January 2013


Once you determine what type of power you need, you will be able to narrow down the type of truck you need.  The intent of this post is to summarize yesterdays, and give you a reference to help you with your decision.  You really want to aim for a truck that will comfortably tow your average with cushion to spare (in case you overload), but is also capable of towing the max weight you can think of.  If you don’t plan to use the max often, then you don’t need much cushion on the high end.  In any case, just how much tow capacity exists depends greatly on the truck itself.

In the last post, I described several types of engines and engine sizes. A few listed included the 6.0L, 6.6L, 7.3L and so on.  The type of engine can easily be figured out simply by looking under the hood.  For the most part, just understand that higher capacity (big “L”), transmission torque, and engine horsepower, USUALLY leads to higher tow capacities.  A fun way to see this in action is to pay a visit to YouTube, and query “Ford or Chevy,” “Chevy or Dodge,” and “Dodge or Chevy.”  While I wouldn’t treat my own truck that way, it is one way to use the ignorance of others to learn (and enjoy the entertainment at the same time!).  While some are more efficient than others (diesel vs. gas), you must do your research on the particular type of engine you are considering–particularly if you buy a used truck.  Certain engines had known problems, and certain ones had specific problems during specific time periods.

Dealers and private owners alike may try to brag about “upgrades” done to a used vehicle, and tout all the benefits of these upgrades.  Be careful.  For example, common diesel upgrades we encountered were a larger air filter, “Edge” devices, or removing the muffler.  This allowed for more horse-power from the engine, and created a little more noise (for those who think that’s “cool”).  What we found out was that trying to alter the power of the motor would, over time, stress the motor beyond its most efficient capability, thereby shortening its life substantially.   My husband specifically looked for unmodified, stock engines.  On the other hand, an upgrade such as airbags on the rear springs can actually improve handling and decrease stress on your suspension.  When used properly, the air bags keep the truck and the load level, and improve the balance of the entire set-up.  They should definitely be considered a plus when towing.  Of course, if you neglect to deflate them when not towing, although it won’t hurt anything, they could cause an awfully rough ride around town!

Whatever truck you decide to buy, new or used, just be sure you investigate the specs of it.  I would recommend you request seeing the specs “in black and white” as opposed to taking someone’s word for it.  I have heard of more people who wound up NOT getting what they really needed because they believed so-and-so “expert” rather than doing the research and saving a lot of time, effort, money, and heartache to begin with.  Throughout our search, we have been quite chagrined to find that the seemingly biggest concerns buyers have are the leather seats, seat warmers, and navigational system in the cab, rather than the actual work the truck is capable of doing.  If you are buying this truck to impress the Jones’s, fine, but if you want a true work truck, you need to know those specs beyond a doubt.   Unless you just have money to burn, if you are trying to tow a 4,000 lb (fully loaded) aluminum two-horse trailer, then you could possibly get by with a 1500/F150 truck, rather than spending an extra $20,000 on a 3500/F-350, designed for hauling over 16,000 lbs.   The best way to find this out is to research the specific year model of the truck.

To give you an even clearer idea and to save you a little research, the following is a listing of the towing and payload specs of the latest model trucks (2013), as taken directly from their website.  Keep in mind that the specs given are for a basic truck, with the standard engines, and a regular cab.  Additional cab will either decrease the payload or require adjustments to the suspension, and upgrades to the engine (such as adding a high-output, or “HO,” diesel engine) would increase the tow capacity significantly.  I tried to find standard numbers for the purposes of this list, but you will have to check each rating personally.  Nonetheless, the numbers will give you a reference to help guide you.

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 1500
….F-150….

Dodge Ram 1500

Payload

1,885

1,940 3,120

1,493

Max Tow Capacity

10,400

8,900 9,800

9,150

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

10,700* not shown not shown

 

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 2500 ….F-250….

Dodge Ram 2500

Payload

N/A

4,212 4,240

2,543

Max Tow Capacity

N/A

13,000 12,500

not shown

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

17,800* 16,800 13,400

 

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 3500 ….F-350….

Dodge Ram 3500

Payload

N/A

7,222* 4,390

5,099

Max Tow Capacity

N/A

17,300* 15,000

not shown

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

23,100* 23,200

13,950

* May require additional features that aren’t part of the standard model to increase to max capacity listed

If you wish to compare diesel engines, go to the site dieselhub.com.

I considered doing this post before the posts on specs, but it is too easy to be biased towards an engine rather than the necessary specs.  Thus I decided to hold off and reverse the order in the hopes I could help you make an unbiased choice.

So, you’ve settled on how much luxury you need, how much you plan to tow or load the truck with, and possibly figured out a range of specs you want to focus on.  The basic manufacturers of trucks designed for actual work are Toyota (Tundra), Chevrolet (Silverado series), Dodge (Ram series), and Ford (F series).  Each of these offers their trucks in gas engines and diesel engines, except the Tundra, which only comes in a gas engine at this time.  True work trucks, often labeled “HD” for Heavy-Duty,  are usually purchased due to their cheaper price tag and “get the job done” design.  The true workman of the trucks would have a diesel engine, however, this increases price by about $8,000 on average, so many buyers stick with gas if they don’t absolutely need the power.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, “What EXACTLY do I need my truck to do?”  While anyone with money to burn can go out and spend $45,000 (or more) on a great, oversized, fancy work truck with a diesel engine that will pull or haul almost any typical farm or ranch load, I am assuming that if you are researching trucks, you are more likely trying to find just what you need and not desiring to spend any extra.  While deciding on the best engine doesn’t require quite the research as all the specs discussed previously, there are a few things you should be familiar with.

Gas engines have been around a while, and come with automatic and manual transmissions.  Gas engines have plenty of power for most standard jobs, and on average, we found gas engines could tow up to about 12,000 lbs pretty comfortably.  Gas is an easy fuel to come by, and these days it is much cheaper than diesel.  Gas engines are also much less expensive to repair and/or replace when that time comes–around 250,000 miles on average.  Furthermore, if you intend to use the truck for running errands around town, and only plan to tow on rare occasion, you would likely be better of with a gas engine.  Gas engines handle the shorter distances and frequent starts of the “around-town” truck better.

Diesel engines, on the other hand, provide some serious horse-power.  If you are looking to tow more than 12,000 lbs on a regular basis, you will want to consider a diesel.  While diesels also come with automatic and manual transmissions, most frequent-haulers prefer manual as the transmissions are simpler, more reliable under heavy strain, and cheaper to repair.  As a whole, diesel engines run more efficiently and more reliably than gas, which is why they are so popular with commercial haulers.  Diesels, as a general rule, are not expected to require extensive repair or replacement until they have around 500,000 miles (or much more) behind them, giving them the nickname “million mile engines.”  The downside is that when that repair/replace time does arrive, it is going to cost you seriously–about twice as much as for a gas engine.  These days, diesel is also quite a bit more expensive than gas in most states, which may cause your monthly upkeep expenditure on the truck to increase significantly.  In addition, a diesel engine is designed to run hot.  In other words, you do not want to use it to run errands around town if you can help it.  It is designed to pull, to work under heavy stress and strain, to drive long distances, and to run for long periods of time.  If you need to drive out to your hay field just to toss some bales into the bed, with a gas engine, it would be more efficient to turn the engine off while you load.  With a diesel, though, you would want to leave it running while you load those bales, and allow the engine to get hot as it sits.

