Saturday, November 28, 2009

Trailering Secrets: Tales From Hitting the Road

Note: This installment was completed with the assistance of Steve Nichols from SJN Enterprises and Home Services.

How many times have you been driving down the freeway and spotted someone on the shoulder pulled over with the hood up on their minivan or small SUV and taken shocked notice that they dared to attempt pulling their horse trailer with such a vehicle? Welcome to my nightmare.

We have a saying around here that goes something like this: There is no such thing as “too much” pulling power. Of course, part of that comes from being married to a gearhead husband who thrives on horsepower and gets giddy at the smell of high octane fuel.

There is truly nothing worse than thinking you’re headed to that early morning class at the local horse show (or making an emergency trip to the veterinary hospital for surgery) and breaking down by the side of the road, which is bad enough without having horses in the trailer stamping and neighing. That’s why this time around we are discussing what steps you can take to prevent as many catastrophes on the road as possible.

Of course, everyone knows there are basic steps to keeping your vehicle maintained, such as regular oil changes, replacing the oil filter and air filter, transmission service, radiator flushing and so forth. Those things are doubly important if you’re towing a trailer. Correctly inflated tires with optimum pressure for hauling and ensuring that you not only have good load handling tires with the plenty of tread but that they are in good shape (preferably without the dry rot!) is essential to a stress-free trip. Periodically check your spare tire to make sure it will be suitable if the need for it arises, and certainly replace it if you need to. Getting stuck with no spare is one of my biggest pet peeves. Another add-on that makes life for your truck that much more manageable, helping your vehicle last longer is an oil cooler for both engine oil and transmission oil. Most heavier duty trucks have them factory installed these days, but you should check if your truck falls into that category. If not, I suggest heading to AutoZone or your local auto parts retailer and purchasing one to have outfitted under the hood.

You also want to make regular checks on your electric trailer brake controller to be sure it’s in good working order, and thoroughly check your hitch and ball mount. Trailer balls can get worn and loosen up (I have had two different clients who’ve had their trailer actually come bouncing off the truck while driving!) so keep the ball well lubed. In addition, look over the pin which holds the ball mount inside your hitch for signs of wear and replace it if necessary.

Now it’s time to look over your horse trailer, and for me the first two places I check before every trip are the floorboards and the tires. Having properly inflated tires which are made for horse trailers and have the load capacity it takes to carry thousands of pounds is essential, and the same as above goes for the trailer’s spare tire. Lift the mats, pull them out and thoroughly inspect the boards for cracks, warping or other signs that they need to be replaced and do so promptly if you find them deficient in any way.

Now, many folks keep shavings in their trailer year round, and here is why I don’t -- shavings tend to hold in moisture (read: urine) and that tends to damage the trailer’s floorboards. Since I’m not fond of the idea of my horses falling through the floor of my trailer while tooling down the freeway doing 65 miles per hour (ooops, the trailer pulling speed limit in California is 55 mph, my bad!), I’m going to do all I can to make sure that won’t happen. I thoroughly clean and hose out my trailer after each trip, then allow it to air dry. The only times I’ll put shavings in the trailer are for trips more than a certain mileage or when the horses will be in the trailer for more than a few hours at a time. Leaving the trailer shavings free also keeps the air circulating through the trailer less dusty which helps prevent respiratory problems in many horses.

Finally on trailer maintenance is making sure your wheel bearings are cleaned and repacked every year, checking for wear of any sort. If you notice wear, pitting and so forth, they should be replaced as opposed to merely repacked. This year with a trailer load of horses I had the unfortunate experience of a wheel bearing failure on my trailer while driving. It was NOT fun! We'd had a big Half-Arabian gelding tied to the trailer at a show who had pawed at one wheel and knocked the dust cap off ~ this contributed to the grease heating up going down the road and my noticing smoke coming off a left hand side wheel on my trailer. Which isn't an episode I care to ever repeat or anything I'd ever want to see happen to another horse owner.

What vehicle you should use to tow your trailer is mostly a matter of personal preference as it relates to brand names (we are a General Motors family, but some folks prefer Ford or Dodge), however the main consideration is whether the truck you buy is built for the job. In all honesty, horsepower isn’t as important as torque, and something I’ve learned is not to believe everything the salesman at your local dealership tells you. Too many times I’ve heard horror stories of someone going in to buy a truck and being told that the little half ton with that small V6 is going to have no problem hauling a four horse gooseneck trailer up over Cajon Pass or the Grapevine. NEXT!

For my hauling needs, I use either a one ton dually or our one ton truck and I’ve never run out of power, but most three-quarter ton pickups handle many loads just fine. If I could have chosen one more added feature on the dually it would have been four wheel drive, which would come in handy under a variety of conditions, but it wasn’t on my list of ‘must-haves’. Our new truck is a 4x4 and that suits me just fine! :) Plenty of power under the hood and a long bed were a high priority for me, along with making certain the truck was equipped and pre-wired for trailer lights as well as electric trailer brakes.

Likewise, when shopping for a trailer there are things we have to have and then there are the luxuries. For my purposes, the luxury would have been a five or six horse slant aluminum gooseneck, but I settled for a two horse slant bumper pull with a nice dressing room. Once again, brand name isn’t necessarily all that important and all of us have certain preferences. Mine is a Logan Coach, but I'm saving up for that beautiful Exiss gooseneck of my dreams!

Safety in several areas is my main criteria for a horse trailer, and it’s vital that any trailer I ever consider buying has specific features. Number one is a ramp, with drop down feed doors coming in a close second. The dressing room is another thing I can’t do without, and it had better have room for all my show tack and show clothes for a variety of disciplines.

But there are essential areas that need your attention when shopping for a trailer. Where your inside trailer ties attach is very important, as well as where you tie your horses on the outside, far too many trailers have extremely weak welds in these important places (in fact, I had my husband go over my trailer with a fine toothed comb and reinforce welds in many places, including the ramp and the top door). Also, be careful to check where the wiring is routed, a lot of trailers have exposed wires where the horses could chew on them, and that’s a big no-no. In fact, my husband also re-wired my trailer entirely after I’d had it for a number of years, installing halogen light bulbs and replacing the old brake and turn signal lights on the back of the trailer with high visibility LED lights like most of today’s big rigs have, purchased from the local truck stop.

In the future we’ll cover different truck and trailer topics, but here you have the most basic of the basic as far as maintenance and important tips go.


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