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Towing vehicles and safety

From: Terra

Hello, Thank you for your informative site. I have a question. I have a 1993 Ford Bronco. The Bronco did not come with an owners manual when I bought it, so I dont know what the towing capacity of it is. I bought the Bronco with the intention of pulling a two horse trailer with it. I bought a older 1971 two horse trailer that weighs 1800 lbs.It has a tandem axle and electric brakes.

I have two horses-one weighs approx. 900 lbs. and the other weighs approx. 700 lbs.

I have not pulled the trailer yet with my Bronco, but i've been told by a number of people recently that it is unsafe to pull a horse trailer with the Bronco.

I was wondering if this is true, if so would it be safe to pull the trailer if the Bronco was equipped with weight distribution bars? Is there anything I should know about pulling a two horse trailer with a vehicle of this type? I am concerned about my safty and of the safty of my horses, however, im not sure if im ready to sell my Bronco for a larger vehicle. Thank you so much for the valuable information! Terra

Hi Terra! This is a difficult question to answer, because so much depends on (a) the specific equipment and condition of your Bronco and trailer, and (b) the type and amount of towing you are planning to do. If you're planning to trailer for fun - to go to competitions, trailheads, and such - I think you would do well to keep an eye out for a replacement vehicle that will be better-suited to pulling a horse trailer.

If you had a more recent Bronco II, I would say "Absolutely DO NOT tow with it - not anything, not EVER!" If you were considering pulling a more recently-built, standard two-horse trailer (most of today's American-made models typically weigh around 2,500 - 3,000 lbs empty),I would, again, say "Absolutely NOT."

The combination of a tall vehicle and a short wheelbase (104.7 inches - whereas 114 inches is considered to be a safe MINIMUM for towing a horse trailer) creates a certain lack of stability that makes a Bronco unsuitable for towing a horse trailer. If you take a vehicle that is already tall, lacks length, and is "tippy", and attach it to a horse trailer, you're likely to get into trouble. The same trailer, loaded with logs or sacks of feed or bales of hay, would be more stable - the problem is that horses are top-heavy too, and thus naturally "tippy". And they don't always stand perfectly still in a trailer - horses, unlike most other loads, can shift their weight around. Add to this the fact that a lot of trailers are not very well built - and you have a formula for disaster.

Having said that, though, I do know that on any farm, it's important to have some sort of towing vehicle and some sort of trailer available for emergencies, even if you would never use them at for anything BUT an emergency. And I also know that you - like many other people - may not be in a position to go shopping for a bigger and safer towing vehicle.

You may be able to do a limited amount of short-distance, flat-land towing with your Bronco, providing that it meets the necessary standards and providing that you are using it to pull a light, stripped-down trailer with a single horse in it. Having mentioned "standards", though, I should point out that you will need to have your trailer inspected very carefully to be sure that IT meets the necessary standards for safety and for the comfort of your horses - as well as the legal standards for intrastate and interstate travel. When I read "1993 Bronco" and "1971 trailer", I worry about someone towing with a Bronco, but I also worry about the trailer... and I'll say more about that later.

If your Bronco is already equipped with all of the necessary towing gear including a Class III hitch, I suggest that you check everything and be quite certain that all of the parts fit together and that you CAN attach and pull that trailer with it - and then I would suggest - STRONGLY suggest - that you plan to use it for towing the trailer for short distances IN EMERGENCIES ONLY. In other words, if you have to get an ill or injured horse to the vet clinic, for example - and if it's not too far from your farm, and if the terrain is flat, then your engine power and a good hitch should get you there if you drive carefully. The risk is no less - it's just that in a genuine emergency, you may need to do things that you would never do at other times.

A weight distribution hitch is an excellent idea. It won't make the Bronco a safe vehicle for everyday towing - nothing will - but it will make it significantly less unsafe for any emergency towing that you may need to do.

The weight-distributing hitch is an incredibly useful and practical piece of equipment for just about any tow vehicle, and IMO it's an absolute necessity for any tow vehicle pulling anything over 5,000 pounds. A trailer's tongue weight can put great stress on the towing vehicle's suspension, and can limit the amount of overall weight that can be towed. A weight distribution hitch actually helps distribute the tongue weight of the trailer (usually 10% of the total weight of the trailer, the horses, and anything else that's in the trailer) evenly over BOTH axles of the tow vehicle and the trailer. It does this by lifting the tongue weight and transferring it to the front wheels of the tow vehicle and the wheels of the trailer - helping the front end of the tow vehicle stay on the ground, and making the entire rig more balanced and much more stable.