Of course, you’ve probably figured out by now that the choice isn’t as cut and dry as “gas or diesel?”.  There are other considerations involved before you decide.  We found that, as a whole, gas engines were generally less risky when purchasing used vehicles.  For the most part, gas engines have been around forever, and only little changes and improvements have occurred throughout the years.  This fact has kept the engines pretty consistent.  Replacement parts and mechanics are more widely available and more affordable.  If you happen to be a Toyota fan, the gas-powered Tundra is your truck, with a newly introduced max. towing capacity of 10,400 lbs.

On the other hand, diesel engines have changed significantly over the years, different manufacturers have developed different parts that are then assembled by other manufacturers, and much of the diesel industry has been unionized, which has caused it’s own issues.  As you get into the research, it becomes clear that diesel engines vary with the year they were made, and the company that made them or their parts at the time.  We didn’t do much research prior to about 1997, but the following is a summary of what we found regarding the diesel engine after that time.  Please understand that these statements are generalizations based on our research of auto websites, and discussions with manufacturers, dealers, and owners.  There are exceptions in every case.

The first diesel issue we found was with Ford.  Mind you, my family has had a multi-generational boycott of Ford for several reasons, but seeing as how we found them to be more affordable and easier to come by, we were giving them as much consideration as any other brand.  Essentially, from about 1997-2003.5, Ford made an incredible 7.3L diesel engine that buyers absolutely loved.  It was considered THE engine to have, it was durable, reliable, long-lasting, and had minimal issues.  In 2003, however, new emissions standards caused a re-design of the engine.  At the same time, there was a labor dispute with the engine manufacturer that resulted in a bit of unplanned-for “tweaking” by the cylinder makers to the new 6.0L diesel that was introduced that year.  This resulted in an engine that had quite a few problems with the cylinders, and quickly resulted in an unpopular, and quite undeserved, reputation for Ford.  Once Ford discovered the source of the problem around 2006 (when the increasing miles caused the cylinders to fail), they quickly fixed it.  However, it still took several years to correct the majority of the bad engines out there (and some still aren’t fixed).  The stressors of the engine problems also caused many transmission issues around the same time.  That same year, an improved engine was introduced, which hasn’t had nearly the troubles.  Nonetheless, despite the steps Ford took to extend warranties and correct the bad engines, their reputation took a bit of a hit.  Since 2006, however, their engines have made a come-back, and their reputation for quality and reliability are improving.  Every mechanic and dealer we spoke with, though, agreed that the best Ford engine ever made was the 7.3L diesel.

Chevrolet hasn’t been without it’s problems either.  In 2001, Chevy introduced the 6.6L Duramax engine, but it quickly revealed an injector problem.  As a result, Chevy warrantied those engines to 200,000 miles for the injectors, and by 2004, had fixed the problem internally.  If you find a Duramax from 2001-2004, make sure the injectors have already been replaced, or you may be risking a costly repair.  We encountered a number of die-hard Chevy fans who wouldn’t own anything else.  The Chevy mechanics and dealers we spoke with also seemed to conclusively agree that the Duramax was an excellent diesel engine.

Dodge engines, overall, seemed to be a really good engine, whatever year they were made.  The year 2003.5-2004.5 was considered a great year, though, with an engine that could provide 325 horse-power and tow a significant amount. A big advantage of the Cummins diesel engine is that it doesn’t have glow plugs, like other diesel engines.  It has a grid heater that apparently is more reliable and less costly to replace.  In a cold climate (less than 20*), glow plugs seem to work more effectively, so a block heater would be a necessity for a Cummins.  Otherwise, though, most experts we talked with agreed that Dodges were just generally good, reliable, durable engines, that held up well under stress.  The downside of the Dodge, according to all the data we read, was that their tow capacities couldn’t touch the Chevy’s and Ford’s maximums–especially in the goose-neck department.  So, if you prefer a diesel, but only need to haul up to about 14,000 lbs, you’d possibly be very happy with a basic model Dodge 3500.  If you need to haul more weight than that, you may want to consider another truck, though.

As a quick note, whether you use gas or diesel, both use the same transmission.  The transmissions can have just as many issues as the engines, and often need repair/replacing around 200,000-300,000 miles, regardless of the engine it’s paired with.  It’s something to consider any time.  A transmission is heavily stressed under towing conditions, though, so if you are buying a used vehicle, the less towing it has done, the better chance it will last for more miles after you buy.

A great precaution we discovered when buying a used vehicle–especially one with higher miles–was to utilize the manufacturer’s internal database.  When you find a used vehicle you are interested in, you can take the VIN into the parts/service department of your local dealer for that make of truck and ask for a vehicle service history.  In about 60 seconds, they can print off a list of all recalls for that vehicle, and all services that were provided by manufacturer-authorized service stations.  It is possible that something was fixed that was not warrantied or by an independent mechanic, in which case, it wouldn’t be recorded.  However, most of the recall-related issues on the list would be covered under warranty, and therefore would likely be reported by a mechanic that did the repair, in order to get paid by the manufacturer.  That list was extremely handy for us, and was what eventually helped us find our truck in the end.

In Part 2, I covered most of the major weights and ratings you should be familiar with.  So where exactly do you find all these numbers?

Unfortunately, this is not always easy either, and may even require a bit of legwork.  If you are buying new, a dealer will happily tell you, “Oh, don’t worry, this truck can haul whatever you ask it to!”  After what we’ve learned through our experience, though, I would never settle for that.  For three reasons:  First, the safety issue I discussed previously.  I love my family too much, our animals are our livelihood, and I wouldn’t want to risk an accident causing harm to either.  Second, sure, the truck may pull any load you put on and ask it to, but that doesn’t mean your engine or transmission will hold out if you do it often.  Finally, if you happen to cross an inspection/weigh station that requires even personal trucks/trailer to be weighed, you could be risking a hefty fine if you are overloaded!

My first suggestion to find these weights is to look on the driver’s side door.  Usually, especially on more recent year models, there is a little white sticker affixed to the side of the door with several of the specs listed.  If so, you can easily get your most important specs from that.  You may also see specs like your axle weight ratings.  While these could be useful if you can’t find any others, I haven’t discussed them because we never really used them.  The other ratings give you as much info, if not more, in MOST cases.  If the label specs are limited, the vehicle’s owners’s manual may have the rest of the information you need.  Unfortunately, manuals are sometimes written somewhat generically, and may not be 100% reliable like the sticker on the door.

Our truck label offers the GVWR, the axle ratings, and the VIN (which I have blacked out here).

Our truck label offers the GVWR, the axle ratings, and the VIN (which I have blacked out here).

If you happen to be looking at older trucks, you may not have such easy access to the specs.  There are still several ways, though.  First, you can get the truck’s VIN number, go to the website “www.decodethis.com”, type in the VIN, click the “Equipment” tab, and read the specs there.  In MOST cases, we found this data to be quite accurate.  On occasion, however, it seemed the decoder was looking more at the “standard” for that vehicle model rather than the individually identifying numbers at the end of the VIN.  In these few cases, we had to search further.  Next, you can call the manufacturer directly.  Just google “Ford,” “Chevrolet,” “Toyota,” or “Dodge,” hunt down the customer service number, call and tell them you want the specs for an older model truck with VIN # (whatever).  It is likely that the person answering the phone will be clueless as to what those numbers actually mean (although we had several try very hard to explain them), but as long as they are reading the data direct from a manual or computer screen, the info should be fairly accurate.  Finally, you can also google the vehicle year, make, and model you are looking at, and read the reviews on it.  Chances are someone out there knows and has written about it.  You can find confirmation of their reviews on websites such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, or NADA.  I would NOT trust any one of these sources exclusively, but if you use several or all of them, you can get a pretty reliable idea what your specs are.

