Owning a horse trailer gives you the freedom to travel anywhere you like with your horse. Before you hit the road, make sure you understand how to safely hitch your trailer to your tow vehicle. Mistakes while hitching are not uncommon and can lead to some scary driving situations. Here is everything you need to know to properly hitch up your gooseneck or bumper pull horse trailer.
Step 1: Make Sure Your Tow Vehicle is Adequate to Haul Your Load
If you’re a regular reader of our articles, then you know this is a topic that gets emphasized often. Brad Heath, owner of Double D Trailers, feels this topic can never be ‘over-discussed.’ “Each day, horse owners across the US continue to hitch up with unsafe loads,” he explained. Brad went on to explain what he calls the “1-2-3s” of trailer load safety:
“1-2-3s” of Trailer Load Safety
1) Determine both the tongue weight and overall weight of your horse trailer. If you are unsure, physically go to a commercial scale station and have it weighed. This usually costs about $5.00 and takes five-minutes. (Don’t bother looking for this information on your trailer’s decal sticker because manufacturers never list the necessary values.)
Example: You may find that your 2 horse trailer weighs 3,400 lbs. and has a vertical tongue/hitch weight of around 600 lbs.
2) Check your tow vehicle’s weight towing capacity along with the tongue weight capacity on your hitch. Don’t rely on an auto or trailer dealer to advise you on this matter. They are notorious for providing wrong information.
Example: You may find that that your vehicle is capable of towing 8,000 lbs., and the tongue weight hitch capacity is 800 lbs. (This value typically ranges from 800 to 1,500 lbs.)
3) Compare the tongue weight of your trailer to the tongue weight capacity on your tow vehicle’s hitch. As long as you will not exceed the stated capacity when fully loaded, you are safe. Also, compare the overall weight of your trailer to the overall weight towing capacity of your vehicle. As long as you do not exceed the vehicle's stated capacity, your load is safe.
Example: Your vehicle can tow 8,000 lbs. and your trailer weighs 3,400 lbs., so you’re okay. Your tongue weight capacity is 800 lbs. and your actual tongue weight is 600 lbs. so you’re okay.
If you determine that your tow vehicle or hitch are not adequate to haul the load, then you need to upgrade either your vehicle or your hitch. Weight distribution systems (sway bars) are needed on some trailers and tow vehicles to be within the safe towing range.
Adding weight distribution to any trailer will help with stability, but can be a bit of a nuisance to connect the first time. Once you become familiar with the system, it will get easier. Brad recommends going to an RV/Camper center for information on weight distribution or sway bars. “Almost every camper that rolls out requires them!”
Step 2: Know Your Hitching Connection Parts
Now that you know your vehicle and hitch are sufficient to haul your trailer, familiarize yourself with the connection parts. First, let’s look at the important components on the tow vehicle.
Hitch Connection Parts on Your Tow Vehicle
1) Receiver – This is the square tubing that is bolted to the frame of your tow vehicle. It normally has a 2” dimension.
2) Ball Mount – You will purchase this portion separately and it will slide into the receiver. Ball mounts are available in straight, drop, or adjustable versions.
3) Ball – The ball is attached to the end of the ball mount and is the part that actually connects to your trailer.
Brad cautioned, “It's crucial the ball mount, and the ball are rated to safely support the weights being carried.” Don’t just assume your ball and ball mount will work for your trailer. This ball mount will carry only 3,500 lbs. and 350 lbs. tongue weight so it will not safely haul a horse trailer. Better options will be rated to carry something like 7,500 lbs. weight / 750 lbs. tongue weight or even 20,000 lbs. weight / 2,700 lbs. tongue weight. (Image Credit-Right)
Hitch Connection Parts on Your Horse Trailer
1) Coupler – This is the part that physically connects to the ball on your truck’s hitch. Most horse trailers come with an ‘A-Frame’ coupler shaped like the letter ‘A.’ Couplers will be designed for a 2” or 2 5/16” ball. Brad explained, “All Double D Trailers use a 2 5/16" size coupler which is the largest size (and greatest capacity) available. There are countless brands of couplers and the majority differ in the manner in which they latch.”
