For many, the prospect of towing looms over horse owners like a dark cloud. David Murphy Towing, a manufacturer of towbars and trailers, offers this comprehensive safety guide designed to help you reach your end destination without incident — and put your mind at rest
1. Preparation: get your car and trailer serviced
Lack of vehicle and trailer maintenance is one of the most common causes of accidents on the roads and yet it is so easily avoided. Have your car and trailer regularly serviced for peace of mind.
2. Choose the right vehicle
Before hitching a trailer it’s vitally important that we make sure the vehicle is suitable for the needs of the journey. Although the ratio of car-to-trailer size isn’t the biggest factor in accidents, it does contribute significantly to horse injuries while travelling, which we absolutely want to avoid.
Scrambling in panicked horses for example creates a load shift, but this won’t increase the risk of trailer jackknife if the car or truck is strong and broad enough to carry that weight shift. As a driver, it’s also important not to panic yourself at strong movement from the trailer and subsequently break harshly, as this too cause the weight to shift and puts extra pressure on the vehicle to contain it.
3. Have you got the correct towbar/hitch system for your trailer and horse weight?
As well as vehicle choice, you want to ensure you’ve received expert advice on the correct towbar/hitch system for your trailer and horse weight. Horse trailers usually require a Class III or Class IV hitch but you’ll still want to check the specifics for your personal usage and needs. Don’t forget to include the weight of additional trailer contents like water, hay or grain as well as the weight of the animals.
4. Pre-journey checks
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate vehicle and trailer to match, do your basic pre-journey checks — oil, water, tyre pressure, fuel. If you have connected electrical light systems, check they are functioning and all bulbs are working. Similarly, if you have an emergency brake system, test that before you load the animals. We encourage trailer owners to get right underneath the horse box too, look for loose cables, rust or any damage to the flooring. Check ramps too if you have them, ensure they are lubricated and not damaged.
The single most common cause of horse box incidents is unfortunately due to incorrect hitching of the trailer to the vehicle. So hitch your horse trailer when it’s empty. Do all your checks. Stand back and check the levels for weight balance. Then do all this again with the animals loaded. If you need expert help to learn to do this, ask a trained expert to take you through it until you feel confident enough to do it yourself. And invest in some safety chains which will keep the float attached to the vehicle if the worst happens and the towing mechanisms fail. A tip here is to cross them over each other before attaching, which will create a bed to catch the tongue of the trailer so it doesn’t bend down sharply or hit the ground on detachment.
5. Shift your mindset for towing
When it comes to towing your horses, the biggest thing to do is to shift your mindset to how you usually drive. Now you are essentially a big load truck driver!
Most of the advice is common sense but just to reiterate the basics, you’ll want to slow your speed and double the distance you normally leave between you and the vehicle in front. Keep tabs on your own awareness and attention – don’t let fatigue set in on long journeys or early morning/late night driving. It goes without saying to also avoid using your phone or driving under the influence of alcohol, strong medications or other substances.
Weather conditions will impair your ability to tow safely further still, so be mindful of the road conditions, your visibility and how well lit your own vehicle and trailer is to those driving behind and coming towards you. It’s a good idea to drive with your head lights on at all times if you’re in doubt.
If you need to make an emergency stop for whatever reason, be it weather related or because of an incident like a flat tyre or a trailer becoming disconnected, avoid at all costs breaking as harshly as you would without towing. Attempt to slowly verge onto a grassy type area far from the road, even if this means destroying a wheel. They can be replaced. Hard shoulder stops are dangerous for you, the horses, other road users and the emergency services so try to put as much distance as you can safely between you and the road markings.
6. Tackling the dreaded reversing
Reversing can be a challenging enough driving activity without the added dimensions of a horse trailer in the mix. With all the best sensors, extension mirrors and driving conditions, it’s still a good idea to ask someone to stand as a guide for you and direct you slowly as you angle the rear backwards.
If you get confused easily about the steering directions, a great tip is to move your hand to the bottom of the steering wheel instead of its usual position. This way, when you want to move right, you turn your head right (but you’re actually turning the wheel to the left). This can help avoid confusion.
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7. Prepare for the worst
Even when you’ve done all you can to prepare and protect, sometimes, unfortunately, accidents do happen. When they do, you can at least be in a position to limit the damage it causes if you keep a well-stocked emergency kit in your vehicle.
One we probably don’t need to tell you about is a phone to make contact if you’re beyond the reach of an emergency services phone box. It’s also a good idea to keep an in-car phone charger kit in your glove box in case the battery dies, particularly on longer distance journeys.
The next obvious contents are first aid supplies, but we don’t just mean for the horses (which you probably pack anyway). What’s often forgotten is the human first aid supplies.
A small portable tool box doesn’t hurt either. You may not intend to carry out full blown repairs yourself on the roadside, but even small damage can hinder your journey. This is easily overcome with a stockpile of spare bulbs and strong tape for example, as well as a torch and reflective jacket to allow you to safely work roadside, of course.
And in case of bigger emergencies, it’s a good idea to carry a travel fire extinguisher with you. Even in small collisions, the leaking of fuel can be a big risk for fire and if you can’t safely unhitch your horses then you will want to be able to quell any flames until the emergency services arrive. A dry powder extinguisher is the best option to cover most eventualities.