© 1994, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine

  KBR / LRTC Survival School

"Trailer Safety"
By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

It's wintertime and for many of us, the slack season for equestrian activities. It's time to plan the coming year's activities, dream about that new saddle, and take care of horse equipment.

You can't have a safe trail ride if you don't get safely to the trail, however one of the most commonly overlooked items on the "Winter Maintenance List" is the noble horse trailer. There are many not-so-obvious things which need to be maintained... not-so-obvious until they fail! This article should help you focus on your trailer's needs and help you organize a quick and efficient trailer inspection and maintenance program.

Whether you do all, part, or none of the work yourself, you should write up a checklist to cover every item listed. (I prefer checklists as they help organize and streamline maintenance projects, and prevent something important from being forgotten in the process.) Below are the items we go over at the Kickin' Back Ranch.


Aside from visual blemishes, the outside of the trailer can reveal evidence of more serious problems. Damage from horses and simple wear and tear can leave sharp edges and other dangerous conditions.

Start at the tongue and perform a visual inspection over the entire exterior of the body.

  • Check for loose, missing or broken screws, bolts and rivets. Oftentimes aluminum rivets which hold trim plates and gutter strips get brittle and break. Catching these problems and repairing them before you have a whole piece of trim torn off or a panel get bent will save several hours of work later.

  • Look for sharp metal edges which could cut horses or leadropes. File them off as necessary.

  • Look for other horse and/or road caused damage to brackets, latches, tie rings, fenders, etc.

  • Oil all door hinges and latches. Make sure all latches hold tight!

  • Look for rust starting. Depending on severity, rusty spots can be cleaned up with rubbing compound or they may have to be lightly sanded. Seal seams with a thin bead of silicone sealer. Dull paint can be brought back to life with white polishing compound. Finish with a good coat of paste wax.


Trailer interiors are under constant contact, and even attack, by horses. Inspect the interior for wear and damage which may prove injurious to your horse.

  • Check the roof for broken bolts and rivets. These are common in steel roofs at the point they are attached to the roof ribs. (We typically replace worn roof rivets with stainless steel aircraft screws and nylon filled self-locking nuts.)

  • Look for sharp points and edges. File smooth and/or cover with duct tape.

  • Check the floors of hay mangers for wear and horse-caused damage. If they need repainting, we use industrial or automotive grade lead-free paint. Inspect trailer ties, if used, for wear and make sure snaps on both ends work freely. (Frozen or sticky snaps can be soaked in WD-40.)

  • Check for worn vinyl pads. A small tear can be easily patched or taped. If left to grow larger, an entire pad replacement may be in your future.

  • Check trailer mats for torn edges which may curl up under horse's feet. Some loose flaps can be secured from the underside with heavy vinyl tape. (Duct tape also works, but wears through more quickly.)

  • Check the trailer floor for rotten spots, particularly along the edges and front corners. In older trailers, this may be your most critical inspection! Once the wood sealer wears through, manure and urine can quickly start to rot the floor. You can probe with a large screwdriver to find soft spots. Replace soft or rotten boards. Sand down discolored areas. Rinse with bleach and water to kill remaining fungus and bacteria. Allow to thoroughly dry and apply two or more coats of water sealer. Check the underside of the floor. It may also need cleaning and treatment.

  • Interior sidewalls may start to show wear. They need to be protected from moisture damage. Wood sidewalls may start to have chunks taken out by pawing or kicking horses. (We like to fill in the chunks, seal the wood, and face the inside of the walls with good quality stall mats. The wood is protected from hooves and moisture and the stall mats seem to last forever.)

  • Don't forget to inspect the tack compartment or dressing room. Be sure to look for leaks and seal up holes and/or worn out door seals. Being sealed in a humid compartment is about as damaging to your tack as direct contact by water drips.


The most often forgotten about area of trailer maintenance is the trailer undercarriage... until something fails out on the road. Lack of maintenance in this area contributes to many tragic trailer accidents.