One thing you should realize, though, is that the weight distribution bars increase the capacity of the HITCH, but not of the towing vehicle. Every hitch has two ratings. The higher one applies ONLY when a weight distributing hitch is in use.

And speaking of weight....

Unless your trailer is one of the European-made (like the Danish Brenderup) models (very nice trailers, by the way!), or a very TINY open stock trailer, it's unlikely that it really weighs only 1800 pounds. A conventional, American-made two-horse trailer will typically weigh between 2,400 and 3,500 pounds, depending on its height and length, and whether or not it has a dressing room. And that's empty - no mats, no horses, no tack, no feed, no water, no toolbox.... just the bare trailer.

If the trailer came with an "offical weight", don't trust it, especially if you are pushing your towing vehicle's capacity to the max. You can't afford to take chances. The "official" weight of the trailer doesn't necessarily mean "the empty trailer as it comes from the dealership". The "official" weight may have been the amount the trailer weighed at some point during the manufacturing process, before all the parts had been added on. Each manufacturer has a different way of calculating trailer weight. Some are extremely creative, but what almost all of them have in common is that the LISTED weight is usually considerably less than the ACTUAL weight.

How can they do this? It's not difficult. "Trailer weight" can mean "the weight of the trailer compartment only" - before the other bits get added on. What other bits might those be? Let's begin with the axles, then the wheels and tires, and the spare tire. We'll add a hitch, probably a divider, definitely some windows and some doors... would you like a ramp? We'll need to add that, too. None of this is light - and often, none of it is figured in to the "trailer weight". But the weight is there, it's real, and your towing vehicle will feel every ounce of it.

Example: My own two-horse trailer, according to the manufacturer, weighs 3500 pounds. It's a very stripped-down, minimalist model, and when I weighed it, it was "only" 200 pounds heavier than its "official" weight. One of my students has a trailer that "officially" weighs 2500 pounds. We weighed her trailer, and it was just very slightly lighter than mine - that is, slightly under 3500 pounds.

Some trailer manufacturers are more accurate than others about their products, but why take anyone's word for it? Even if there's an "official" weight for the standard model, it may not apply to your trailer. The only way to be sure what the trailer weighs is to take it somewhere there are truck scales and weigh it.

If your trailer really does weigh only 1800 pounds, that may be because it is not tall, long, or large enough to accomodate horses comfortably. Some trailers were designed specifically for smaller horses, and many older trailers were designed at a time when most horses were significantly smaller. Your trailer is 31 years old. It may have been entirely suitable for a couple of small Arabians or Quarter Horses, but thirty-odd years on, even those breeds have increased in size. Or it may have been small even by the standards of that day. I haven't seen it, so I don't know - but it's something you may want to consider.

You may also want to measure the trailer's interior before you attempt to put any horses in it. In 1971, a 15-hand horse was a good-sized animal, and a 16-hand horse was a very tall horse. Nowadays, many horses are considerably taller and heavier, and will simply not fit into - or be able to ride comfortably and safely in - yesterday's short, narrow trailers.

Before you invest a lot in trailer improvements, decide whether your horses will fit into the trailer and be able to stand comfortably with their feet spread forward and sideways. Can they lift their heads without hitting the trailer roof? Can they reach their necks forward and stretch them down to lower their heads to knee-level? If so, good. Now, ask yourself whether you might someday have a horse that is larger than the ones you now own. If you drove somewhere and bought a horse that was, say, 16.2hh and 1200 pounds, could you even get it into your trailer?

In any case, given the age of your trailer, you'll need to have it inspected carefully, and you may find that it will take some serious money to bring it up to the current legal standards.

So with those thoughts in mind, let's go back to the subject of the towing vehicle.

Do you know exactly what weight you are asking your Bronco to pull? If you know what the empty trailer weighs, and you know what your horses weigh, you're off to a good start. But don't put the calculator away just yet. To the total weight of the trailer and the horses, add the weight of anything else you may be carrying in the trailer, including feed and water. NOW, calculate the weight of everything you are carrying inside the towing vehicle, including all people, tack, equipment, dogs, etc. Total that amount, and add it to the sum you already had. What's the grand total?

