Top tips for trouble-free towing
Are you transporting horses by trailer this season? Horse Deals looks at how to stay safe and improve your skills
With more and more owners opting for a trailer as their method of transporting horses, it’s vital to make sure you’re towing safely. That means ensuring your trailer and tow vehicle are a good match and in good order, that you’re driving skills are up to scratch — and that you’re staying legal. The materials used in modern two-horse trailers mean they’re relatively lightweight, but you still need to make sure your tow vehicle is up to the job. It’s important to know the weight not only of your trailer but your horses; weigh tapes give a guide, but, ideally, use a specialist weighbridge such as those found at many veterinary practices.
Once you’ve got the figures, get expert advice on the suitability of towing vehicles. The rule of thumb is that the weight of the loaded trailer shouldn’t be more than 85% of the towing vehicle’s unladen weight because you don’t want the trailer pushing your car downhill rather than being towed by it.
It’s also important that the trailer’s noseweight is correct. If it’s too high, which is the most common error, it will push the back of the car down and lift its nose. This is often caused by overloading the front of the trailer with heavy water containers and makes the whole outfit unstable and more prone to snaking.
Mechanical matters Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that compared to a horsebox, a trailer is mechanically simple. It still needs to be checked before every trip and maintained and serviced regularly.
Read your trailer manual — this might sound obvious, but a lot of people don’t. It will give you vital information such as correct tyre pressures, which are often much higher than those for the average car and must be checked before each use. You also need to check that the tyres on your car and trailer, including spares, have a good tread. The legal minimum is 1.6mm over the central 75% of their width for the whole circumference, but this offers little grip on wet roads and anything under 3mm may be inadequate.
The tyre walls must be in good condition with no deep cuts or bulges. Having said that, punctures can still happen, so it’s a good idea to carry a special wedge-shaped trailer lift.
This design is safer than a conventional jack because when horses move around it’s less likely that the trailer will be rocked off. Trailer lifts are easy to use: the wheel to be replaced is lifted off the ground by towing its partner on the same side onto a recess on top of the wedge.
The car’s towball should be greased and every time you hitch up check that the trailer lights are working properly and that the lamp lenses are clean and undamaged. The breakaway cable, which is a legal requirement on a braked trailer, must be in good condition and not attached to anything on the car that may be pulled off.
You don’t need to be a mechanic to carry out commonsense maintenance and checks. Three of the most simple and important are to clean out the trailer every time it’s used, lift rubber matting regularly and clean underneath it and check all hinges and locks.
If you know what you’re doing, you may be able to carry out work such as brake adjustment yourself. However, most owners prefer to get their trailer serviced by a recognised dealer.
On the road
The fact that you can drive a car competently doesn’t mean you can tow a trailer safely. For a start, make sure you’re legal — if you passed your driving test after 1 January 1997 you’ll need to take a towing test to tow most horse trailers. For up to date information, see www.direct.gov.uk and follow the link to motoring, then to driver licensing.
There are now lots of specialist training courses that can help those new to towing and drivers who want to brush up their skills. Find someone who has experience with horse trailers as well as caravans; www.towingcourses.co.uk could be a starting point.
Jon Phillips, managing director of the Organisation of Horsebox and Trailer Owners, which operates a specialist breakdown scheme, points out that most horse trailers are wider than towing vehicles. This affects where you need to position your tow car on the road.
“Drive your vehicle next to the kerb and the trailer will be bouncing on the pavement!” he says.
Several things can cause snaking, from sudden braking to the wheels getting caught in grooves on the road left by lorries
However, he adds that most people tend to drive wide, leaving more space than necessary between the kerb and trailer.
“The best way to check your road positioning while going along is to glance in the wing mirror and see where the trailer is, then look ahead and adjust the vehicle position to suit,” he advises.
Take the trailer’s extra width into account when turning corners and negotiating roundabouts and when you’re pulling into a petrol station, remember you can’t park as close to the fuel pump as normal.
It’s vital to think ahead to give your horse or horses a smooth ride and you’ll need to anticipate what other drivers are going to do even more than in ordinary circumstances.
“If you see a car far ahead braking, start to slow down — don’t wait for the car directly in front to brake,” says Jon. “With a loaded trailer, you won’t stop as quickly as you’re used to, so leave plenty of space.
“And anticipate traffic lights. If they’ve been green for a long time, expect them to turn red.”
One of the most frightening things is when a trailer starts to snake — moving from side to side. Several things can cause this, from sudden braking to the wheels getting caught in grooves on the road left by lorries, often known as tramlining. Don’t try to steer or accelerate out of it. Instead, hold the steering wheel straight ahead and brake gently until the trailer comes back under your control. Many trailer owners like to use stabilisers, but although they offer an extra safety benefit they can’t compensate for a badly matched towing outfit.
Other useful safety measures include fitting head partitions when necessary to prevent horses squabbling. If you have to load up by yourself, take a look at the Tui Safety Bar, which prevents a horse backing out of the trailer before you have time to fasten the breech bar.
Invented by Mandy Smith and named after the horse who did just this, it also has a safety release system that eliminates the risk of a panicking horse becoming trapped on the breast bar when travelling.
If you’re travelling a horse alone and he prefers company, you might find he settles better with an addition such as Equibrand’s travelling companion mirror. This works in the same way as stable mirrors; horses don’t seem to recognise their own reflections and are often comforted by the presence of what they think is another animal.
Remember that when towing a trailer, you’re restricted to the inside and middle lanes of a motorway and mustn’t exceed 60mph. Equally important, adjust your speed to road conditions and your horse’s comfort — just because you’re entitled to drive at up to 60mph on a motorway doesn’t always mean it’s advisable to do so.
For many drivers the most difficult aspect of towing is reversing. There’s only one way to master this skill and that’s to find a safe open area and practise until you’re confident: use bollards or plastic jump stands in a field and practise reversing in a straight line, round corners and into a marked parking space.
At first, it’s quite difficult to accept that you need to turn the car’s steering wheel in the opposite direction to that you want the trailer to go. Think of pushing the trailer rather than pulling it when you’re reversing and you might find it easier.
The easiest way to carry out reversing manoeuvres is to put one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and move it to the right if you want the trailer to go to the right and to the left if you intend the trailer to move left. If you get it wrong, straighten up and start again.
Look after your trailer, make sure you’ve got specialist breakdown cover that looks after the horses as well as the mechanical horsepower, get expert help when necessary and keep abreast of legislation. That way, you and your horses stand the best chance of a smooth, safe journey.