Be aware that while MOST sources give the fifth-wheel and max tow capacity as two different numbers, some sources will give the max tow as the fifth-wheel capacity.  GENERALLY speaking, the max tow capacity will be about 2,500 lbs more than the min. tow capacity, while the fifth-wheel capacity will be roughly 3500-5500 lbs. more than the min. tow capacity.  That is a very broad statement, so you really need all your numbers to figure out the difference, but we found it to be a decent guideline for pre-liminary investigating on used trucks.

If your trailer is right on the borderline of what you are finding, and you really want exact numbers, you always have the option of actually weighing the truck.  This costs a bit (perhaps $50-$100), and you need to plan ahead a bit.  You’d want the truck with any attached equipment (including brush guards, winches, extra hitches, or other equipment), the truck and bed cleaned out, a full fuel tank, and one person–the driver–whose weight is known.  Go weigh the truck and subtract the weight of the person.  That would give you your curb weight.

I mentioned earlier that you could be heavily fined for being overloaded.  The GCWR is a strictly enforced rating.  That’s why commercial semi’s have to stop and be weighed.  I had the “privilege” of once riding with a semi-driving friend who was hauling sod.  It rained during our trip, and his sod wasn’t covered, so it absorbed the rain like a sponge.  At the next weigh station, he was pulled over, ticketed, and had to make other arrangements for part of his load because it was considered too heavy to haul.  Just because you are a private driver does not exempt you from these laws.  Your truck and trailer, fully loaded for your trip, should never exceed that GCWR.   If you are concerned about overloading, you can also go weigh if you already know your GCWR.  As long as your total loaded weight is less than the GCWR, you will be fine.

This last paragraph may seem a little useless, but we considered one truck that showed promise until we better understood the importance of this GCWR concept.  We found a great truck that had originally left the manufacturer as an F-250, with all the ratings of a 250.  It became a fleet truck of some type, and as a result was converted.  The body of the truck remained a 250, but a dually axle was put on, the rest of the suspension, engine, and transmission upgraded, and the standard truck bed was replaced with a flat bed.  By all accounts, it would have been an incredible and powerful truck for towing.  There was only one problem.  Because the upgrades were done after leaving the manufacturer, there were no recorded specs on the truck.  The VIN number itself no longer even existed in Ford’s system.  It was being sold by an authorized dealer as a pre-owned truck complete with dealer warranties.  However, without specs and hard data, legally, we would have been limited to all specs originally assigned to the F-250.  Should we cross through an inspection station towing weight more appropriate for a 350, we could have been severely fined.

Be very careful.  These last 2 posts include some of the most critical data we found, and if you want your truck to run as efficiently as possible, for as long as possible, then you will want to know this information, stay within those limits, and select the truck based on what you need it to do.  At the same time, though, don’t fall for the dealer’s trick of talking you into the “latest” model truck that can haul a fifth-wheel trailer around 18,000 lbs. (GCWR of about 27,500 lbs.).  In fact, that big of a capability would likely be a waste of money, as most states require that your total GCWR be less than 27,000 lbs. or you will require a Commercial Driver’s license (CDL).  Therefore, it also pays to be familiar with your state’s law–something that can pretty easily be found with a google search.

Once you figure out what type of comfort features you desire, it’s time to really start learning the “specs,” or specifications, of the trucks.  The first thing you’ll want to consider is the curb weight, payload, GVWR, and towing capacity of the truck.

The “curb weight” is the weight of the empty truck itself, as it came from the manufacturer.  The “payload” is the recommended maximum weight of cargo the truck can carry–either in the passenger compartment or in the bed.  Theoretically, the payload should be all passengers, luggage, cargo, additions to the truck after manufacturer, etc.  However, when the manufacturer figures the payload, they often account for several passengers and reduce the payload by that weight.  Unfortunately, you don’t really know how much weight they are subtracting out for those passengers unless you look at the “GVWR,” or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating.

The GVWR is the curb weight plus the payload, any assumed passengers, or other assumed weights.   As an example, a common GVWR of a standard 2500 model truck is around 8,800 lbs.  The curb weight of the truck might be around 4,800, and the payload might be 3,300.  If you add the curb weight and payload, you get 8,100 lbs., which means the manufacturer has assumed an additional weight of 700 lbs. of passengers or cargo somewhere in order to reach the max. GVWR of 8,800 lbs.  In this case, it is simpler to just look at the GVWR, subtract out the curb weight, and know that anything else added must be less than 3,200 lbs. to keep the truck within safe limits.   The manufacturer can’t make any guarantees regarding the safety and reliability of driving the truck with any more weight on the truck than that.  Keep in mind, if you are towing a trailer using fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch, the tongue weight of the trailer will have to be included in the payload weight you are adding.

Just how much can a truck tow?  What you will generally find are 2 numbers, the minimum tow capacity and the maximum tow capacity.  These numbers are based on not only the engine capability, which is a common misconception, but also the entire suspension of the truck, the weight distribution, and the braking system.   The numbers are set based on what all parts of the truck can safely handle.

When the truck is made, it usually has a factory set-up for a basic tow package on the back end of the truck, usually just below the bumper, but occasionally sitting on the bumper itself.  When you hook a “bumper pull” trailer to this rear-mount hitch, the weight of the truck must be able to support the weight of the trailer tongue pressing down on the bumper, without the front end of the truck lifting up any.  If the trailer is heavy enough to cause the rear of the truck to “squat” or sink under the load, thereby lifting the front end, you significantly reduce your ability to steer and brake properly, which increases the risk of driving as a whole.  The safest and most gas efficient setup is a properly set, properly balanced and stabilized, and properly attached trailer.  The trailer and truck will actually form a nice, straight, “line” parallel to the road surface.  Here’s a visual:

truck and trailer

The middle illustration of the front end of the truck lifting is generally considered the most dangerous, though if you happen to have rear-wheel drive, the last illustration of the back end lifting is equally dangerous.  You never want to set your tow vehicle up in any way that would decrease control of the truck and trailer.  The heavier the load, the more important this fact is.  It is important to know the vehicles limits so you know when you have maxed out these weights, and so you can prevent causing one of the above dangerous situations.

So, essentially, the minimum tow capacity is basically considered the maximum amount of weight you would want to hook to a bumper-pull hitch WITHOUT a stabilizer package or trailer brakes.  The maximum tow capacity is the maximum weight you could safely tow a bumper-pull trailer WITH a stabilizer package AND trailer brakes.  In most cases, these are the definitions, but read on, as the max. tow weight is occasionally interchange with the Fifth-Wheel tow rating.

The “Fifth-Wheel Weight” isn’t always easy to find.  Some manufacturer’s offer it, some don’t.  A fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailer’s tongue weight is centered directly over the rear axle of the truck, and therefore does not affect the truck the same way as a bumper pull.  It wouldn’t cause a tilt of the truck like an improperly-balanced bumper-pull trailer.  Rather, the weight of the fifth-wheel is limited only by the power of the engine/transmission, and the suspension of the truck.  If you overload those, you risk losing control of the vehicle, or, more likely completely destroying your transmission, engine, or both–very expensive repairs in either case!

