Welcome back! If you’re new here, you can read the first part of this trailer shopping series here.
Horse Safety and Stress Reduction
My other key decision-making factor was all the rest of the stuff that adds up to a horse’s safety and comfort during the ride. I had real trouble finding any used Shadow trailers available, which immediately made me question why: it seemed to me that either meant people loved them and hung onto them forever or they fell apart so fast everyone just set them on fire and shoved them into a ditch. It was hard to tell which, too, because there were overly-exuberant internet reviews on both ends of the spectrum. The manufacturer’s website, though, seemed fairly down-to-earth and provided seemingly reliable information about how they were constructed and how the company decided which features to use. They seemed like a relatively young company truly invested in designing trailers from scratch, specifically for larger horses.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll walk through all my observations about pros and cons using the Shadow trailers I looked at as reference points. I do not own a Shadow, I did not decide to buy one. However, these are reasonably-priced, entry-level trailers that it would be easy to find and purchase new, or to order with the features you want. It’s easier to use them as a reference point than used trailers, even though that’s what I ended up buying. Ultimately, I did decide that, if I didn’t like the used option I was going to look at, a Shadow trailer would be a perfectly safe and serviceable option, though not fancy and perhaps not as long-lived as some other brands.
Besides the standard 7’6″ interior height, one of the good things that first caught my eye was the fact that Shadow was the only brand I found (even among higher-end trailers) that didn’t have any holes in their dividers. I really liked this feature because my coach has had a horse get a leg hung up in one and badly injured. The trade-off is that the slant dividers don’t telescope. That would make installing a rear tack more problematic but in the end these dividers seem safer for the horse.
Moreover, Shadow trailers are double-walled with rumber from the shoulder down in the horse compartment, including the dividers, and they’re painted bright white above that making them durable for misplaced horse feet on the bottom and still bright, inviting, open spaces.
A final feature that would be a definite plus in the Shadow straight-loads is that they have an open-front configuration: the horse braces against butt and chest bars but can stick his feet forward a bit under his head because there’s no wall and manger setup. There’s an open breezeway running the width of the trailer, where the horses’ heads hang, and a small divider panel at head height to keep them from bickering. This is, according to all my research, the best possible layout because the horses have the maximum possible amount of space underneath them in all directions, letting them decide how best to brace themselves against the motion without stressing any one limb or joint too much more than the others, especially during long rides. It also lets them lower their heads further to clear their airways because there’s no manger in the way. I’ve also read that horses are more likely to climb or jump into a manger during accidents than they are to climb over a bar. I really can’t speak to that but it seems to be a widely-held opinion.
One of the less-good things that first caught my eye was the fact that Shadow still manufactures its trailers with leaf-spring axles standard. Rubber torsion axles were invented, and clearly superior, in the 1990s and they have become industry standard. Shadow is the only brand I found that’s still using leaf springs. When I saw them in person I jumped up and down in them and they didn’t feel too much different than the torsion axles I tested the same way but I don’t weigh quite as much as a horse. I asked the dealer about this and he didn’t have a great answer, in my opinion. He said Shadow will put torsion axles on a new build by request, for a surcharge, but that they use leaf spring axles because they’re easier and cheaper to fix if they break than are torsion axles. I’m reasonably confident this is true. I’ve read as much elsewhere and it makes sense: torsion axles consist of a bar (attached to the wheels at each end) suspended inside a tube by rubber supports. As the wheels move up and down, the rubber stretches to accommodate and dampens the road shock. I found estimates they can eliminate more than 80% of the movement. In the event that a torsion axle breaks, it has to be entirely replaced; it cannot be repaired.
I’m just not convinced that’s very significant. As I said in my previous post, I’ve been working with my friend on replacing the suspension in my old trailer. Replacing the existing leaf-spring suspension with another, new one would have been a lot more work so we were going to remove it and replace it with two torsion axles. Beyond the fact that the industry seems to have almost unanimously judged them superior for horse trailers, they’re cheaper to buy and easier to install. You can buy a plain torsion axle (attach your own brakes) from Redneck Trailer Supply for around $300, or one with the brakes already attached for closer to $500. If you can weld, that means you get a brand-new, better-quality suspension for under $1,000. I don’t know what it would cost to fix leaf springs, maybe less, but you’d still be repairing old, broken equipment that’s key to your horse’s safety and sanity.
I also really noticed the noise. When I jumped up and down inside the Shadow trailers, there was a lot more banging and clanging of the moving parts. These are all parts that should move (like swinging walls and dividers, etc.) and they were all safely attached with large, durable hardware but they fit together loosely enough to make a lot of noise. I imagined a very long, loud, rattly ride for my guys.
The dressing rooms are also very small. They’re perfectly serviceable and better than what I’ve had by a long shot but they would be pretty difficult to use for camping, especially if they had to do double-duty as a camp-site and a tack room. I probably would have been back to sleeping in the horse compartment. That’s perfectly fine with me, really, it just takes more work to set up and tear down than it would if I could install a sleeping bench in the dressing room.
In short: can you get out if you need to? Can you get in to help a horse safely? Can you get one out without unloading the other?
I haven’t actually used one yet, so I may change my mind the first time I haul in my new trailer, but it seems clear in my imagination that the safest way to go here is the open-front, walk-through, straight-load configuration. It gives the handler maximum ability to move around a single horse on 3 sides and space to get out of his reach, as well as a full-human-size personnel escape door in the front. (Some even have front-unload doors and ramps for the horses but that’s usually an upgrade feature.) Even in slant-loads equipped with escape doors, it seems unsafe and difficult to use them. I’ve never seen it done, personally, and they’re not that rare. I’ve also tried to use the escape doors on my old trailer and it’s so cumbersome and difficult that the horse has unloaded himself again before I can get out of his way. Of course, that means if he does come all the way in, I’m squished. It’s not safe. I’ve also had a horse go through the narrow, half-height escape door on my old trailer. Very. Very. Unsafe. And Terrifying. We got supremely lucky that time, too, but he still has permanent scarring on both hips.
The straight-load configuration also lets a handler unload one horse without the other, if needed, unlike most slant-loads.