by Jennifer Walker

There has been a lot of attention in the news lately about horse trailer accidents, particularly tire blowouts that cause fires inside the trailer. While not all accidents are preventable, many are a result of poor trailer maintenance or reckless driving. Others are caused by the actions of other drivers on the road. With so many things that can go wrong when trailering a horse, it is vital to make your horse trailer as safe as possible and give yourself every opportunity to stop an accident or fire from happening—or to minimize damage, injury or death as much as possible if one does occur.

Causes of Horse Trailer Accidents

There are many things that can happen to cause an accident with your horse trailer. It can catch on fire, it can break loose from the tow vehicle, the driver can lose control or important components can fail due to improper maintenance. Of course, some things are completely out of your control, like another driver losing control of their own vehicle and striking your rig. By understanding the common causes of accidents, you can be diligent in your accident prevention efforts.

A blown out tire is one of the more common causes of fires, when the friction of the tire on the road causes it to heat up, smoke and eventually catch fire. Faulty wiring can short out, throwing sparks that ignite flammable materials. Even a carelessly tossed cigarette can find its way into your trailer and cause it to go up in flames. You are then faced with trying to get your horses out of the burning trailer without endangering them, yourself or other drivers on the road. If your horse is excitable in normal circumstances, just imagine how he would be in that situation!

Something else that can go wrong with horse trailers is if the ball is not the right size for the hitch, or the hitch is not properly maintained, the trailer can jump off the ball and break loose. At this point, you have no control over the trailer. If you are driving slowly, you should be able to stop the trailer without too much fuss. However, when driving at speed on the freeway, this scenario usually ends with an overturned trailer, or one crashed into the guardrail. Horses can survive this type of accident, but deaths often occur and chances of injury are high.

Similar to the horse trailer breaking free, driving too fast and over-correcting the vehicle can cause the trailer to fishtail and swerve out of control, eventually jackknifing or flipping over. If the towing vehicle is not suitable for hauling the size and weight of trailer you have, you will find difficulty in controlling and stopping the trailer safely. Lastly, improper maintenance can result in a horse falling through rotten floorboards or a door opening while on the road.


A fire is the biggest fear of many horse owners. Whether in the barn at home or the trailer on the road, a fire can be devastating to life and property. Two preventable causes of horse trailer fires are faulty tires and faulty wiring. Inspect your wiring from time to time to make sure there are no worn or missing casings, exposed wires or black marks that would indicate a short.


Tire blowouts can also cause a fire. Friction from the road can cause the tire to smoke and eventually catch fire, spreading to the rest of the trailer. You can reduce the likelihood of this happening by purchasing the correct tires for the job and maintaining them properly. The tires are one of the most important areas of trailer maintenance. Without tires that are made for the job and in good working order, you cannot go anywhere! Yet, because they are so expensive, trailer owners sometimes skimp on the quality of tire or do not replace them as often as they should.

What kind of tire should you buy? There are many different choices out there, but the paramount factor in your tire selection process should be whether they are the right size for your wheels and rated to carry the amount of weight you will be asking them to. If you compromise on this, the tire is likely to blow out—usually in the middle of the night on a deserted mountain pass with no shoulder or cell service!

So, what size tire is the right one for your trailer? Your best bet is to go with the size that was on the trailer when you bought it, assuming you bought it with factory tires. If you purchased your trailer used, you should double check with the trailer’s specifications (you will be able to get this from the manufacturer if they are no longer with the trailer) or ask an expert at the tire shop to measure it for you. However, if they do not have the exact size you need, do not let them talk you into a different size. An incorrectly sized tire is likely to wear faster or incorrectly or affect the ride. Make sure you purchase either LT (light truck) tires or ST (special tires for trailers)—never P-Metric, which are for passenger cars only.

The next question, then, is how to determine how much weight your tires need to be able to carry. After all, you do not need to go overboard and buy tires that are rated for twice as much weight as your trailer is rated to carry. This, then, is a good place to start—find the placard supplied by the trailer manufacturer that tells you the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) for the trailer. This tells you how much the trailer can safely carry, including horses, hay, buggies, tack and anything else you can pack into it, so you might need to reconsider your idea of filling it with concrete bricks for your garden! The placard will also tell you how much each axle is rated to carry—the Gross Axle Weight Ratings (GAWR). Divide the GAWR by the number of tires on it, and that is the amount each tire should be rated for. To be safe, you might want to get just a little more tire than you need to.

Tire Maintenance

 Although you should have no less than 2/32 of an inch of tread on each tire, the depth of the tread is not the only thing that you need to consider. If your horse trailer sits unused for months or years at a time, the rubber can dry and crack. The tires may be brand new (with those little spiny things all over them, even), but if you see tiny cracks in the tire where the tread meets the sidewall or the tire meets the rim, ask a tire expert to evaluate it—it may be time to replace the tire. Some people will cover their tires to protect them from the sun, but this is only part of the problem. When a tire is not used for a long time, the oils seep out of it and the rubber dries out. Regular use causes the rubber to flex, keeping the rubber cells moist and resilient. When you rotate the tires, include your spare for the same reason.

In the event that you do need to change a tire, it is a good idea to carry two spares—just in case. The more tires you have on your trailer, the better chance you have of getting a flat in more than one. Just make sure you select a spare that is the same type of tire as your permanent ones! Those little donut tires that will limp your sedan to the gas station will not do when you have several thousand pounds of trailer and horse riding on them. Remember that the spares need maintenance as much as the other tires do. It would not be very helpful to replace your flat tire with one that is rotten from disuse.

