Friday, Sep. 22, 2023

Towing And Trailer Safety Part 5: Maintenance and Emergency Preparedness

Check back on Wednesday, May 12, for the next article—Accident Prevention and Driving Tips—in our continuing series on Towing and Trailer Safety.

Most horse owners are guilty of at least occasionally throwing the horses on the trailer, jumping in the truck and hitting the road without more than a quick glance over the rig. However, going through a quick checklist before every trip will keep you up-to-date on the condition of your vehicles, which will, in return, contribute to your horses’ safety.



Check back on Wednesday, May 12, for the next article—Accident Prevention and Driving Tips—in our continuing series on Towing and Trailer Safety.

Most horse owners are guilty of at least occasionally throwing the horses on the trailer, jumping in the truck and hitting the road without more than a quick glance over the rig. However, going through a quick checklist before every trip will keep you up-to-date on the condition of your vehicles, which will, in return, contribute to your horses’ safety.

“You never break down in front of a garage in broad daylight,” said DJ Johnson of Johnson Horse Transportation with a laugh. “You should prepare for it to get to the destination, not for it to break down. Preventative maintenance is such a key thing. No one wants to break down with a load of horses.”

But It’s All About The Horse, Right?

Even before you perform a pre-trip checklist, there are several documents your horses are going to need, especially if you’re hauling long distances.

In addition to your “Limited Power of Attorney” and “To Emergency Responders” forms, you should also carry a current health certificate and negative Coggins.

Your veterinarian provides these documents. Health certificates must be current within 30 days, and Coggins within one year. Regulations for transport differ by state, and you can find those regulations on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. 

Check, Check, Check!

“We believe you can never over-prepare for a trailering trip with your horse,” said Mark Cole, managing member for USRider. “Even if you are only going to travel a short distance to a local event, an accident—or some other emergency—could occur, leaving you stuck on the highway unexpectedly for an extended period.”

  • Wheel bearings — Service annually or every 12,000 miles, whichever comes first.
  • Tires — Replace every 3-5 years regardless of mileage.
  • Tire pressure — Check spares and inside tires on dual wheels, too!
  • Hitch — Make sure you’re using the correct size and that it’s locked on the ball.
  • Safety cables/chains — Are they securely connected?
  • Electrical connection — Is it plugged in and secure?
  • Breakaway system — Is it connected and secured?
  • Emergency battery — Should be charged.
  • Trailer lighting — Check blinkers, emergency flashers and brake lights.
  • Floorboards — Make sure there are no cracks, rot, rust or signs of damage underneath the mats.
  • Brake controller — Test on the driveway before you head out.
  • Trailer — Remove any sharp or potentially harmful items.
  • Doors — Secure and latch, use a snap hook or carabineer to prevent accidental opening
  • Inside the trailer — Check for wasp nests, insects or spiders, which could panic your horses.

Where Rubber Meets Road

Tire failure is the most common cause of trailer problems on the road. Cole reported that USRider has seen a lot of disablements that involve two tires on the same side of the trailer going out, which is a problem considering most owners only carry one spare. USRider recommends keeping two spare trailer tires to prevent the inconvenience of having to find another spare on the road.

While a flat tire isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it is a frustrating inconvenience, especially when you’re hauling horses. Changing a trailer tire isn’t always as straightforward as a vehicle, so keeping an eye on the condition of your tires is essential.

“Tires should always be filled to the max air pressure cold because they ride cooler because they flex less,” said Tom Scheve co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “When they flex more, they get hotter and can blow.”

Check tire pressure when the tire is cold. Make sure all valve stems have caps to keep dust and grit from damaging the spring in the valve.


A tire’s recommended tire pressure can be found on the wall of the tire. While tire pressure is important, you also need to check the treads and sidewalls. Dry rot is a huge concern for horse owners who don’t use their trailers for long periods of time. More horse trailer tires wear out from dry rot than road miles.

Dry rot is characterized by small cracks on the sidewalls of the tire. Severe cracks in the tires could release air and reduce tire pressure. Cracks can also show up within the treads, and if you see exposed cable wire, you shouldn’t drive on the tire. Extreme weather can make cracks worse.

“Be sure to check for uneven tire wear by rubbing your hand over the tire or by visible inspection,” said Scheve. “Uneven wear is a sign of low pressure or bent axles and should be checked.”

“Invest in good quality tires,” added Cole. “All tires are round and black, but the similarities stop there. Quality tires that are properly inflated will reward you with many miles of trouble-free travel. We highly recommend the use of a tire pressure monitoring system. It lets you know of a developing problem and will help keep you off the side of the highway.”

Hitting The Brakes

Trailer brakes should be checked before every trip and adjusted every 12,000 miles or once a year unless the axles have self-adjusting brakes. If you travel in hilly areas, you may want to check them more often. Most trailers have electric brakes, which can lock up or grab if they aren’t synchronized with the tow vehicle. Adjusting the controller in the tow vehicle until the trailer brakes come on just slightly ahead of the vehicle brakes sets synchronization. Your trailer brakes should always kick in before the vehicle brakes to prevent unnecessary wear on the vehicle.