If you are very lucky, you will be able to find this weight given–especially in current year models.  However, if you are looking at an older model, you may not find that weight as clearly.  In fact, at least one manufacturer doesn’t even give their dealers access to specs beyond 3 years.  (That was frustrating, let me tell you!!)  The good news is, you can calculate it using two other numbers.  The “GCWR,” or Gross Combined Weight Rating, is the maximum recommended combined weight of the truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer.  The “Curb Weight” is the weight of the empty truck itself.  If you subtract the Curb Weight from the GCWR, that will give you your max. fifth-wheel tow capacity.

Keep the facts from these last two posts in mind as you look at trucks.  We heard some definitions of these ratings ranging from the simply incorrect to the completely absurd–the worst coming from a dealer himself who was supposedly the dealership’s “expert” regarding diesel trucks and towing!  I spoke with several customer service agents of the manufacturer who were clueless about these weights or what they meant.  Be sure to educate yourself so you don’t get stuck with something that won’t allow you to do what you had planned!  Stay tuned for another posts regarding a few other tid-bits we learned on our journey!

I wasn’t going to do a series on trucks, but the “likes” and “new subscriber” response to my trailer-purchasing posts was almost overwhelming.  At this point, thanks to our research-to-the-extreme tendencies, I am absolutely SICK of looking at trucks!  It is nearly impossible to find or decipher the info that’s out there when you need to buy a good truck.  Clearly, there is a need for a good series on truck purchasing.  So, here goes….

So you’ve decided you need a truck.  Some folks have their personal favorites which can help narrow the search a bit, some are working within a tight budget which narrows the search even further, and still others don’t care and may have cash to burn.  One person wouldn’t be caught dead in a particular brand, while another wouldn’t drive anything else.  Fords, Chevy’s, Toyota’s, and Dodge; 1500, 2500, 3500, and the “”F” equivalents; gas and diesel; manual and automatics; payloads, GVWR’s, GCWR’s, minimum and maximum tow capacities…..what on earth do all these mean?  Is one really better than another?  How do you choose?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s much easier to buy the right trailer!  The terms, widespread beliefs, and misunderstood specs on trucks is almost overwhelming.  The simple answer, though, is that there is no “right” truck.  While some trucks are certainly better than others, the “right” truck is really based on your particular need.

For the purpose of this series, I am going to assume you are looking for a truck to actually do work with.  If you have found your way to my blog, you are likely in need of a farm truck, work truck, and/or a truck to tow your trailer with.  Based on this, I can tell you right now that, for the “average” stock owner, hauling more than 2 animal units (or, roughly 1 ton of animal weight), you have already pretty much ruled out the light trucks like Toyota Tacomas, Nissan Titans, Ford Rangers, Dodge Dakotas or Colorado’s, and so forth.  You would think you could select a truck based simply on it’s tow capacity, but it doesn’t exactly work like that.  You have to make other decisions first.

Throughout the next few posts, I will explain what we have found after a ridiculous amount of research, which included test drives, talking with private owners, dealers, and the manufacturers themselves, as well as reading through more online specifications and reviews than I care to remember.  Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!

Of all the pests and diseases that can weaken or kill a honey bee hive, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about raising honey bees through our first year, it’s that winter is one of the hardest things for the bees to endure.  The fact that we live at 7600 feet altitude, with winter temperatures lasting roughly 5 months, certainly doesn’t help.  As a result of this, you can imagine our elation when the established hives we had purchased in the fall of 2011 pulled through the first winter relatively unscathed.  As it turned out, they were so healthy and vigorous, we had two hives swarm (our fault for not being more knowledgeable and preventing it!).  We caught one swarm and purchased 2 bee packages in the spring of 2012.  They were able to build up just enough honey stores to get them safely through the winter, but not enough for us to harvest.  Even if they have enough honey to get through the winter, however, there are dangers.  To understand these dangers, you must first understand a few things about bee behavior.

A cluster of bees.  In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.  Source: Internet Stock Photo

A cluster of bees. In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

As winter arrives, the female worker bees chase all the male drone bees out of the hive, essentially causing them to die. The girls don’t want any extra mouths to feed (and we all know how much boys can eat!!).  When temperatures dip below 50 degrees (F), it is too cool for them to fly, so they stay inside the hive.  As the temps continue to drop, all the workers gather into a clustered ball around the queen, who temporarily stops laying eggs.  This clustering ensures the queen is the warmest, most protected, and has the easiest access to food (honey) stores.  The cluster of workers rotates their bodies throughout the ball, so all have a turn at eating and being warm, and all have a turn at exposing themselves to nearly frigid temps on the outside of the cluster.  Except for the motion of the workers rotating, though, the cluster itself does not change position in the hive at all.  When temps rise over 50*, the workers will fly out of the hive for a “cleansing flight” in which they will eliminate all their stored bodily waste materials, as well as “clean house”.  They clean out any dead bees or other foreign things they don’t want in the hive by tossing them out the front entrance.  The warmer temps also give the queen and the workers a chance to move upward or sideways to new honey stores before the next freezing temps arrive.  As long as winter temperatures have periodic warm spells (like we did last winter), this process is repeated throughout the winter–flying on warm days, clustering on cold days and nights.

This sounds like a great system until you understand the dangers of that stationary cluster.  If the temps remain cold enough to keep the cluster in position long enough, then the honey stores run out.  They literally starve to death, while surrounded on all sides with rich, capped, honey that they couldn’t get to.  This is called “Honey-bound,” and is a very common hive killer at these cold altitudes.

Unfortunately, we had an unseasonably warm November and December, which means the bees did a lot of flying, thus burning calories, but there was no food to eat except their honey stores.  Therefore, they ate more honey than normal by mid-winter.  Then, just before Christmas, we were hit with absolutely frigid temperatures that lasted almost 6 straight weeks.  The temps never got warm enough during this time for the bees to uncluster and change position or perform a cleansing flight.  You cannot open the hive during these cold periods.  The clusters of bees produce an incredible amount of heat that remains in the hive.  If we opened the top, it would release that stored heat.  The only real way to check for life is to bang on the outside of the hive, and listen for buzzing inside.  Pretty scientific!

As the cold weeks passed, S got an increasingly sinking feeling that he was going to lose all his bees.  We haven’t seen any sign of life for so long.  I finally convinced him to go out today and at least tap and listen.  We went, and found that two hives had audible buzzing.  One was strong enough that they stand a chance of survival now that we are through the worst of the cold temps.  The other was rather weak, and we aren’t sure of their future.  We couldn’t hear any buzzing in the remaining 4 hives, which means they are either all dead, or enough have died that there is little to no chance the remaining clusters will survive.

If the forecast holds true, then around mid-week, our temps should be warm enough to allow the bees their first cleansing flight since before Christmas (imagine not using a toilet in 6 weeks!).  The activity we observe that day will give us a much better feel of their condition and overall health and energy.  We also plan to open all the hives and check for remaining honey stores.  If they are running low, we will add some frames of honey we set aside last fall for just such a problem.

