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by Kim and Kari Baker

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Tow the Line

But do your Math First

by Kim and Kari Baker

Transportation of the horse probably isn’t the most welcome role of the equestrian’s life, but is often necessary to get you and your horse down the road to a new barn or out to the show grounds, or maybe it’s that special trip to bring the new horse home.

Most pickup trucks as well as SUVs, vans and passenger cars can be persuaded to tow some kind of trailer, though you wouldn’t want to use just anything sitting around the yard for such an important mission as hauling your equine friend down the line. Not all towing vehicles are created equal and you may want to check that the old truck or the new dream rig you plan to shop for measure up.

Towing with even a slightly underrated vehicle will cause undue strain on the vehicle, resulting in premature wear and tear that leads to unsafe operation. The appropriate vehicle and the proper equipment used to tow your trailer will depend on the type of trailer you own, its size and weight, as well as the combined weight of your horses and all the paraphernalia that goes with them.

Towing Capacity

Several items will have a bearing on your choice of tow vehicle. Engine size, transmission and fuel type as well as the rear end gearing ratio will be important determining factors. Other dealership options can shape your choice as well if you are shopping for a new rig. In fact, tire size and even cab style and bed length may influence the allowable towing weight.

The choice of powertrain will depend on the size of load you will be hauling and the terrain in which you will be traveling. In most instances, you will need at least a V8 to give you the power to move the gross combined weight (GCW) of your fully loaded vehicle and trailer. It’s always wiser to choose a larger engine if you plan on hauling one of the bigger trailers or traveling in mountainous terrain. On a side note, some of the smaller trucks come with punchy engines that feel powerful, but when hooked up to your loaded trailer it can become impossible to handle due to the light curb weight of the vehicle. Even if it is able to get that trailer of yours rolling down the highway it will lack stopping power and stability.

While you are shopping for that new rig, evaluate like vehicles with automatic as well as manual transmissions for the better towing capacity. In some makes, vehicles with automatic transmissions handle a slightly heavier loaded trailer weight than their manual counterpart though they may list equal gross combined weight ratings (GCWR). This is might be due to the lower curb weight of the automatic transmission vehicle. Though these weight differences may be minor, even a 4-speed automatic will differ from a 5-speed automatic in the amount it is listed to safely tow and your choice may greatly depend on your trailer.

You will also want to take into account the choice of fuel operation. The tow vehicle with the diesel engine has a higher GCWR than its gas engine counterpart. Though due to the higher curb weight, the diesel rig has a lower allowable payload weight.

Compare the axle ratios of potential towing vehicles as well to see how their towing muscle measures up. You’ll find that the higher the number the more revolutions which means it works less and in turn increases the towing capacity. Tire size can have the same effect in some towing vehicles with a choice of 16” or 17” tires being available. By increasing the tire size you make fewer revolutions, so the rig is working a bit harder and in turn lowering your towing capability.

In addition, cab style and bed length will have an affect on your towing capacity. This is simply due to the fact that the larger the cab or longer the bed the more curb weight the vehicle carries, which means the gross combination weight rating is met sooner than a truck with a traditional cab or short bed.

Safety Measures

The manufacturer’s tow vehicle ratings address the vehicle curb weight, allowable payload, recommended combined weight of the fully loaded vehicle and trailer, as well as the recommended tongue weight that the vehicle can handle.

A safe tow weight isn’t one that comes close to the maximum capacity of the vehicle. At most, all you really want to be hauling is no more than 70% and preferably closer to 50 or 60% of the vehicles stated rating. This is because a vehicle’s tow rating is calculated generously by the manufacturer and based on optimum conditions. Consider how often have you have transported your horses during extreme weather conditions, through heavy traffic or over challenging terrain. An interesting note -- gasoline engines lose power at a rate of 3 to 4 percent for every 1000-ft. of elevation. That means you will want to reduce the gross combined weight of your outfit to maintain performance if you are hauling at high altitudes.

“Guestimates” might be fine in a crunch, but the best way to determine the weight of your loaded vehicle as well as the trailer and all its cargo is to load it up including horses, tack, grooming tools, feed, and what-have-you and haul it all to a public scale. For safety precautions, you might want to make a separate trip to the weigh station with just your loaded vehicle if you are hesitant of unhooking the trailer with the horses loaded. Check to be sure that your loaded tow vehicle does not exceed the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or the gross axle weight ratings (GAWR) over the front/rear axles. Don’t forget to add the tongue weight of your loaded trailer to the GVW of the tow vehicle.

The tongue weight for most domestic trailers is about 10 percent but may range from 9 to 15 percent of the trailer’s weight, while the gooseneck or fifth wheel will place as much as 18 to 35 percent of the loaded trailer’s weight on the hitch. For the perfectionist who has to know what the actual tongue weight on the hitch is, you will have to disconnect the trailer and place only the tongue on the scale. To get an accurate weight, the coupler must be weighed at hitch ball height.