“Pull forward at about 10 mph, and slide the emergency or trolley break and make sure that your brakes are working,” advised Frank DiBella of Deluxe Horse Vans, Inc. “You’re also sanding off some of the rust [that accumulates if your trailer sits for too long.]”

Axles Make The Tires Go Round

Trailer axles should be serviced annually or every 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. Some manufacturers claim lifetime bearings and maintenance-free axles, but it’s better to do a simple check-up once a year. Take your trailer to a respected mechanic, who will inspect the axle, replace the worn parts, and re-pack the bearings (unless they are N’ver Lube, which are sealed bearings that do not need service or grease) with high-temperature bearing grease, or change the oil for oil-bath axles.

The main reason for this yearly service is that moisture often builds up in the axles. This causes the grease to dilute and break down, which prevents proper lubrication. Irregular axle maintenance can lead to axle damage, which could require replacement. Replacing an axle is far more expensive than maintaining one. Worn trailer axles will also cause tires to wear improperly.

USRider recommends that owners carry a spare set of axle bearings when traveling.

“It is much easier to locate a mechanic to make a repair than to have to locate specific axle components,” said Cole. “This is especially important if you travel great distances, or on nights and weekends, as parts may not be available due to many parts suppliers being closed.”

Are You Road Legal?

Along with maintaining your vehicle, you also need to know your own state’s requirements regarding licensing and inspections.


The U.S. Department of Transportation, however, regulates the placement, color and brightness of all exterior lights and reflectors. Running lights, turn signals and brake lights are not only mandatory on trailers, but they make you more visible, and therefore, safer.

“Owners have a responsibility here as well,” said Cole. “They should always check proper function of marker lights, brake lights and other electrical connections prior to traveling and periodically during trips.”

Trailer wiring has been a longstanding problem in horse trailers. Because trailers flex and move constantly, it is imperative that proper wiring techniques are used.

Cole said you should look for wires coming into contact with sharp edges, improper securing materials, wires fastened to flooring, lack of protective covering or poor routing of wiring when examining your horse trailer, which will require someone to crawl underneath and visually inspect the wiring.

“Most people never see the underside of their horse trailer,” said Cole. “But this is essential for examining the wiring. Many of the horse trailers that I’ve inspected have had multiple wiring issues. It is not a matter of if, but when the wiring will fail.”

Breakaway Batteries

Breakaway batteries are designed to turn on if the trailer “breaks away” from the truck for any reason. However, if you don’t take proper care of this important part of your rig, you may not have any battery power if such a problem were to occur.

To ensure your breakaway system will work in care of an emergency, you should have a qualified mechanic test it annually.

Other Breakaway System Tips

  • Have your battery load tested to check the current. Replace old and weak batteries.
  • Regularly inspect cable and switch.
  • Keep top of battery and battery terminals clean. Battery should be removed from the trailer when the trailer is stored or not in use for long periods of time.
  • Use the correct battery for your system. Refer to your owner’s manual.
  • Maintain the charge.
  • Consider a built-in battery charger.

Tools For The Road

Even if you’ve made every possible precaution, breakdowns do happen. Being prepared for a problem can help make it less of an inconvenience.

In Your Tool Box

  • Spare Tire – USRider recommends carrying two spare tires
  • Hydraulic Jack – rated to jack your trailer while loaded
  • Lug Wrench – fitted to your tires
  • Three emergency triangles or flares
  • Chocks
  • Flashlight
  • Electrical tape
  • Duct Tape
  • Equine First Aid Kit
  • Knife for cutting ropes, etc., in emergency
  • Water
  • Buckets/sponge
  • Water hose
  • Spare halter and lead rope for each horse
  • Spare axle and wheel bearings
  • Spare bulbs for exterior and interior lights
  • Spare fuses if applicable
  • Fire extinguisher with up-to-date charge
  • WD-40 or other lubricant
  • Broom, shovel, fork and manure disposal bags
  • Insect spray (bee and wasp)

In Your Truck

  • Registration for the vehicle and trailer
  • Proof of insurance
  • Jumper cables
  • Spare tire/jack/tire iron
  • Tool kit including wiring materials
  • Spare belts and hoses for the tow vehicle
  • Tow chain
  • Cellular phone and/or CB radio (CB may be more effective in rural areas without cell phone service)
  • Replacement fuses
  • Work gloves
  • Portable air compressor
  • Extra cash/credit card
  • Road Atlas
  • Service cards, such as your USRider member card or AAA card

This article is the fifth in an ongoing series loaded with tips for safe towing and travel. Do you have any questions about trailering or anything you’d like to see in this series? Please e-mail She would love to hear your thoughts and looks forward to your contributions!




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