adjust trailer windows and vents accordingly as the weather dictates, “but always keep the [window] bars in place so that the horse cannot stick its head out,” says Leigh. “Debris going 50 mph down the freeway can injure your horse’s eye, lacerate his face, or could even break his skull if it’s a rock or a bottle or something else coming off a truck.”
Cold-weather hauling may call for shipping your horse in a blanket or cooler, especially if he is body-clipped—but keep in mind that he’ll be working to keep his balance while in motion, so don’t blanket too heavily; and make sure that anything you put on him will stay put and not slip.
As for bedding, Leigh chooses shavings over straw because shavings better absorb urine and keep the footing from becoming slippery and dangerous, she says. Any time she stops during a haul to check on the horses, she replenishes shavings and removes damp bedding if needed with the shovel, rake, or broom she keeps stowed in the trailer.
In-Transit Horse Care
In addition to a truck-and-trailer safety checklist, many horse people keep similar lists of on-board horse-care supplies.
Leigh Gray’s trailers each carry a well-stocked equine first-aid kit that consists of such things as bandage materials, cotton pads, a self-adhesive bandage like Vetrap, gauze, antibiotic ointment, acepromazine (a tranquilizer), Betadine solution, and saline solution.
Acepromazine or other sedatives can be very helpful in case of an accident. You might have to tranquilize your horse to keep him calm before a veterinarian can arrive. Be sure you know how to handle and administer tranquilizers safely. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to give the appropriate type of injection and to prepare an emergency kit containing the sedative and the required needles and syringes. Store the sedative according to the manufacturer’s directions; when you haul, stash the kit somewhere that you can grab it quickly in the event of trouble.
Leigh also carries plenty of water and several extra buckets, as well as electrolytes and feed. She likes to feed hay in hay nets with smaller openings so that horses can’t gobble their food and must instead graze and nibble more naturally.
Jeff Blea, DVM, a veterinarian in Sierra Madre, CA, and the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, notes that dehydration, respiratory infections, and colic are three of the biggest dangers when hauling horses.
“Start by shipping a healthy horse who is well hydrated,” Blea says.
When horses have shipped a long distance and appear to be having difficulty, Blea will often give them five liters of fluids with electrolytes intravenously right off the trailer.
“That gets them back on their feet quicker,” he says.
To prevent problems resulting from dehydration, Blea advises stopping and offering water often, preferably every two hours. Check to see that the horses are passing manure and eating hay free choice, especially in hot weather.
Anxious or excited horses can hurt themselves in a trailer, and a sudden stop or a loss of balance can result in injuries, as well. That’s why Leigh recommends using shipping bandages or boots—preferably boots, she says, as bandages can come undone. Some people like to ship their horses in tail bandages as well, to prevent rubbing.
Leigh chooses leather halters over nylon for shipping because in an emergency a nylon halter won’t break. She also carries extra lead ropes and halters. Head bumpers can protect sensitive polls.
Once on the road, double your usual following distance, recommends USRider. Leave even more room in bad weather or when visibility is poor.
Lancaster’s book notes: “It should be appreciated that anytime any size trailer is added to the back of a tow vehicle, there is going to be some degradation in your vehicle’s performance, be it acceleration, braking, handling, or stability. The heavier the trailer is, relative to the tow vehicle, the bigger the change in performance becomes.”
Flares, flashlights, gloves, and a jack for changing tires are useful in case of a fl at tire or accident. Some people have added an external RV battery to their trailers—helpful in an emergency and able to power the interior and exterior lights and other devices, such as fans, when the trailer isn’t connected to the tow vehicle. (Nice to have when you need to get something out of your trailer in the dark at a horse show.) If you do find yourself on the road and in trouble, don’t panic. “
If you need to get to the side of the road, pick the safest spot you can find,” advises Leigh Gray. “Don’t get yourself wedged in or too close to traffic to do repairs. Have emergency numbers handy, including AAA.”
Consider getting a roadside assistance plan for equestrians, such as the one offered by USRider. Companies offering such plans are specially equipped to deal with horse- and trailer-related emergencies, and their websites often offer helpful tips. For instance, USRider recommends keeping emergency directions and contact numbers for the horses in a visible place in your truck or trailer in case you are incapacitated in an accident.
Just as you would when driving any vehicle, know emergency procedures for all major weather occurrences. For example, experts recommend parking under an overpass in a hailstorm but not in an earthquake. Listen regularly to weather reports, especially during tornado and thunderstorm season, so that you can avoid dangerous weather.
A cell phone can be your best friend, so be sure it is powered up and on while hauling. Carry a phone charger that plugs into your tow vehicle’s power port. Keep in mind that talking on a cell phone while driving, unless you’re using a hands-free device, is not only risky but also is illegal in many states.
USRider recommends driving with your lights on at all times while hauling horses because of the increased visibility to other motorists.
And, of course, don’t travel without that universally handy tool that can fix any number of problems—duct tape.
Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse, Speedhorse, The Horse, and Paint Horse Journal.