Handmade Horsemanship: Course Correction

Almost exactly five years ago, I purchased my very first horse trailer.  It was old and needed some love but it was light enough to haul with my SUV, it was all I could afford, and I needed one because I was keeping horses on family property with no other riders around.  My very first photo, the night I brought it home:

I have no idea how old it was: I suspect it was a kit trailer someone built at home in the ’80s. It has no stickers or tags with information, no VIN, and no manufacturer logos that I could ever find.  That said: they didn’t do a bad job at all: the steel frame and floor were structurally sound with minimal surface rust.  It had a really solid steel rear door, and mechanically it was road-worthy.  The fibreglass skin had lived outside and would need refurbishment at some point but not immediately and, from everything I could see, all the work it would need was cosmetic, which I could handle or learn.

I got the brakes checked and repaired professionally and my spouse repaired the (relatively minor) wiring problems he found.  It got us on the road.

Once I’d driven it a few times, I prioritised the things that needed to be addressed and started doing the work I could. I learned, the hard way, that I shouldn’t put my leather tack in the under-manger tack space while driving in the rain. That was easy: I replaced the weather stripping on the tack door. It still wasn’t waterproof, so my tack rode in the tow vehicle ever after, but it reduced the deluge enough to store grooming and stable-keeping supplies back there.

Tack Door Weather Stripping – Before

Pretty early on, I installed padding on the steel interior supports and front wall.  I also installed a butt chain, with padding.

Butt chain and padding installed

A friend helped me jack the trailer up and taught me to re-pack the bearings.

That’s when we learned about some more concerning issues.  As it turned out, the axles had been improperly installed.  At some point, they had collided with the angle-iron frame and bent. In addition, the leaf spring axles had worn out and the shackles would flip around, sometimes on top of the springs, sometimes below.  I also started to become concerned that the surface rust would eventually turn into something more sinister.  So my friend and I put together a plan.  I would start immediately on refinishing the steel, interior first, while he helped me figure out how to replace the axles and suspension.

Broken suspension!

I got to work on the interior: pressure washing, grinding, chemical rust stripping, priming, sanding, priming again, sanding again, painting, sanding again, painting again.

Steel floor – before
Floor after chemical rust stripping
Floor and walls primed
Walls painted, floor finished with rubberised coating

Around the same time, the new kid on the block started to be ready for a few of his own adventures, and he had some strong opinions about the trailer’s inadequacies. Among them was the firm conviction that the box-stall configuration was uncomfortable; he wanted something against which to brace sideways. I purchased a slant-load divider from a local trailer dealership who had replaced it with a stud wall for another customer. I took that to a local welder to have it cut to fit and installed.

Divider Installed

Finally, I got the rear door and all the fittings around the rear entry primed and painted.

Rear door: stripped, primed, and painted

I had also taken up the habit of camping at horse trials, sleeping in the horse compartment, both to stay closer to my horse and to save money. So I made a few things for my own creature comfort, too: window screens with removable privacy panels.  I made them so the screens on the bus-style slider windows at the sides could stay on during transit, while the privacy screens could be removed for travel.  The rear screen would always have to come out during travel. Summers on the Great Plains are nothing if not buggy and muggy, so this allowed for air flow without getting eaten alive. They all velcro to the windows all the way around.  The rear privacy panel has two zips, making it easy to open or close as much as I wanted.  The side privacy panels just have four velcro tabs at the corners to keep them up, drop them down as shown here, or remove them entirely.

Window screens for camping

So what, you may be wondering, is the point of this very long story? After all, I haven’t told you how I did any of this….

Well, the point is to say it has been a multi-year exercise in folly and, last week, I gave up on it. I learned a lot and most of it was pretty fun.  It was hard but it was a pretty fun way to spend time I wouldn’t have been riding anyway.  It was not anywhere near fun enough to give up riding time, though, which may be part of why it took so long.

One week after putting brand-new tires on it and one week before my friend and I had agreed to replace the axles and suspension, I absolutely had to get one of my horses to the vet.  I still have no idea what happened but somehow he got thrown around so badly he ended up putting a foot through the fibreglass escape door by his shoulder.  I have no idea how long it was like that, either, but it was still sticking out when we pulled up at the vet’s gate.  This is my very steady, very experienced hauler, named Traveler for a reason, so I know he didn’t just decide to go banging around in there. Something significant happened to him.

We got extremely lucky.  He was wearing standing wraps all round, a blanket, and a head bumper (keep your eyes out for a tutorial!), so he only got a small cut on a rear coronet band.  Even so, after I gently manoeuvred his leg back inside and coaxed him out (the correct door, this time!), he was absolutely lathered and winded.  His leg swelled up to twice its normal size for several days afterward. I called a friend for an emergency rescue and talked despairingly to my spouse that evening about all the things I had to add to the repair list. He surprised me by insisting that I should just go buy a different one.  I was again surprised to discover that might be something I could afford to do, if I did it right.

He was right: even if I could get all of the mechanical components on the trailer back to good-as-new status, it would still be an old trailer that’s too small for my young horse, with fibreglass escape doors dangerously within reach of hooves and legs, and without a dressing room or other viable tack storage. With help, I could probably get it back to ‘safe enough’ but it wasn’t what I wanted and I’d never be confident in it.

So I got extremely lucky again and found an all-aluminum 4-Star warmblood-sized straight-load with walk-through to a dressing room.  It was listed at the same price as the new, entry-level trailers I’d been looking at and, if I was going to drive as far as that dealership, this was only a little further down the road.  I made a snap decision last Monday to drive out and look at both over the weekend and I came home with this beauty!

All mine!

I’m trying not to get ahead of myself but this blog is about handmade horsemanship, after all!  Someday I plan to insulate the dressing room and install a small sleeping couch, to make camping that much easier.  My cowboy shower will go in the back and I’ll keep using my portable outdoor camp kitchen, though theoretically much of that could move into the horse compartment, too, if it rains.

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