We start at the tongue and go completely around the trailer. (Depending on your own automotive knowledge, you may check these items yourself or hire an expert.)

  • Check the hitch mechanism. It should be free from dirt and rust. the cap and jaws which attach around the hitch ball should be free from rust pockets, deep scores or cracks. Oil it and make sure all the moving parts are working smoothly. Check hinge pins and fasteners for signs of loosening or excessive wear. If the nosepiece is bolted onto the tongue, make sure bolts are tight and not wearing through.

  • Check safety chains. Two chains should be securely attached to each side of the tongue, long enough to crisscross and attach to the towing vehicle. (Crossing the chains allows the chains to "cradle" the trailer tongue if it breaks loose, preventing it from nose-diving into the roadway.) Attachment devices at the end of the chains should be undamaged and work easily.

  • For electric brakes, check the break-away brake mechanism. (The break-away mechanism engages the brakes on the trailer if it ever comes unhitched so it won't ram you from behind and flip over. It consists of a small battery, break-away switch and a "rip cord". If you don't have one, get one. They are required equipment in most states and not having an operational break-away system can result in a nasty ticket.) The rip cord should be long enough not to snag on hitch parts when turning, but short enough to pop out of the break-away switch before the loose trailer can pull the safety chains taught.

  • Look under the front end of the trailer. All bracing, struts, etc. should be welded or bolted solidly in place.

  • Fenders should be bolted solidly in place and should not have any bent edges that could rub against tires when the trailer bounces.

  • The axle springs should be solidly attached to anchor and pivot points. Spring leaves should lie in alignment on top of each other. (Uneven springs could be a sign of trouble.) Many anchor points require annual greasing to keep the bushings from wearing out. If they appear ungreased, have an expert check them for excessive wear.

  • Wheels should be unbent and tires in good condition. Look for signs of leaking grease from the wheel hubs. Check tire pressure and look for signs of excessive tire wear. (Don't forget the spare tire!)

  • Grease the trailer. Repack the wheel bearings. (Most wheel bearings are forgotten items until they go dry and "burn up" under a load!)

  • Wheel bearing repacking is a great time to have the brakes inspected. Usually the shop that repacks the bearings is qualified to check the brakes which are accessible while the wheels are removed.


  • Check your trailer electrical cable and plug for excessive wear. The contacts in trailer plugs can be "cleaned up" with a shot of WD-40, "Tri-FLow" lubricant or a similar product.

  • Check trailer lights.

    • Tail and marker lights should be reasonably bright and not dim significantly when signals or 4-way flashers are on. (Such dimming suggests a poor ground connection.)

    • Check to make sure the left and right turn signals are correct and equally bright. (A bright tail light and weak turn signal means some wires are crossed up.)

  • Electric brakes can be checked by simply holding the electric brake hand control while pulling forward. This test works best on sand or gravel. At least one wheel on each side of the trailer should lock up and leave a drag mark.

  • Check emergency "break-away" brakes by pulling the rip-cord and repeating the above test. Failure of the brakes to lock up on their own signifies a dead emergency brake battery or wiring problem. Be sure to reinsert the rip-cord plunger all the way back into the break- away switch when done!


  • Check your hitch. It should be firmly attached to the vehicle frame. If your trailer ball is mounted directly onto a utility bumper, check the security of the bumper. Tweaks and bends in hitches and bumpers can be signs of stress and potential failure.

  • Check the trailer ball. It should be the proper size for the trailer, be smooth and be firmly attached to the hitch. Scored or rusty balls should be replaced as they will cause excessive wear. Avoid using "2- piece" balls. Also make sure the ball stem is the correct size for the hole it bolts through. (Some suppliers sell a "universal" ball with a small threaded stem and a bushing to fill in the excess gap in the hitch hole. I can tell you from personal experience that these devices can fail under a heavy load at the worst possible moment.)