Hitching Up

There's still a hitch in your get-a-long. While your vehicle may have certain tow ratings, remember you must have a matching hitch system that can handle the same specifications. The entire towing outfit is only as strong as its weakest link. Each part of the hitch must be rated to match the GVWR of your horse trailer.

Hitch ratings are broken into class ratings not only showing towing capacity, but also by how much tongue weight they can carry. The four following numbers will be imprinted on the hitch. Maximum weight carrying (maximum trailer GVW if towing with a standard receiver and ball assembly). Maximum weight distributing (maximum trailer GVW using weight distribution hitch). Maximum tongue weight (maximum weight the trailer can put on the ball mount). Maximum tongue weight distributing (maximum the trailer can place on the ball mount using a weight distribution hitch). Keep in mind that your hitch’s rating is independent of the capability of your towing vehicle.

A frame mounted class III or IV receiver hitch will be mandatory for the safe hauling of your tag-a-long trailer and is the only hitch that is legal in all states. This type of hitch is bolted or welded to the frame of the tow vehicle. Standard for most class III hitches is the 2”square slide-in tube which accepts a removable shank.

The removable shank can be purchased with the proper drop so that your trailer will travel level. A trailer that is not level will not travel properly down the road because the tongue weight on the trailer is compromised. The drop heights vary, but most pickups are usually fitted with a two-inch to six-inch drop. SUVs on the other hand are more likely to use a two or four inch drop hitch flipped over for a rise of two to four inches. The ball portion of the hitch is also rated by its towing capacity has several choices of shank length and diameter.Ball sizes will differ as well, ranging from 2” to 2 5/16” for most horse trailers.

The hitch or receiver pin, which holds the shank in place, comes in two different sizes, 5/8” or ½” diameter. Typically on the front plate of the receiver will be stamped the recommended hitch pin size. The pin is the one portion of the hitch that doesn’t have a weight rating. With all the weight ratings and then this pathetic little pin, it begins to seem like a very insubstantial hitch system, but it actually has very little stress associated with it. Except for a very few European models, the trailer applies much more force down onto the hitch than it does in drawing the trailer forward.

You will need to use a weight distribution hitch when the trailer you are towing has a greater GVW than your hitch’s maximum weight carrying recommendation, but less than the maximum weight distribution recommendation. There may also be instances where the trailer is equal to or lighter than the weight carrying recommendation, but the trailer rests heavy on the tongue, making it necessary to use the weight distribution hitch. Weight distribution hitches work by lifting the tongue weight and transferring the weight equally to the front wheels of the tow vehicle and the wheels of the trailer, greatly increasing stability.

Now let’s take a gander at the gooseneck hitch. Gooseneck and fifth wheel hitches are not one in the same. Both types of trailer are secured to the bed of the truck but the connections are different. The gooseneck uses the ball system where the fifth wheel accepts a disc that slides into the hitch. Most horse trailers come with the “gooseneck hitch” but some manufacturers do offer fifth wheel couplers as an option.

The gooseneck hitch is installed anywhere from 2” to 6” in front of the rear axle in the bed of the truck, and comes in two hitch configurations; the time-honored one that remains up right in the bed at all times or the hide-away. Underneath the bed are supporting rails that are usually welded into place, serving as the actual support structure for the hitch assembly. When folded down, the only part of the hide-away hitch that normally is visible is a plate on top of the truck bed. This hitch has become almost standard these days because when folded away, the truck bed becomes useful again for such things as hauling hay or transporting fencing and building materials.

When purchasing a truck with the intention of hauling a gooseneck, make sure you check the amount of weight (Kingpin Load limit) the truck can handle in its bed or on the hitch. Different goosenecks place differing percentages of weight to this area. By placing a scale (one meant for measuring tongue weights), the king pin load can be precisely established. The scale should be placed just in front of or behind the hitch in the bed of the truck. With the trailer now supported by the trailer jack, move the truck forward or backward until the kingpin is directly over the scale. Lower it onto the scale, freeing the trailer jack foot so that the full weight of the trailer rests on the scale.

There are two important features to consider when purchasing a truck intended to pull a gooseneck trailer. First, some of the older gooseneck trailers won’t clear the bed rails of the newer trucks and the trailer neck adjustment can’t be raised enough to accommodate this and still travel level. Secondly, you will want to consider bed length. A typical full nosed gooseneck may hit the back of the cab or clear by only inches when turning. Any gooseneck can be turned tight enough to hit the cab but with a short bed truck, you may not even get 80 or 90 degrees before running in to trouble.

No discussion of hitches would be complete without the mention of safety chains, of which many states even require on gooseneck hitches. The chains should be attached to the frame of the vehicle or to the frame-mounted hitch and crossed to catch the trailer in sort of a “saddle” should the trailer uncouple. They must be long enough to allow for cornering but not so long as to permit them to drag the ground, as they will wear thin an amazingly short time.

No matter how often you transport your horse or how far you travel, your vehicle must be up to the task of towing your trailer and its precious cargo. The next time you plan to head ‘em up and move ‘em out, be sure to do your math first.

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