We like to be optimistic, and find the good in things.  In this case, although 2 hives out of 6 is not exactly something to brag about (if that’s what it turns out to be), it does mean we might have extra honey to harvest–as much as 40-80 lbs.  Due to our drought this past year, we were not able to harvest any for ourselves.  The bees were only able to make and store enough to get them through the winter.  We had a few extra frames full of honey, but decided to store those in the freezer in the event of a long winter.  That may prove to have been a wise choice.  In addition, it means we will have fewer active hives to move back to Red Gate when we move.  That wasn’t going to be easy!

Even though the bees really are more of S’s project, it’s kinda funny how much of an interest I’ve started to take.  I truly rejoiced with him today when we discovered at least 2 hives still hanging on.  We are both so eager to see what the warm weather inspection will find.  I really do hope they survive.  It’s really like losing any other animal on the farm to lose the bees.  Their pollination service and their honey are very valuable on a homestead, plus they really grow on you after a while!!

Today marks exactly 4 months to moving day.  While we have plenty of time yet, I’m already starting to feel it.

In the last month, I have reserved the moving van (better rates when you book early), ordered boxes, shown the house more times than I can count, potty trained R, listed all sorts of extra things on Craigslist, started planning finances, hopefully finally got all 3 goats bred successfully, searched almost endlessly for a truck and a trailer, finally decided to custom order the trailer we want (still looking for the truck), trained a new host for the organic foods co-op we host, made several “final” medical appointments for the boys and still have a few more to make for the rest of us, we had another litter of rabbits born, and as of today, officially started packing some boxes.  I figured we needed to de-clutter a little and try to “stage” our house better by purging some of the items I won’t be needing until after the move.

Over the next month or two, my parents will visit, I will hand over my co-op to the new hosts, the chickens should all start laying (up to 20 eggs a day!), several of the hens will be going to a new home, the remaining hens will all be tested so I can transport them cross-country, and I have to plan my March trip to the farm.  In the midst of all that, of course, we are celebrating two birthdays tomorrow (R’s and N’s, whose actual birthdays are a week apart), and one birthday in April.  AND the goats will start kidding.

Naturally, as if we didn’t have enough going on, everything seems to be breaking and wearing out simultaneously.  Our camera has pretty much decided not to work–when I hit the “picture” button, it turns off.  I’m hoping our vacuum will hang in there, as pieces are literally beginning to fall off it and I find myself rubber-banding and duct taping it together.  Our van brake drums seem to have warped a bit for some reason and the rear door hydraulics have totally worn out.  Our printer recently decided to get as moody as the camera, and the kids are all outgrowing their clothes faster than I can replace them.

Yup, life is busy.  Just the way I like it (minus the expenses of the unexpecteds in the last paragraph!).  I have a feeling the next 4 months are going to fly by, and moving day will be here before we know it!!

After all this research and discussion on trailers, I might as well tell you about our final choice of trailer, and the reasons why.  First of all, although I didn’t do a post on it, we decided to purchase our first gooseneck trailer.  It offers more storage space in the neck, less strain on the truck, and it is an easier tow over all.

Stock:  We decided to go for a stock-type trailer, as we are very practical, no frills type folks.  I didn’t want the wasted space of a dressing/tack room, but we did want a versatile trailer that could haul our donkeys and horses as easily as our goats, and eventually cows and hogs.  We also have to assume that S will use it for hauling lumber and lots of other farm activities.  We are getting a trailer with a 20 foot belly length, so it has a center floor-to-ceiling divider.  With this option, I can easily seperate species (ie donkeys and goats during our move), allow for 2 box stalls, or open it all the way up for other farm uses.

Steel:  Based on what we learned about welding, weight, repair issues, and rust/corrosion, and it was easier to find in our budget range.

Wood floors with rubber mats:  Based on all I learned about flooring materials, plus since S has his own lumber mill, we can easily replace a wood floor at absolutely no cost to us.  I like to use wood shavings as absorbent bedding anyway, so mats are the most economical way to go for us.  I will drill a few holes as I discussed, allowing them to be easier to remove.

As far as brand, I researched more trailer manufacturers than I can count!  An interesting fact I discovered is that many trailer brand names, once owned by different companies which developed a  reputation of their own, are now owned by the same company that uses one supplier for materials.  What this means is, for example, one well-known aluminum brand we looked at had an excellent reputation for it’s high standard of quality.  Next to it was an aluminum trailer of much lesser quality, and my local repair shop saw them all the time for different needed repairs.  Both had a similiar price sticker.  Why?  Because a few years ago, the company that owned the lesser trailer bought out the better trailer company, and now they use the same supplier for their aluminum.  This allows prices to be competitive, but after buying out, the new owner kept the old name, literally selling on the former reputation rather than current quality.  Several dealers and repair folks I spoke with said they are just waiting for the “good” brand to start having the same problems as the lesser brand as they age a bit.

As a result of this research, we chose the Titan trailer brand.  They are a very high-end trailer.  They actually bought out Logan’s a few years ago (if I understand all the details correctly), and both names have become synonomous with high quality and durability, whether the materials are aluminum or steel.  From an engineering perspective, every aspect we looked into, these trailers are awesome.  Stock, horse, flatbeds, cargo, whatever.  They offer enough options to allow you a lot of flexibility, but even with the lower end trailer, you are getting quality.  We are getting their mid-range “Standard” stock trailer, as it offers the fairly basic, but practical features we felt we needed, with a couple of extra options to meet our particular situation.

Unfortunately, we have to custom order our trailer.  While Titan’s are sold in many states, the stock trailers generally come in a 6’6″ height.  Because we are planning to get draft horses, I needed a 7’6″ height (in actuality, giving me 7’8″ inside) to be sure they would fit.  No one carries this in stock.  I made a lot of calls, and found a local, mom-and-pop dealer that beats others’ prices by up to $2,000, so we will be ordering through them.  It will take a couple months to get here, but we have a little time to spare.  In addition, if we are able to find our truck in the near future (we have a great lead, and will hopefully know more by tomorrow), I will be able to customize the paint job to match my truck at no charge.   That will be an unexpected bonus!  I may add diamond-plating aluminum sheeting to the front in the future, depending on how well the spray-on guard holds up.

So, all that said, my new trailer should look similiar to this, plus a couple added options not pictured:

titan

For the record, other trailer brands I would highly recommend from the results of our research are TrailsWest Trailers, Trav-a-Long Trailers, Cotner Trailers, and Elite Trailers.  They got my attention as being some of the highest quality.  I came across several well known brands I definitely wouldn’t buy now that they’ve merged.  I’m sure there are other, lesser known brands from smaller companies that are equally as good as the names I mentioned, but because trailers can be very regional, I definitely didn’t research all of them.  I focused on my region and my past experiences.  Just take what I offered, do your research on trailers in your region, go to a big dealer in your area with a good inventory, and look at the trailers up close and personal.  It will give you a good start in finding the perfect trailer for you!

Once you have narrowed down your choice of trailer options based on construction and loading, you need to think about flooring material.  Once again, our modern technology offers many choices–from wood to rumber, from aluminum to spray coatings.  Which one is really best?  Flooring is probably the single most critical part of the trailer in terms of animal safety.  I’ve heard many a horror story where part of a floor gave way under the pressure of a heavy hoof, as a trailer was being towed down the road, resulting in a certainly painful death for the animal that was still inside the trailer.  Once again, I must emphasize that I am not offering a tested, scientific view, rather more of my observations and experiences, the results of our research, and the opinions of manufacturers, dealers, and other experienced livestock folks we encountered during our research.

