First of all, consider this your broad and general caveat emptor: I’m a rank beginner and know very little about horse trailers. Take everything you read here with sixteen grains of salt but I do hope that, by sharing the research I did over the past two weeks and the kinds of questions I learned to ask, I may help others who are at a similar point in their journey to learn about hauling horses safely. Maybe I’ll even save you some of the heartache I experienced with my first trailer, including the part where I ultimately had to give up on it.
I started my research on the internet (of course!) but if I were advising someone else, I would tell them to start by buying a copy of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer by Neva and Thomas Scheve (1998). I got my used, paperback copy for about $3.00. This was the second book I bought but it’s the much more comprehensive one. The first book I bought, Hitch Up & Go: Expert Guide to Horse Trailers & Safe Trailering, is a short book published by USRider magazine in 2016. It is brief but high-quality and contains contributions from the Scheves as well as others, like animal behaviour researchers. It’s good enough if you only have a few days to get up to speed before purchasing a trailer, like I did, but the Scheves’ book is going to be my go-to reference for the lifetime of the trailer (in addition to the manufacturer’s online owner’s manual). I also have Cherry Hill’s Trailering Your Horse: A Visual Guide to Safe Training and Traveling (2000) on the way. I may decide to do a more thorough review of the three books before too long. Would that interest anyone?
No one can tell you what trailer you should buy. The nature of internet reviews makes them extremely useful if you can find a lot of them but individually problematic in most cases. In hindsight, my viable choices were pretty limited by a few key factors beyond the first non-negotiables: budget and hitch type. Those factors were the size of the horse compartment, the safety and comfort of the horses in that compartment, the safety of the human handlers, and, as a tie-breaker, the suitability of the dressing room.
Right off the bat, I knew I was shopping for a two-horse, bumper-pull trailer under $9,000. Just to see what was out there, I searched extensively among trailers up to $10,000 and looked quickly at what I could get for $12,000 and $15,000, so I would know what differences the price increase might bring. I’m also getting more interested in camping with my horses, both at events and for trail-riding, so I wanted to find a dressing room that would allow primitive camping, if I could get it. I didn’t want a fully plumbed weekender but enough space somewhere for at least one, maybe two pretty tall people, to sleep was something I really wanted, even if I didn’t strictly need it.
A note on construction materials
There’s a whole heck-uva-lot of passionate debate about whether steel, aluminum, or composite trailers are best and nearly everyone has reasons for their preferences. Not being an engineer or a materials scientist, it seems to me that the new galvannealed steels and the various aluminums used to make trailers today are probably pretty comparable: you can make a sturdy, safe trailer using either and it will hold up well if you take care of it and won’t if you don’t. Both aluminum and steel will corrode if poorly maintained. I let my other, more important considerations guide me to particular trailers and then evaluated the condition of the construction in individual cases. Composite trailers, with steel frames and aluminum skins also seem like good options, as do fibreglass roofs (they’re apparently cooler than uninsulated metal roofs) as long as they’re well reinforced with aluminum or steel supports at regular intervals.
That said: exercise caution buying used trailers. Manufacturing and finishing methods for steel trailers, in particular, seem to have advanced considerably in the last decade or so. Steel trailers dating from before that may not hold up as reliably, especially in areas where road salt is a fact of life.
Traveler and Houyhnhnm are both 16.0 hh Thoroughbreds but they’re built a little differently. Traveler’s from Argentine polo stock, so he’s more compact from front to back and wider at the shoulder and hip.
Houyhnhnm is American racing-bred, so he’s narrower but longer front to back and, since he’s also quite a bit younger, still carries his head much higher than Trav does.
Beyond that, I’m 5’10” and practice three-day eventing, so these guys are probably on the smaller end of anything I would reasonably expect to ride.
For me, therefore, a 7’6″ interior height was non-negotiable. As it turns out, that dramatically limited my choices and completely eliminated all-steel trailers, even new ones, unless I ordered something custom. Shadow trailers quickly caught my eye because they were offering new, purpose-built horse trailers (not modified stock trailers) with a 7’6″ standard interior height. A few other brands were on my list at the beginning as well because at least some of their general-production units had the interior height I needed but, ultimately, it came down to a question of a new Shadow trailer or something used.
I grew up in the horse world of the ’90s, so I instinctively believe(d) that slant load trailers were The. Best.
On the other hand my coach, at one point, mentioned that she prefers straight loads for her bigger horses and both of the books I read agreed. It seems the slant-load fad took hold among people who rode smaller horses well-suited to some of the western disciplines and polo, because it lets you fit more horses into a shorter overall trailer length. While Quarter Horses, in particular, can be plenty big and stocky, they’re not often very long from front to back. They usually fit comfortably within the stall lengths that a slant-load trailer can provide. The maximum length of these stalls is limited by laws prohibiting trailers of a total exterior width over 8 feet, so either the interior width has to fit between the wheel wells or the wheel wells protrude into the horse compartment (you can find both configurations on the market today). It’s somewhat adjustable depending on the slant angle the manufacturer decides to use but slanting the stall too much narrows it past the point of usefulness, too: horses are not rhombus-shaped. The general consensus from what I read seemed to be that 16.0 hh was the inflection point where horses became unlikely to fit comfortably in a slant stall.
To supplement that information for my own specific needs, I measured my longer horse. (Always buy enough trailer for your biggest and strongest horse: too much space is better than too little.) One key consideration is that the horse needs to be able to use his body and legs in as full a range of motion as possible so they can balance within the moving trailer. This includes bracing the feet in any of four directions, using the head and neck for front-to-back balance, and lowering the head to clear the airways of any dust or debris they might breathe. Therefore, I measured Houyhnhnm while he was eating from his grain manger, which is pretty much as horizontal as he ever gets, and came up with 105″. I know that builds in probably 2-3″ inches of extra space but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to work with that number, bearing in mind that he could probably ‘fit’ in something a little shorter if necessary. I never did have to think too much about how much less he could handle: I couldn’t find a slant stall any longer than 93″ (and that one was only 7′ high inside, so out of the running anyway). I wasn’t remotely comfortable with taking a full foot of length away from him, especially on the multi-hour journeys I hope to take with him someday. That left me looking at what are often called ‘warmblood straight-loads’.
Of course, I would have to pay a premium for this configuration. Warmblood straight-loads have been available for at least two decades, so used ones are out there but they can take a little longer to find. The majority of used trailers on the market are slant-loads, probably in large part because of their huge popularity in the ’90s and ’00s. Among new trailers manufactured today, the warmblood straight-load configuration tends to be marketed as a higher-end model than an otherwise-identical slant-load configuration. I found that Shadow offers both a slant-load and a straight-load in their entry-level line but they are priced differently. It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison but the entry-level slant-load with no upgrades, if I ordered it, would be about $8,700. The straight-load my nearest dealer had, with several upgrades like drop windows and fans installed, had an MSRP of $12,700. Even if that could be negotiated down by $1,000, it’s still about 35% again more than the slant-load. Both of these models had dressing rooms of comparable size; the slant-load had a swing wall and the straight-load had a solid wall. They also offer a straight-load with saddle racks in the nose but not separated from the horse compartment. It’s priced between the two cited above.