You can haul your horse all year long, even in the dead of winter, as long as you do so safely.
Here, I’ll give you a four-step strategy to safe winter hauling: (1) Ready your rig; (2) trailer-load safely; (3) keep your horse comfortable; and (4) drive carefully. I’ll also give you disaster-prep tips, should you have to evacuate your horse in case of a weather emergency or loss of power.
Note: You may wish to sign up for USRider® Equestrian Motor Plan, which covers both your tow vehicle and your trailer, and will help you find a safe place for your horse in an emergency. (For more information, call 800/844-1409, or visit www.usrider.org.)
1. Ready Your Rig
Before you set out with your horse in tow, ready your rig for winter conditions. Here’s how:
• Invest in good tires. Invest in quality tires for your entire rig. Check tire pressure before every trip, and comply with the manufacturer’s tire-pressure recommendations.
• Check all lights. Recruit an assistant to help you check all lights on your towing vehicle and trailer. Replace any nonfunctioning lights.
• Carry chains. Keep quality chains handy if snow and ice are significant enough to use them. Check your state’s chain requirements. Generally, if you have to chain up the drive axle of your tow vehicle, you should have chains on your trailer, as well.
• Top off the fuel tank. Don’t let your fuel tank get below a half-tank. If you’ll be driving in remote areas, carry extra fuel.
• Keep the windshield clean. Top off the windshield cleaner in your tow vehicle’s tank, and keep extra cleaner handy. Make sure the windshield wipers are working. Place a long-handled windshield-scraper in your tow vehicle.
• Comply with local brake laws. Every state has its own laws related to trailer brakes. To find out the laws in your state, consult AAA® (http://drivinglaws.aaa.com/laws/trailer-brakes).
• Disengage the engine brake. Engine brakes in trucks do a fantastic job slowing your rig to minimize brake wear under dry conditions. But a diesel engine’s compression-release engine brake (also referred to by the brand name Jacob’s brake, or Jake brake) can lead to a jackknife if used in slick road conditions, since they slow your tow vehicle first.
• Sync the brakes. Make sure your trailer’s brakes complement the brakes of your tow vehicle. When you’re on a steep downhill in slick conditions, you might need to slow your trailer with brakes greater than your vehicle’s brakes. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally, brakes are best set on dry, flat ground at a slow speed and need to be adjusted for the load. Position the electronic brake so you can manually engage it via the thumb control.
• Disengage the cruise control. If you get into a slide, the precious second or two that it takes to turn off your tow vehicle’s cruise control may doom your chances of maintaining control.
• Apply reflective decals. Apply extra reflective decals on the back and sides of your trailer, so that other drivers can see your rig in poor conditions.
• Weight your truck bed. An empty trailer jackknifes more easily than a loaded one. For better control of your tow vehicle, place concrete blocks or sandbags in the truck bed to add weight over the rear axle.
• Pack cold-weather gear. Pack extra hay and at least 10 gallons of water per horse. Carry a mobile phone with charger, emergency blankets, jackets, high-energy snack foods, and a thermos of hot drink, in case your tow vehicle or trailer breaks down and you need to wait roadside for help.
2. Trailer-Load Safely
Here are six ways to ease trailer-loading in snow and ice:
• Wear good boots. Slipping, falling, or breaking a limb is really a downer on your planned trip. Find good-quality boots that will keep your feet warm, protect your feet, and provide good traction.
• Train your horse. Prior preparation and good training are important to make sure your horse is a good loader; if he rushes in or out, he can easily slip.
• Create an inviting environment. Put fresh hay in the bags and a little grain in the manger. Open the doors and windows, so there’s plenty of light. The more inviting you make the trailer’s interior, the more likely your horse will feel confident enough to step in.
• Lay in supplies. Keep a rubber broom, a snow shovel, sand, shavings, and salt in your trailer or tow vehicle. Use these tools to clear snow and ice from the area around your trailer and to add traction. These measures will minimize the chance of injury as you load your horse.
