Trailering in the Winter
By Karen Lassell, firstname.lastname@example.org
As Featured in The William H. Miner Agriculture Research Institute’s December 2019 Stable Sheet
I’m the first to admit that driving the horse trailer in the winter is one of my least favorite things to do but being better prepared does a little bit to ease my mind. We specifically have our small, bumper pull trailer parked in a shed (our “Pony Barn” for those who have been to Miner) and it is always ready and accessible if needed to move a horse once the snow flies. However, for me, that’s only for emergencies. I try to schedule planned trips around the weather, but sometimes, you just can’t manage that. A few more attention-to-details preparations and you’ll be in better shape to arrive safe and sound during.
For your truck, be sure you have great treads on your tires and even consider having a set of tire chains depending upon where you’re trying to travel. How is the battery on the truck? Winter is hard on batteries and you don’t want to get stuck needing a jump start. If you have a bumper pull and it isn’t very heavy or you’ll be hauling the trailer empty at some point on the trip, you might want to add some weight in the bed of the truck- sand tubes are good because you can always steal one or two for traction if you were to get stuck! A good ice scraper, snow brush and even a broom can help with snow removal on tall trucks or the backs of a dirty trailer if your latches get crusted with ice. Toss in a shovel while you’re at it. Print out directions, phone numbers, itineraries and horse health documents in case your GPS or phone fails you.
As for the trailer, be sure the lights, brakes, and emergency brakes are in good working order. Extra reflective tape on the sides and back of the trailer can help increase visibility. Check the tires’ quality and get a good pressure gauge; cold temperatures reduce pressure in the tires. Low tire pressure increases the friction and generates heat which is the number one cause of tire blow-outs on trailers. Whatever windows and vents are on the trailer should be in good working order; managing the temperature and humidity in the trailer is critical to keeping horses healthy and comfortable.
The day I hauled HD Jefferson to his new home on Cape Cod, MA, it was cold (about 20 °F) and he was the only horse in a 5-horse slant load gooseneck. I was happy for the weight balance of the gooseneck in the bed of the truck, but I had a few bags of sand in there too. Since the ride was going to be almost 7 hours, I set up the trailer for “Tommy” to have a box stall at the front of the trailer by taking out several of the partitions and leaving only the “stud wall” to give him a large, well-bedded space. I closed the roof vents directly over his stall and opened the two vents at the back of the trailer to let warm, moist air out. If they were open to the front of the trailer, they’d “scoop” cold air into the trailer and I didn’t want to give him a chill. I then cracked open a couple of inches the side windows behind his stall. He had a good winter coat, so I chose not to blanket him. I packed several towels, a fleece cooler with buckles and leg straps, and a spare sheet if I needed to cool him off or warm him up during the ride. I hung up his hay net, loaded up extra hay, a covered bucket of warm water and hit the road, precious cargo in the stall!
Tommy had some experience in a trailer before, so I was confident he would be OK by himself in the trailer. My first stop to check on him was about 2 hours into the trip. At that time, I found that the trailer was moister from condensation than I thought it would be and he was a little damp on his chest and girth area. I put the cooler on him and opened a couple more side windows to improve the ventilation. Horses are at high risk for contracting respiratory diseases during trailering and I wanted to ensure Tommy arrived healthy for his new owner. He drank a few gulps of water, ensuring that even if he did sweat and breathe out lots of moisture, he would be at less risk of colic due to dehydration. When I stopped again in another 2 hours for a water break, he was comfortable and dry under the cooler and the air in the trailer was much improved. Tommy arrived fresh and happy at his new home after the final leg of the trip.
It is best to avoid direct, cold drafts on the horse, but blanketing can help protect if your trailer’s windows aren’t negotiable. If you blanket, check the horse often and have spares, both lighter and heavier, if you need to change them out. If you don’t have a cooler, stuffing some hay under a sheet can provide a nice air layer to help them dry while simultaneously keeping them protected from drafts. Frequent stops to check and feel under the blanket are the most important thing for the health of your horse.
Road conditions are the other BIG factor when driving in the winter and should be a huge consideration as to whether you set out on a one-day trip or plan for extra day(s). Even if you yourself feel pretty good about your driving abilities in foul weather, we all know it is the rest of the driving public we need to watch out for! Other than having 4-wheel drive and possible access to tire chains for your truck and braking wheels of your trailer, the main considerations are just enhanced versions of what we already know. SLOW DOWN. 4WD can help you GO faster, but it won’t help you STOP faster. Increase your stopping distance by taking your foot off the gas way in advance of needing to stop and always have a much larger space between you and the vehicle ahead of you than you might on dry roads. Increasing the braking “power” of your trailer brakes is not likely to help especially if those brakes lock up. A skidding tire moves faster than a turning one and if the trailer brakes lock up, it will push the trailer and increase the chances of jack-knifing. Your right foot is going to get tired, but do not use cruise control in bad weather as you’ll lose the “feel” of the road and the ability to let off the gas instantly.
Coming home from delivering Tommy, the roads were fine in MA and NH, but awful for about 60 miles in VT due to a fast moving, high elevation storm. I’d checked the forecast carefully for the whole of my route and knew I might hit some weather, but it was worse than predicted, earlier than predicted. Snow covered roads slowed me down and I turned my lights on to improve visibility. Seeing many cars off the road hinted at very slick conditions so I slowed a bit more. Slow and steady with 4WD on and maintaining a very safe stopping distance, I returned to the Champlain Valley in one piece, albeit with a few bonus gray hairs.