  • Safety chain rings should be solid and free from stress or wear marks.

  • Check the trailer plug receptacle. It should be clean and securely attached.

  • Check your fire extinguisher. The needle must be in the green portion of the pressure gauge. If it has bled down, most extingushers can be recharged by a fire extinguisher service. If you don't have one, purchase a portable extinguisher with at least a 2A,10B:C rating. If your tow vehicle catches fire it's usually much easier to put the fire out than make an emergency evacuation of your horses on the highway!


  • Common causes of electrical failures include corroded light sockets and worn "quick-splices." Light sockets can be coated with dielectric silica gel to protect them from the elements. Quick-splices (plastic "flip-over" devices designed to piggyback an additional lead onto a wire) often fail over time when exposed to the elements. Replace them with good quality solderless connectors, or solder the wires together and tape them up properly. Also, household "wire nuts" are not designed to withstand the elements and roadway vibration.

  • Check your trailer first aid kit. We all tend to forget the supplies we use up over time until an emergency when we need them.

  • There are places you can have a flat tire where it is unsafe to unload your horses. Don't wait until then to discover you don't have a jack capable of safely raising a trailer with horses inside, or you are missing the necessary wrench to loosen lug nuts.

  • We also carry a couple of cans of aerosol tire sealer which are extremely useful when dealing with small punctures, however they are no substitute for a good spare tire, jack and lug wrench.

  • Finally, in many states, if your trailer is over 84" wide, you are required to carry a set of 3 triangle reflector stands to place alongside your trailer if it ever becomes disabled on the roadway. (These are also much safer to use than fusee flares if you become disabled during fire season!)

Each trailer is different so the tips presented here are somewhat general. Specific care for some specific trailers may vary. Your owner's manual and/or the opinion of a qualified trailer mechanic familiar with your type of trailer should be your primary source of advice and information.

The important thing is to perform periodic inspections and maintenance on your horse hauling equipment. Failures can be tragic and are usually preventable. Make inspections and maintenance part of your "horse routine"... and mark your calendar for this task before you forget!


You never know what you'll encounter when you trailer out, and you shouldn't go out unprepared. Here's what we've found to be a practical first aid kit to carry in our horse trailers (in addition to the standard "automobile" first aid kit in the pickup). It all fits nicely in a standard tackle box.

1. Pocket first aid kit 10. 12cc bent tip catheter
2. Baggie of band-aids and towelettes 11. Scissors
3. 2X3 gauze pads 12. Forceps & tweezers
4. Kotex (for bulk dressing) 13. Kleenex
5. Clear bandaging tape 14. Sewing kit
6. Bandanna 15. Insect sting swabs
7. Antibiotic ointment 16. Eye pad
8. "DESITIN" ointment 17. Tylenol
9. Zinc oxide ointment 18. Rolaids
1. 2x2 gauze pads 12. Electrolytes
2. "KLING" dressing 13. Nitrofurazone ointment
3. Kotex (for bulk dressing) 14. "CUT HEAL"
4. Vet wrap 15. "FURALL" spray
5. 36" latex bandage 16. Leather belt
6. Leg wrap 17. Hoof Pick w/ brush
7. Betadine solution (diluted) 18. 12cc syringe w/o needle
8. Phenylbutazone ("BUTE") tabs or paste 19. Duct tape
9. Velcro straps 20. Small rubber bands
10. "B-KALM" paste 21. Sponge
11. "SWAT" fly repellant ointment 22. 2) 5" pc. of garden hose*

* Garden hose pieces can be used to keep nasal airways open in the event of snake bite or anaphylactic shock.

Other items in the trailer should include an extra halter and lead rope, clippers or grooming scissors, an old bath towel, twitch, sponge, and a clean bucket.

Be sure to inspect your first aid supplies periodically, particularly at the beginning and end of each "trailering" season!

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

Continue to Part Two
(Getting the Support You Need)

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