2) Safety Chains and Cables - If your trailer becomes disconnected from the ball, it's important to have the safety cables fastened to the receiver, which is bolted to the vehicle chassis. Brad prefers safety cables that coil like a pig’s tail over chains because the tension on the coil prevents the cable from becoming disconnected. Safety chains are more likely to dangle or even drag on the highway. There is a higher risk of safety chains becoming disconnected during travel.
3) Wiring Harness – All of the electronic wires needed to operate your trailer’s brake lights and turn signals will be encased in the wiring harness. It will be plugged directly into the rear bumper of your tow vehicle. Newer style vehicles have a 7-prong flat connector that acts as a universal plug for all RVs and trailers. The wiring harness will not operate your trailer’s brakes unless you have a brake controller installed in your tow vehicle.
4) Emergency Breakaway System – This final component is designed to automatically engage your trailer brakes in case your trailer ever becomes disconnected from your tow vehicle. It’s best to connect this cable to the receiver hitch or the same place as your safety chains. Once the cable pulls "out" from the breakaway system, this activates the trailer brakes. Regarding trailer brakes, it's important the emergency breakaway system battery stay fully charged at all times. Otherwise, if your trailer becomes disconnected, the system will not function.
Step 3: Hitch Up Your Trailer
Hitching up your horse trailer can be a little tricky if you’re just learning, but gets easier with practice. For a bumper pull trailer, it is often helpful to have an extra person standing near the trailer coupler to help guide the driver as they back into position. With a gooseneck horse trailer, drivers are usually able to see the coupler and ball line up simply by looking over their shoulder into the bed of the pick-up truck.
Once the ball is positioned directly below the coupler, lower the trailer down onto the ball until it locks into position. Be sure that you’ve made a secure connection between the ball and coupler. Improper connections here are the most common mistake when it comes to hitching a horse trailer.
“When the coupler never fully engages properly around the ball, the coupler pre-maturely locks sitting on top of the ball, rather than clawing around the ball,” Brad shared. “So the first major bump you go over suddenly the trailer bounces off the ball.”
At this point, the safety chains would prevent the trailer from becoming fully disconnected. Still, a disconnected ball and coupler can be a scary experience.
“We had a client call us about two years ago and said something was wrong with her bumper pull hitch. She was pulling out of her drive way and she said it suddenly popped off the ball and fell to the ground (or until the safety cables caught it). It made a lot of noise and shook her up when it happened. She simply didn't connect it properly. Thankfully, she was only in her driveway. ”
Hitching a Bumper Pull vs. Gooseneck Horse Trailer
Brad feels confident in recommending a bumper pull trailer behind any adequately equipped tow vehicle that is rated to safely carry the load. “With the correct vehicle equipped with a weight distribution system, towing a load that doesn't exceed the vehicle's towing specs, bumper pull trailers are very safe.”
There are instances where a gooseneck horse trailer is preferred. If you require living quarters or wish to carry 3 or more horses, a gooseneck trailer is a better option. The connection for a gooseneck trailer is different from a bumper pull in that the ball and ball mount are secured in the flat bed of a pick-up truck.
With gooseneck hitching connections, ‘pop off’ situations are very rare. The load distribution of the trailer provides enough weight down on the ball that it will usually stay on even if the coupler is improperly latched. (See image to the right - Credit)
“So in that respect, goosenecks would be safer since they eliminate some of the risk associated with bumper pulls and human error in hooking up,” Brad explained. He also shared that goosenecks distribute the weight more towards the front of the tow vehicle due to the location of the hitch ball, which does aide with stability.
Regardless of which type of trailer you are hitching, always double check your connection and make sure the ball is securely set and locked into the trailer’s coupler.
Midway through a long trip, you should also pop back and make sure that the safety cables or chains haven’t become unhooked from the receiver hitch. Next, double check the wiring harness connection especially on older vehicles. Often, the female portion on the tow vehicle becomes worn so the male plug will "fall out" while traveling.
These practices will go a long way to ensure you have safe and enjoyable adventures traveling with your horses.