Wood:

Traditionally, since trailers were created, they were made of wood.  While some high-end trailers may use harder soft woods, in the interest of economy and competitive pricing, most use pine boards.  Usually, these pine boards are sealed in some way, but not always.  I have seen rough-cut lumber used in cheaper brands.

Wood floor in a stock trailer.Source: Internet stock photo

Wood floor in a stock trailer.
Source: Internet stock photo

The big plus side of wood is that if something happens to the floor, it is easily replaceable or repairable.  Wood offers some limited traction, even when wet (though a sealant may decrease this traction).  In addition, soft wood has some limited “give” which can increase the comfort of the animals slightly.

The downside of wood is that it does rot.  As a general rule, you should plan to replace the floor at least once, maybe more, during the life of the trailer.  While it can rot quickly, routine cleaning and maintenance can certainly extend it’s life.  You can also give it a regular coating of some type of oil-based finish to help with water-repellant properties.  The most common place to see the early stages of rot occurring is along the very edges, in grooves between the wood and frame or the wood and the wall panels, where manure and urine tend to collect (even with mats).  It also happens to be an area that many folks forget to clean.  Another downside of wood is that is one of the heaviest flooring materials.  When combined with mats, it can increase the weight of the trailer–by a significant percentage for a small trailer.

If you are considering a used trailer, be sure to lift up anything covering the floor boards and inspect the boards very carefully.  Check the very edges, and in between, where grime may accumulate.  Look underneath to ensure someone didn’t simply sand the top of the boards to improve their look for sale.  The underneath could be a dead giveaway for a poor floor.  Finally, don’t forget that rot can occur in a random fashion.  If you lift up just one corner of a mat, you may see a nice-looking floor.  However, if you go a little further, you may find a 6″ area that is ready to give way.  It’s all based on how the moisture and decay-causing organisms accumulate, most often via seams in the mats and along the edges.

Aluminum flooring:

Aluminum flooring has become popular for all the same (misunderstood) reasons that all-aluminum trailers have.  It is often thought to be lighter weight, rust resistant, and longer lasting than wood.  Like other aluminum parts of the trailer, you must consider the facts further.  One consideration is that an aluminum floor requires far more support than, say, a wood floor.  Whereas wood slats would usually run the length of the trailer, aluminum slats are sometimes fixed between perpendicular supports.  This additional support tends to defeat the argument that the flooring saves weight.  In addition, those extra seams and often-hollow, open-ended planks create additional gaps for urine and manure to accumulate.

Aluminum plank floor.Source: Internet Stock Photo

Aluminum plank floor.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

Likewise, while aluminum is, indeed, rust resistant, it is not corrosion resistant.  As I discussed in the post on material construction, urine and salt water (from roads) is highly corrosive to aluminum, and therefore can weaken your floor very quickly.  Unlike a wood floor, which can be replaced quite easily and inexpensively, an aluminum floor repair would often have to be taken to a specialized repair shop, and it would not be cheap!  In addition, those extra seams mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the often hollow, open-ended planks create additional gaps for urine and manure to accumulate.  It can be difficult, if not impossible to get the collected muck out of the inside of the planks, and of course, the longer it sits, the more corrosive it is. Like wood, however, a thorough, routine cleaning after use can help prevent this problem and extend the life of the floor.

Some manufacturers tout the benefits of their “extruded” aluminum.  All this term means is that the planks are formed by the extruding process, or forcing the soft aluminum through a compression mold to shape it.  While the compression can offer a bit more strength than the raw aluminum, I’m not convinced it’s a benefit worth bragging about.

Other designs to these floors that can provide some benefit are corrosion-protectant covering and spaced design.  The coverings will deteriorate or get scraped off over time (though mats can extend the life).  The spaced design can allow urine to trickle out, but it isn’t fool proof.  Any one who has cleaned a toilet can attest to the fact that urine seems to find a way to stick to everything!  I have seen solid aluminum-sheet floors, such as diamond plate, which does reduce the seams somewhat, preventing accumulation of urine in gaps, but these floors are often installed in sections, and require welding (see Post 3 for more details on anode-cathode reactions).  A big downside to these solid sheets is that they do not allow drainage of the urine, either causing a very wet and slippery floor or copious amounts of bedding to absorb all the urine.

Aluminum diamond-plate solid-sheet flooring.Source: Internet Stock Photo

Aluminum diamond-plate solid-sheet flooring.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

Finally, a big consideration regarding aluminum is the fact that it is a very slippery metal, and it is very noisy.  Raised traction areas, such as those provided by diamond-plate flooring, can help provide traction for the animals, however some type of rubber matting is recommended for the best traction and the quietest loading and ride.

Rumber:

Rumber is a composite mixture of 60% recycled rubber and 40% recycled plastic.  The rubber and plastic are melted down and extruded (molded) into planks or sheets.  Planks may be seperated by space when installed, or they may have a tongue-and-groove design.  If intended for trailers, the planks are often grooved on the top for traction.  Upon further research, I found that the rumber floors are quite heavy–slightly heavier than the combination of a wood plank floor and a thick mat covering.  If the rumber is all you use, this weight difference wouldn’t be very substantial.  Many reviews I read, however, felt the rumber didn’t provide any drainage of wet materials, and therefore, could get very slippery.  As a result, reviewers often added rubber mats and bedding on top anyway, completely defeating the purpose of spending the extra money on rumber instead of wood planks.

Rumber floor.Source: Internet stock photo.

Rumber floor.
Source: Internet stock photo.

Other complaints were that the grooves wore down pretty quickly, meaning any benefits of the extra traction provided were lost.  The floor was also found to be quite flexible, and some reviewers questioned whether the strength would truly hold and support large amounts of weight (ie a heavy hoof) without warping or splitting.  However, I didn’t find any proof of the latter actually happening.  While random reviewers seemed very pleased overall with their flooring, far more reviewers hated it and regretted making the additional purchase.  I even came across one dealer whose customers had been so unhappy with their rumber floors, he had a standing offer to add rubber mats at no extra charge if they weren’t happy, and he said most of his rumber-purchasing customers had returned for mats.

A plus for the rumber was the ease of cleaning.  Most reviewers claimed that it was indeed a very simple process to sweep out any shavings/bedding material, hose it out and be done with it.  It was the most positive feature that seemed to exist.

On the other hand, the rumber sheets they make seem to be very useful as a protective lining for the side walls of the trailer rather than the floor.  A thinner, smoother material, the sheets would never work as flooring.  However, the ease of cleaning, the water-proof nature of the construction, the aesthetic look provided, and the cushion provided by the rubber in the event of a kick to the wall, results in rumber being a rather good option as a side wall covering.

Polylast and WERM:

A newer flooring option is known as Polylast.  I have seen this material used frequently on playgrounds and running tracks.  Like rumber, it is recycled rubber, but rather than being extruded into a shape, it is a semi-liquid mixture (mixed with a special “glue” of sorts) that is sprayed or poured on.  It also comes in a variety of colors.  Unlike rumber, it is a very porous material, with just enough glue sealant to hold the rubber pieces together.  According the manufacturer and fans, advantages of this flooring were the fact that you could spray/pour it onto any type of hard flooring and automatically provide a tremendous amount of well-drained, easy-to-clean, cushioned flooring.  One reviewer who had 3 full-sized, commercial stock trailers using Polylast, claimed that after a trip, all 3 trailers could be simply hosed and cleaned out in 20 minutes total.  Another advantage I have observed with this material is that it gives slightly, but bounces right back quickly after some type of compression (ie hoof stepping on it).