One more thing to look for when determining whether your tires are safe is the tire pressure. Always check the tire pressure before you hit the road, making sure you have the exact right amount of pressure in each tire. Incorrect tire pressure causes uneven wear, and even worse, a blowout. A product that is very nice to have is a remote tire monitoring system. These wonderful devices measure the pressure and temperature of the tire and alert you via an LCD display in the cab of your towing vehicle when anything is amiss. This gives you advanced warning before something as exciting as a blowout occurs, when a tire picks up a nail and goes flat, or when it is simply time to air up the tire.

There are a variety of tire monitoring systems on the market, several of which mount easily on the outside of the tire, such as to the rim or the valve stem. Some of the valve-stem mounts require you to remove the sensor when you air up the tire, although other sensors have built-in valve stems to avoid this inconvenience.

With a system like this, you will probably never find yourself on the side of the road, waiting for roadside assistance because of a blown tire. Even better, you are less likely to have to figure out how to put out that burning tire or pull your horses out of a burning trailer while cars whiz by you. Another bonus is that you will never have to spend time or get your hands dirty checking your tire pressure manually, since the system does it for you. Of course, this does not let you off the hook for checking the tread on your tires from time to time.

If a tire monitoring system is not in the cards for you right now, do it the old fashioned way: get one of those tire pressure gauges and check each tire every time you haul. Every time you stop for gas or rest stop break while on the road, touch your tires. If they are extremely hot, you may have trouble brewing.

Separation Anxiety—Trailer Jumping off the Hitch

There was recently a case where a woman was driving down the highway and her trailer suddenly divested itself from the tow vehicle, swerved while she tried to figure out what to do to regain control, and then flipped over and came to a rest on the freeway. Thankfully, the horse got out, traffic stopped, and everyone was OK. Could this have been avoided? Possibly.

Make sure the ball is the right size for the hitch. If the ball is too large or small, the hitch cannot close on it properly. Keep the hitch lubricated so you can work it easily enough to latch it all the way. If you have a bumper pull, you must use a Class III or Class IV hitch, which is bolted or welded to the frame of the tow vehicle, not the bumper. Whether your trailer is a gooseneck or bumper pull, the hitch must be rated for the fully loaded weight of your trailer.
Emergency breakaway brakes are designed to stop the trailer in the event it separates from the trailer. However, these work best at slow speeds, so they may not have helped in the above situation. Sway bars will not help the situation after the trailer has separated, but they may prevent the separation if it is caused by swaying.

Some other rules of thumb that will help you prevent your trailer from taking a different route to your destination than you: always hitch your trailer yourself, or at least check it if someone else does it for you. Make sure the emergency breakaway brake is attached and the battery fully charged (a trickle charger will help to keep the battery charged). Be sure the safety chains are strong, with no signs of rust, and hooked to the tow vehicle.

Weight Distribution Hitches

Although every trailer driver should know to drive at a safe speed, leave plenty of room to stop and take turns widely and slowly, there is help to make sure your trailer does not start swaying out of control.

Weight distribution or load distribution hitches on bumper pull trailers help to distribute the trailer’s tongue weight evenly over the axles of the trailer and the tow vehicle. This will keep the truck and trailer level for greater efficiency and the comfort of your horses. These hitches also help to keep the trailer from swaying or hopping. It is important to note that these hitches will not increase the tow capacity of your vehicle! Every part of your rig must be rated to carry the weight you need to carry.

A weight distribution hitch acts as sort of a bridge between your trailer and the towing vehicle. The hitch includes an adjustable under truss called a spring bar, spring arm or trunnion bar, which joins the "V" tongue of the trailer to the hitch head and receiver, spreading out the weight. The head with the trailer ball attaches to the trailer coupler/hitch and bolts to an L-shaped shank that has adjustment holes for proper hitch height. The shank slides into the receiver hitch, which is then bolted to the towing vehicle's frame or sub-frame. All of this results in a distribution of the trailer weight evenly over all of the axles of the trailer and tow vehicle. The whole assembly adds more stability than a traditional hitch, minimizing sway.

Get a good view with a Trailer Camera System

Installing a camera in your trailer with a monitor in the cab of your tow vehicle can give you great peace of mind and alert you if the horse decides he is tired of being in the trailer and wants to make a break for it, or if something goes wrong and he goes down or catches a leg in his hay bag or the manger. Catching this sort of thing immediately so you can pull over and correct the situation can possibly prevent major injury to your horse and damage to the trailer. If your horse manages to get out of the trailer while you are driving down the road, he could not only seriously injure himself, but he could cause an accident and injure other drivers as well.

Cameras can also be mounted around the tow vehicle and trailer to give the driver a full view around and behind the trailer, reducing the possibility of accidents during lane changes or backing up. These cameras are available in low profile so they do not create drag, infra red for low-light conditions and modifiable angles. Microphones give the driver audio feedback for added awareness and security.

A less expensive option to cameras is an object detection system. Although this does not give you the same peace of mind a camera system does, it will alert you when you approach obstacles when you are backing up. Several sensors are located on the back of the trailer, and the display in the cab of your vehicle will tell you how close you are to the object.

With so many options for making your horse trailer safe, including regular maintenance, you can prevent many accidents from happening. Although you cannot stop the unexpected, every chance you give yourself to keep your horses and trailer safe is well worth the money and effort spent. When all else fails, keep the number for your roadside assistance service handy!