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Common Trailering Questions

What is a breakaway brake?

A breakaway brake is used on trailers and mandated by law in some states. Fortunately, it comes on most new trailers whether mandated or not. It works like this.

There is a battery box on the trailer close to the hitch coupler. A cable hooked to the tow vehicle connects to a pin that slides into a switch on the battery box. If the trailer were to separate from your truck, the pin would pull out of the switch causing the switch to turn on and activate the trailer's breaks. The brakes are electric and powered by the battery box. It's a safety feature that is designed to stop the trailer from rolling freely after separation from the tow vehicle.

Of course, it is hoped that the breakaway brake will never need to activate and the trailer's safety chains are a second line of defense designed to prevent separation if the hitch itself should fail. The breakaway brake is a third line of defense, though at that point, I would fear for the safety of the horses and other drivers — the trailer is still freely moving by itself and out of control. The breakaway brake is designed to make the freely moving trailer stop as quickly as possible.

When pulling a trailer, I have had different people tell me different things regarding the safety chains. Do you cross them when hooking up or not?

Yes, cross the chains. And make sure you do it UNDER the coupler. Their purpose is to keep the trailer with the tow vehicle if the coupler should fail for some reason. And in the rare case that the coupler should fail (or was not properly tightened by the operator), the chains (if crossed) will also prevent the tongue from dropping down and hitting the ground. If that were to happen, the tongue could dig in and put severe stresses on the tow vehicle and trailer, possibly breaking the chains or causing an accident for both. When crossed, the chains will support the trailer tongue above the ground and keep the trailer with the tow vehicle while you bring it all to a safe stop.

One more thing, make sure the length of the safety chains are long enough to allow you to make a sharp turn in either direction while also being short enough to keep the tongue above the ground.

Is it safe to tow a horse trailer with a short wheelbase vehicle?

The simple answer is that it depends.

Short wheelbase vehicles are less stable in a towing situation than longer wheelbase vehicles of the same weight. That's because a longer wheelbase vehicle is less susceptible to the turning and twisting forces placed upon it by the trailer when under tow. These forces can be caused by the horse moving, the force of the wind on the trailer, bumps in the road, and more.

The safest way to determine what you can tow, regardless of the tow vehicle's wheelbase, is to follow the vehicle manufacturers recommendations and stay within the towing limits of the vehicle. Your vehicle manual will state the maximum trailer and payload weight you can tow.

You must also assure that you stay within the tongue weight limit and that every component used in the towing process meets or exceeds the weight being towed. This means that the hitch, drawbar, hitch ball, and every other component must also meet or exceed the load you intend to tow. It could also mean you have to limit the payload in the tow vehicle itself — that limit will also be in your manual.

Do I still need electric brakes if I only haul a small horse in a one-horse trailer?

YES! There are some very small towed loads that don't require electric brakes, such as a small, light utility trailer or something similar, like a log splitter. But once you get into the weight of a pony or horse and the weight of a trailer sturdy enough to safely haul that pony or horse, you truly need brakes on the trailer.

This is not only because the trailer needs the additional stopping power, which it definitely does, it's also for your own safety so the trailer doesn't overpower your tow vehicle causing them to swap places. By that I mean that the trailer becomes the tow vehicle and your truck becomes the trailer or " towed vehicle" — trust me; I'm sure you wouldn't enjoy being in that predicament.

Lately, I've been hearing of people stealing horse trailers while the owners are out on a trail ride. What can I do to prevent theft of my trailer?

You may also want to check with your local police department, but I do have a few suggestions:

Consider purchasing locks for your trailer. One manufacturer is Trailer Dog. Another is Trailer Alarms. While no product is a guarantee, these products provide much more security than just locking up your trailer before heading out on your ride. They're actually designed to prevent the thief from hooking your trailer to his own tow vehicle.

I have a drawbar for my hitch receiver that currently has a 1 7/8 inch ball. Can't I just replace it with a 2 inch ball to pull my horse trailer?

The simple answer is "maybe".

The drawbar that slides into your trailer hitch receiver has a maximum gross weight and a maximum tongue weight rating that MUST NOT be exceeded (see Getting Properly Hitched for photos of drawbars, also known as "ball platforms"). It will be stamped into the drawbar or printed on an attached label. A 2-inch ball will also have it's maximum weight printed or stamped on it (there is no tongue weight rating for a hitch ball). Both maximum ratings as well as the capacity of your hitch receiver MUST BE GREATER than the complete weight you're hauling which includes the weight of the trailer with all accessories, the weight of your horses, the weight of all tack in the trailer, and the weight of all water, hay, and other feed or items in the trailer — EVERYTHING. And look closely at your hitch coupler. Most of the heavier-duty couplers don't work with a 2-inch ball — they require a 2 5/16-inch ball. There are only a few bumper-pull horse trailers I've seen that use a 2-inch ball — make sure you have it right or your trailer could disconnect from your vehicle while underway!