Polylast floorSource: Internet stock photo

Polylast floor
Source: Internet stock photo

My big concern about the Polylast was the effectiveness of the porosity.  My personal experience with Polylast on playgrounds and tracks was that the pores easily and quickly clogged with dust and debris.  Once the grit was in there, it was impossible to remove.  It simply stayed.  Granted, the material still drained very well despite the clogs, and was still very cushy (think, walking on a very firm mattress).  This caused more concern, however, as the floor is permanent.  You cannot remove Polylast once installed.  So, each time you clean the flooring, grit and grime gets carried down into the pores, and to the actual floor underneath (think wood or aluminum for a moment).  When rinsed, the water will help dilute urine, but some of the urine is bound to get hung up and trapped in the pores and spaces between the polylast and the original floor.  There is no way to clean these areas.  I confess, I have no proof.  As far as I can find, tests and studies have not been done.  However, common sense tells me that anytime you have grit, grime, urine, and manure, combined with occasional moisture that cannot dry quickly, you are setting your original floor up for rapid rot, rust, or corrosion.  Another complaint I often came across with Polylast was that, over time, chunks would chip off.

Now, that being said, Polylast offers a sealant option, where they install the floor material, then paint on a thick sealant which fills all pores, and makes it totally water proof.  This would be an option, but this eliminates the porosity, thereby eliminating the drainage advantage.  To prevent the floor from becoming one big puddle of urine and manure, you must add absorbent bedding, thereby essentially eliminating the advantage of the Polylast to begin with.  In this case, you really should question whether it’s worth the extra expense.

WERM flooring would be comparable to the sealed Polylast floor, but it is poured much tighter.  This reduces the number of pores available to clog to begin with, but also increases the weight of the flooring.

I spoke with one trailer dealer who advised wholeheartedly AGAINST using either, and would not recommend them to his customers.

 Rubber Mats:

If you have driven trailers at any time, you have likely come across rubber mats as flooring.  The advantage of these mats is that they can easily be cut to size for the trailer, installed over any flooring material, are water proof which protects the floor underneath from urine exposure, are easy to simply sweep and hose off, are removable for thorough cleaning, offer great traction even when wet (think wearing tennis shoes vs. hard-sole shoes on an icy day), offer cushion to prevent leg fatigue of the stock, and are relatively inexpensive.  For a custom fit from a professional, you are usually looking at a few hundred dollars as compared to one to two thousand dollars for some of the other options.  If a custom fit doesn’t concern you, smaller mats can be purchased at most farm stores and just set inside, providing many of the benefits for a much cheaper price, but just not quite fitting all the way from side to side.

Rubber mats lining the floor and side walls of this horse trailer.Source: Internet stock photo

Rubber mats lining the floor and side walls of this horse trailer.
Source: Internet stock photo

There are of course downsides as well.  Like rumber and sealed polylast, mats are totally waterproof, and therefore you may desire an absorbent bedding on top.  Like rumber, they can be slick when wet, but unlike rumber or polylast, they may wear a little faster under major stressors (such as studded horse shoes).  However, sections can be easily replaced if they begin to wear.  The biggest downside (and complaint from users) is that they are incredibly heavy.  They definitely aren’t a flooring you want to have to remove after EVERY use, assuming you use the trailer frequently.  With this type of flooring, you are more likely to postpone thorough cleaning to once or twice a year, due simply to the extra time and effort needed to handle the mats.  One compromise solution (I have used in the past) is to use a good, absorbent bedding to decrease the amount of urine and manure that can flow to the edges, and thoroughly sweep and hose the top of the mats after each use, taking care to limit the grime that gets washed into the corner gaps.  You can always assume at least 1-2 inches of the edge of the floors underneath will still get wet though, so I would simply stick a few objects under the mats to lift them slightly at the edges, to increase airflow and allow the floor to quickly dry.  Then, about every 6 months, we would pull the mats out and scrub the entire trailer top to bottom, dry it thoroughly, and put the mats back in place.  Of course, anyone with experience can tell you that removing mats is no easy task in itself.  You can simplify this task to a one person job, though, by simply drilling 2 small holes near the front and back edge.  They should be spaced at least 3.5 feet apart, but can go as far as each corner.  When it is time to remove the mats, insert a hay hook into the 2 holes on the rear edge, and pull.  The further apart the holes are, the more the mat will bend in the middle (necessary to fit it through some small horse trailer doors).  For stock trailers, there is no need to fold, so drill where you feel most comfortable.  When it’s time to re-install the mats, simply use the hooks in the front holes to drag the mats into the trailer and lay them in place.  As long as the holes are small and you use absorbent bedding, minimal grime will get into them.  Plus, but making the mat removal easier, you will be more likely to clean your trailer more thoroughly, more often.

Well, there you have it!  Like everything else, each type of flooring has it’s pros and cons.  If you are hauling well-trained, calm and relaxed horses, you have more options than if you are hauling loose-manure producing cattle or horses prone to diarrhea–in which case you would want to avoid anything that is difficult to clean well.  With this in mind, it is up to you to determine how much you are willing to spend, and whether the benefits outweigh the downsides for that type of flooring.  Have fun with your search!

Once a buyer has narrowed their choice of materials used to build the trailer, a common decision is how the animals stand in the trailer.  With options such as straight load, single file, slant load, head-to-head, rear-facing, and box stalls, the choice can quickly get confusing.  Especially when EACH manufacturer or dealer is telling you that their way is the best and most comfortable for your animal.  Does it really matter?

I should preface here by saying that I am definitely not offering a scientific viewpoint.  There are articles out there, most written by manufacturers (which I don’t give a lot of credence to, personally) attempting to make their product unique.  I admit it’s a good sales tactic, but I want to know what is actually best for my animals before I buy.  So, over the years, I have simply watched my animals.  The following is just my observations.

There are several ways to know how comfortable the animals are in a trailer.  You can watch them through the trailer’s front window as you ride down the road (assuming you are the passenger–I wouldn’t recommend it if you are the driver!!).  After loading your animal, consider how long it takes them to find a position and be still, and note what position that is.  Usually there will be some adjustment after the vehicle starts moving, but overall, when the animal has found a comfortable position, they will appear more relaxed in their expression as well.  Another way is to check the animal AFTER driving a distance, as the animal will have settled into the position most comfortable for them during the movement.  In my opinion, these are excellent indications.  One thing that can make this type of observation difficult, however, is when horses are tied into a trailer, which limits their movement considerably.