Now, imagine that you need to bring along another person... perhaps some more water... maybe one of your horses is staying home and you're hauling a larger one that belongs to a friend... and watch the numbers climb. Is the total now getting perilously close to your towing vehicle's maximum capability? And what if the weather is bad on the way home, or you have to take a detour that involves hills?

If you go shopping for another towing vehicle, think big - and think about what you MAY want to haul (larger horses?) and whom you MAY want to take with you (more people?). Add it all, then look for a towing vehicle that can haul that much AND MORE with ease. If your total comes to 5,000 pounds, look a vehicle that can pull 7,500 pounds - or 10,000 pounds. Don't think in terms of what you can leave behind to get the weight down by a few pounds to "only" the rated maximum capacity. That's dangerous.

Professionals in the equine industry, who have many long years of experience towing horse trailers, have learned that a safe tow weight is NOT one that comes close to the maximum capacity of the vehicle. They'll tell you that a safe tow weight would be at most 70%, and preferably closer to 60% or even 50% of a vehicle's stated rating. Keep that in mind when you're going down the road - and when you are shopping for a towing vehicle. Overbuying is infinitely safer than underbuying.

Don't get tempted by a lightweight vehicle that costs a little less and/or promises better mileage, either. Power matters more - it's a safety issue. If you have at least 30% more power than you think you'll need, you'll get by even if you have to haul heavier horses, or someone else's (heavier) trailer, or if you find yourself driving over terrain that challenges towing vehicle performance (high-altitude driving, driving over rough terrain, driving at speed, driving in traffic, driving in show/sleet/rain, etc.)

Here are a few more reasons for you to give yourself as MUCH leeway as possible if you do decide to upgrade your truck and trailer.

SAFETY matters. Yours, your horses', the safety of the other people on the road.

Most people who tow horse trailers do their best not to EXCEED the maximum ratings, but don't realize that safety is a relative concept. People do, often, tow with unsuitable vehicles and survive. It's quite possible to 'push the edge of the envelope' and survive towing with the wrong vehicle, just as it's possible to drive without safety belt or air bag, but why WOULD any sane person do this? It's also possible to get away with an inappropriate towing vehicle just as long as you are going short distances on smooth level surfaces (no hills), with a single horse in the trailer... in perfect driving conditions AND at a slow pace. A risk can be reasonably low at 40 mph, and - even under the otherwise ideal circumstances described above - be life-threateningly high when you are traveling at 65 or 70 mph.

Many SUVs and other vehicles are given absurd "tow ratings" - be realistic, and be safe. If you are taking your weight capacity right to the edge, that's already dangerous, and if that capacity happens to be exaggerated in the first place... it's dangerous.

A vehicle's official "tow rating" is always going to be set at the largest figure the manufacturer can possibly claim. EVERYONE who buys a vehicle that even looks vaguely truck-like wants to think that a hitch is all that's needed before they can tow their motorcycle or boat or horse trailer or whatever. Every manufacturer seems to have a different way of figuring the tow ratings, and some of those ratings are simply silly - including the 5,000 on the Jeep Cherokee. (I should perhaps point out that actually drive one of these regularly and like it very much - but it is not a vehicle that belongs in front of a horse trailer, at least not one with horses IN it.)

SO, you now know that tow ratings are calculated "generously". In addition, they are based on absolutely optimum conditions! This means that

- the ratings don't allow for mountain driving or indeed for any long steep grades.... and down is more risky than up!

- the ratings don't allow for rain, sleet, snow, ice, or indeed for any bad road conditions.

- most of the ratings are marked with little asterisks. Don't ignore those, they're on the page for a good reason. Go to the bottom of the page, or wherever those asterisks are discusssed, because they are generally followed by lists of the special equipment needed to achieve that rating - and most of the equipment is NOT automatically included.

- the ratings don't allow for defensive/evasive/emergency maneuvers. No matter how quickly and smoothly your vehicle will turn or stop, it will take longer and be less smooth with a trailer attached, even if the trailer is empty. It may take a vastly longer time and be much more difficult to turn and stop if the load you're packing is anywhere near the maximum. If it's AT the maximum, and the weather/road conditions are bad, the situation can get frightening very quickly.

- ratings sometimes list GCWR - this may have a satisfyingly high number, but don't forget that the "C" stands for "combined", which means that the "load" means not only the weight of the trailer and horses, but of everything else in the trailer AND everything and everyone IN THE TOWING VEHICLE.