• Find traction. Park so that your trailer’s ramp is positioned on the best traction you can find. Dirt is preferred, but snow is better than ice or asphalt.
• Clean your trailer. Clean the inside of your trailer. Frozen urine and manure are slippery. If your horse falls inside your trailer, he could suffer a serious injury or even death.
3. Keep Him Comfortable
Here’s how to help keep your horse comfortable while hauling him in the winter:
• Provide good-quality hay. Even in really cold weather, horses create more heat than you think they do. The best way to keep your horse warm in the trailer is to provide good-quality hay.
• Avoid over-blanketing. It’s easy to over-blanket your horse. Most trailers are poorly ventilated, so they tend to get very warm with body heat, even in below freezing temperatures. A light sheet or blanket is sufficient for most horses.
• Apply leg protection. Apply leg protection, such as polo wraps or shipping boots. In winter, it’s especially important to protect your horse’s precious lower legs from slips and kicks.
• Increase ventilation. Humidity and condensation buildup from your horse’s breath can cause respiratory illness. Improve the indirect ventilation in your trailer to counteract this risk.
• Avoid drafts. Make sure that there are no direct drafts hitting your horse, especially on his face and eyes. Freezing-cold temperatures with wind can result in damaged corneas from frostbite.
• Monitor your horse. On the road, check your horse frequently. If there’s sweat under the blanket, he’s cooking inside. If he’s clipped and lacks natural insulation, carefully monitor him for sweat or shivering.
4. Drive Carefully
Here’s an on-the-road guide for driving in winter conditions.
• Recruit an assistant driver. In poor conditions, it’s helpful to have an assistant driver. This person watches road conditions, unusual events, and environmental conditions that could create a problem. This person also does all navigation, is the ground guide for backing and tight spots, checks on the horses from the in-cab camera, and handles important mobile-phone calls.
• Learn to back up. Backing up a rig is particularly challenging in snow. Not only are the roads slick, but also the snow covers up landmarks you might need for guidance. Learn to back your trailer when the weather is nice. In poor conditions, set up your rig so that you have maximum backing room. Use a ground guide to make sure you don’t hit something or go off course.
• Call ahead. Call ahead to make sure that your destination has cleared its roads and driveways for your arrival.
• Turn on all lights. Keep the appropriate lights of your tow vehicle and trailer on at all times, day and night.
• Take it slow. Go as slow as you need to. Run your hazard lights, if necessary. Let the rest of the traffic go around you; your priority is your safety, and that of your horse and your passengers.
• Stay calm. Driving a trailer is no place for road rage or frustration to set in. Stay calm, take your time, and breathe.
• Allow room to brake. Leave enough room between you and the vehicle in front of you to account for much longer braking distances than normal. Watch for black ice. Forget the 2-second rule. In poor driving conditions, allow yourself 8, 10, 12 seconds or longer to come to a complete stop. The National Safety Council (www.nsc.org) recommends that you add one second per factor of driving difficulty. These factors include poor lighting conditions, inclement weather, an adverse traffic mix, and driver condition (such as fatigue).
• Stay right. If you’re moving slower than the traffic around you, turn on your flashers, and move into the right lane.
• Pay attention. Pay attention to the road at all times. No texting. No talking on your phone. No yelling at the kids.
• Drive defensively. Plowed snow can make normal roads and driveways very narrow. Take the time to allow other vehicles to pass, and set up for turns and backups ahead of time.
• Avoid a skid. If all else fails and you must brake hard, do so as calmly and smoothly as possible, using your trailer’s brakes to assist you. If you start to skid or slide, ease off the brakes immediately, and steer into the direction of the skid to regain control. This maneuver is counterintuitive, so practice it in an open parking lot or at a driving school in good weather conditions.
Rebecca Gimenez, PhD (animal physiology), is president of and a primary instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (www.tlaer.org). A Major in the United States Army Reserve, she’s a decorated Iraq War veteran and a past Logistics Officer for the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, which serves as first responders to ensure high-quality care of animals during disasters and emergencies. She’s an invited lecturer on animal-rescue topics around the world and is a noted equine journalist.