If every component of your trailer hitch system meets or exceeds the complete gross weight of your trailer which includes it's complete load, you will be legal. If not, and you tow the trailer anyway, you will be illegal and taking a very dangerous chance that you will lose control or lose your trailer, both with catastrophic consequences.

How often should I inflate my tow vehicle and horse trailer tires?

You should measure the air pressure in your tires at least monthly (more frequently is ok). Once you know the current pressure and the vehicle manufacturer's inflation pressure recommendations, you'll know whether or not you need to add air.

This helps in several ways. It allows you to accommodate pressure changes due to the changing temperatures of each season. And it also allows you to catch an air leak before your tire has gone too flat and gets damaged by driving on it with too low an air pressure. Obviously, this also pertains to cars, motorcycles, and any other kinds of vehicles with inflatable tires.

You may also want to read our article on Tire Safety When Towing Horses.

What psi do I put into the tires of my horse trailer?

There is no "standard" inflation pressure for horse trailer tires, or any tires on any vehicle or trailer for that matter. A vehicle or trailer manufacturer selects the tires for its products whether they be cars, trucks, or trailers of any kind. The tires weight-capacity range and that of the trailer then determine the needed tire pressure. Therefore, you need to discover what the manufacturer of your trailer specifically recommends for its tires.

On horse trailers, there's usually a placard on one side of the trailer's tongue listing the recommended and maximum tire inflation pressures. You want to follow those pressure recommendations for maximum control and safety of the trailer when towing it.

I just bought a trailer and my truck has a hitch receiver, but no electrical connector. What is each pin for?

You didn't mention whether your trailer connector has four, five, six, or seven pins, nor whether your connector is flat or round — these are the most common of the various connector types. The type of connector that came with your trailer will determine what you buy for your truck.

Generally, the more pins on the connector, the more capability your trailer has. For example, if the connector has four pins, it means your trailer meets the minimum requirements of the law, namely, right and left turn signals, tail/running lights, and stop lights. If it has six pins, you'll also have battery power sent from your truck to your trailer. This can keep your break-away brake battery charged and power one or more ceiling lights that may be in the trailer. If it has seven pins, you'll likely also have backup lights on the trailer that come on when you shift your truck into reverse. This can help a lot when backing at night because the light from the backup lights on your truck will usually be blocked by your trailer making it difficult for you to see.

I suggest you go to a dealer that sells horse trailers, campers,or RVs. They'll likely be able to sell you a matching connector and provide a wiring diagram so you can make the proper hookup on your truck. You should also ask them how much they would charge to wire in the connector for you. It could save you the hassle of crawling around under your truck and getting frustrated if your truck is somehow wired differently than the diagram they provide.

Can I tow a small two-horse trailer with my jeep?

You don't say what Jeep you have, so I don't know if it's small like a CJ-7 or something bigger like a Grand Cherokee — that makes a big difference! The CJ series is limited to something like 2,000 pounds maximum combined trailer and payload weight while Grand Cherokees and some other models can tow 5,000 - 6,500 or so pounds depending on model and engine size.

Generally, small vehicles are not good for horse trailering. That's because their small weight could easily be "towed" by the trailer rather than the other way around — trust me, you don't want to find yourself in that situation as the "towee". Plus short wheelbase vehicles are not stable for anything but the smallest loads.

Think about the fact that the average horse weighs around 1,000 pounds and even a light, single-horse trailer will often weigh at least 1,300 - 1,800 pounds empty. Empty two-horse trailers are usually in the 2,400 - 3,200 pound range or more. Add one or two horses, tack, hay, water, and such, and you're way, way over the limit with a small vehicle.

I am not in a position to tell you what you can safely or legally tow with your vehicle — you need to get that information for your explicit vehicle and trailer. Your operator's manual will list the maximum weight you can tow, your Jeep's maximum combined vehicle/trailer weight, whether or not you can use a weight-distribution hitch, and much more. If you can't find your manual, try searching the Internet or visit a Jeep dealer to get that information.

This is not the kind of thing with which you want to take any chances. Your horse's lives, those of you and your passengers, and those riding in other vehicles sharing the road with you are all at stake.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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