Add the numbers - write them down - and be sure to take them with you when you go shopping.

If you're going to haul any two horses for any distance at all, your needs will probablly be best met by a large truck such as a Ford 250, or a Suburban (3/4 ton or 1 ton, nothing lighter) - and I would suggest that you look into both possibilities. This is an excellent time to find a good used large truck or SUV; because of the rebates and interest rates being offered by so many manufacturers right now, many people are buying new (that would another possibility, if you can afford it) and trading in their slightly older vehicles. (By the way, you should NOT try to trade in your Bronco - you'll probably get a much better deal selling it yourself.) Whatever you buy should be properly equipped for towing, and that means a good, heavy-duty towing package.

Get the numbers, get the specs - you'll need to know exactly what you are buying. If you are buying a new vehicle, you'll get an owner's manual. BEFORE you buy a new vehicle, get all the information on it, and compare that to your needs for trailering. What you need may be on the truck as it comes from the manufacturer - or it may NOT, in which case you will need to know exactly what to special-order.

If you're buying a used vehicle, the owner's manual may be missing. Try to find one for that model. Asking the salesman is, unfortunately, not a guaranteed way to get accurate information. Your salesman may have accurate information and may share it with you - but don't count on this. Your horses' safety is too important. You need this information from an authoritative source - and in writing. Look in the owner's manual for details on a specific vehicle's towing capacity, maximum tongue load, etc. The salesman's interest is in selling you a vehicle; YOUR interest is in buying the RIGHT vehicle to keep your horses safe while you take them down the road. These two interests are not identical, and sometimes they aren't even compatible.

If you're interested in a particular used vehicle, and there's no owner's manual, you can do one of two things: either get an owner's manual for that year and model truck (more about this later), or write down the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) that's engraved on a narrow metal tag on the frame or inside the driver's door, and then call the manufacturer of the truck. The manufacturer can take that VIN and tell you everything you need to know about your vehicle's specis and towing capacity. If the sticker on the inside of the door frame on the driver's door is still in place and readable, you may be able to get some useful information from that, as well. When in doubt, call the manufacturer - not the dealer!

Don't rely on the hitch rating - it just refers to the HITCH, not to the towing vehicle. Anyone can put just about any hitch on just about any vehicle - if you see a class IV hitch marked "10,000 lbs" attached to a small, lightweight truck, remember that the marking on the hitch tells you ONLY what the HITCH can handle, and what you need to know is what the TRUCK can tow.

Some people will probably read this, shake their heads, and say "I pull everything with my Bronco II/Blazer/Trooper". Those people should think again. They're putting a lot at risk - not only their horses and themselves, but everyone else who happens to be on the road at the same time. Most smaller SUVs shouldn't be pulling even a small two-horse trailer, and if there's one time you need to have MORE power than you ever anticipate needing, it's when you are hauling horses. Try to give yourself an edge by buying MORE power than you think you'll ever need.

This is a HUGE subject - I'm just hitting a few highlights that are directly related to your question. But I do have a reading assigment for you. ;-)

If you're concerned with safe trailering, trailer purchasing, trailer maintenance, and the selection of a suitable towing vehicle, I highly recommend a very useful book by Neva Scheve. The title is "The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer" (and yes, it includes useful information about selecting and using towing vehicles).

Neva is also the co-author of two books I've been recommending to anyone who hauls horses: the Hawkins Guide to Horse Trailering on the Road, and the Hawkins Guide to Equine Emergencies on the Road. They're both reviewed on my website, in the 'Horseman's Bookshelf' section. There should be a new, updated version of the 'Horse Trailering' book this year - at least, that's what I'm told. I hope it's true. There are so many people on the road right now who need a current copy of that book - everyone with a horse trailer!

Neva and her husband, Tom, are also good people to talk to about trailers, because they own the EquiSpirit Trailer Company, and make some of the best trailers I've ever seen anywhere. These trailers are SO good that one of these days I plan to get one and take it around to clinics so that everyone can have an 'up-close and personal' look at a trailer that's designed with safety and horse comfort in mind. You can take a look at the trailers, and get in touch with Neva and Tom, through their website:

If you're ever in the market for a new trailer to go with your new towing vehicle, this is one I can definitely recommend.

Good luck, drive safely, and I hope that you NEVER have an emergency that requires you to use the Bronco for towing!


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