Like most “responsible” horse owners, I also used to swear by tying my horses in the trailer.  I spent big bucks on emergency release tie snaps, bungee cord tie straps, and more.  Then, as time went by, I began training wild horses for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management).  This involves going to the holding facility, running a wild, untouchable, frightened horse through a chute and into the trailer, and slamming the rear door shut.  If you tried to tie one of these horses, you’ likely get yourself or the horse injured or killed.  Therefore, the horses are left loose in the trailer.  I have used a 16 foot bumper pull, with one horse using the entire floor space; I have used the same trailer with 2 horses divided by a center gate, creating 2 box stalls; and I have used a 4-horse slant gooseneck model, with all dividers opened so the horse had the full floor space.  In addition, I have hauled semi-tame horses on multiple occasions, with up to 3 loose in the 16-foot trailer (only if they got along well!).  What I quickly noticed, is that in EVERY SINGLE CASE, the horses settled almost into a standard, slant-load position, with their head facing toward the front and center of the road.  With wild horses and horses not experienced with loose trailering, I could often feel a bit of trailer movement and sway in the first couple minutes as the horse moved around to find its preferred position.  They always settled in the same position though, no matter what type of trailer I used.  As long as they had the space to turn around, they settled into that slant position, and would stand there–sometimes for hours at a time.  Another interesting observation was that, if hauled alone, horses seemed to prefer to have space around their body and not touch any wall, but if hauled with other horses and no divider, the horse toward the rear would always have his head and shoulders touching the horse in front.

Stock trailer with center divider.Source: Internet stock photo

Stock trailer with center divider forming 2 box stalls.
Source: Internet stock photo

On the other hand, I have NEVER seen a horse volunteer to face the rear, the outside of the road, or stand facing directly forward. I can’t explain the preference for the center of the road, unless it has simply to do with the slope of the road, allowing the center to be more “uphill” than the outside.  It makes total sense though, that they would not stand facing either forward or backward.  Think about standing on one of those fast, people-mover trains.  When the car first starts, there is a force that pulls you backward.  As it travels, it tends to rock you from side and side.  As it slows, momentum pulls you forward.  The same happens in a trailer (yes, I have ridden in one around the property to feel it and to listen to the noise it made).  When you are on that subway car, it is nearly impossible to stand, facing forward, with your feet together.  Rather, you will naturally spread your feet and angle your body to minimize those forces.  When I used to take martial arts, we were taught that the most stable and secure stance was with our feet at opposite diagonal corners of an imaginary square.  I believe horses are doing the same thing.  They angle their body with their head and shoulders upward, and the slant position allows more even “spread” from their front hooves to the rear hooves to allow them to most efficiently resist those forces from every angle.

Trailer with slant dividersSource: Internet stock photo

Trailer with slant dividers
Source: Internet stock photo

While I haven’t personally hauled cattle or hogs, I don’t believe this preferred position is limited to horses.  I have observed many a cattle and hog truck driving down the highway–you know, the semi-trailer or long stock-trailer type that has holes or slats which allow you to easily see the animals.  In almost every instance, these animals are loose in the trailer, but almost always in that same slanted position.  The only exceptions I have witnessed are when the animals were packed so tightly that they had trouble turning around, in which case, I would see most animals in the preferred position, and a random one facing the opposite direction, securely “blocked” by the animal on each side.

Smaller animals, on the other hand, seem more comfortable just being able to move around.  Goats, poultry, dogs, etc., are seldom seen standing or laying in the same position for long periods.  They usually move around quite a bit, exploring the trailer, shifting from side to side to lie down, and so forth.  Goats also seem to prefer laying down against a wall to help stabilize themselves.

That being said, my ideal trailer would depend on what I was hauling.  The particular design of the trailer (straight, slant, or box) can affect the overall length and weight of the trailer, so it is something to keep in mind.  If I was hauling horses, I would want a slant-load (forward facing toward the center of the road) or an open space such as a stock trailer or box-stall large enough the horse can turn around in.  I do believe horses will learn to lean on the slant dividers, if you use them, but initially, they naturally depend on their feet to maintain balance.  For cattle or any other large animal, I would aim for the open space or box stall set up.  I would not tie an animal if it was traveling alone with space to move around, or if there was a secure floor-to-ceiling divider between stalls.  If I was using a slant trailer with multiple horses, however, and the divider had the typical “head-gate” type divider, I would tie the horse.  I have seen playful or nervous horses over the years that leaned back and stuck their head over the rear slope of that head-gate, get stuck, and panic, or lean way down and reach their heads under the divider to pick on their neighbor.  In this case, it is safer to tie.

Trailer with center and rear load option, and head-to-head position.Source: Internet Stock Photo

Trailer with center and rear load option, and head-to-head position.  The horses in front are backed into their stall, while the horses in back can either be backed in or walked in from the rear entrance.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

Horses in a rear-facing position.  Notice the secure butt-bar, to absorb the horses weight if he leans back.Source: Internet stock photo

Horses in a rear-facing position. Notice the secure butt-bar, to absorb the horses weight if he leans back.
Source: Internet stock photo

For pretty much all other livestock I can think of right now, I would choose an open stock trailer design, or at least a box stall design, to give the animals freedom to position themselves how they feel most comfortable.

Now, I understand that in some cases, a situation may require the purchase of a single-file straight load, a 2-horse straight load, a rear-facing, or even a head-to-head (where the two horses in front face the rear, and the horses in back face the front).  You have to do what you have to do, and the animals will usually adapt.  Even then however, there are considerations.  First, you should tie the animal in all these positions to prevent trouble.  If you must tie, I highly recommend utilizing a trailer tie with a quick-release snap for emergencies.  Secondly, make sure the dividers on the side of the animal do NOT go all the way to the floor.  Ideally, they would be no lower than the horse’s knee or hock area, and preferably even higher.  You must give the animal room to spread his feet from side-to-side to help him stabilize against the forces he will experience during motion.  When trying to maintain their balance during the side-side swaying motion of the trailer, I have often seen even the calmest of horses leave their hoof prints on their neighbor’s side of the divider.  They can really spread those feet when necessary!

Straight load trailer with divider all the way to the floor. Source: Internet stock photo

Straight load trailer with divider all the way to the floor.
Source: Internet stock photo

If you plan to primarily haul horses, consider a trailer that allows the horse the ability to stretch his head and neck down.  Horses clear their sinuses by lowering their heads and blowing hard.  They also lower their head to stretch.  My absolute LEAST favorite trailer is the standard, every-day, 2-horse straight load with the front “manger” that has a tack storage area underneath.  I hate these because the horse’s head is stuck into this tight little space, which most people fill with hay.  Once the trailer gets moving, that hay and dust start blowing around in that little space.  Not only can the horse not escape it, but he is forced to inhale it.  Then, when his sinuses are full of this stuff, he his unable to lower his head to blow the sinuses clear.  These problems can increase the risk of respiratory issues such as shipping fever after the trip.  Just a bad situation all around.  In recent years, the few times I was forced to use such a trailer, I would carefully wipe out the manger area, and not put any hay in.  This at least helped reduce the blowing debris that could be inhaled.

Standard 2-horse, straight load trailer with mangers in front and flexible strap in the rear.Source:  Internet Stock Photo

Standard 2-horse, straight load trailer with mangers in front and flexible strap in the rear.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

A secure alternative is to get a straight-load trailer with padded chest bars.  My Cotner trailer had these, and they worked beautifully.  A “short wall” they can hang their head over would work too, though I haven’t seen many of these.  In fact, I found a side advantage of the horse loading much easier because the front of the trailer tends to be more open and inviting.  You have the option of hanging a hay net/bag if necessary, but the air is not trapped where the horse has to breathe it, and he can easily lower his head over the bar.  Some trailers with this option have plenty of space in front to add a couple saddle racks and a trunk, while others may be limited in storage space.  However, I would rather put the saddle in the back of the truck if necessary to ensure the health and comfort of the horse.

2-horse trailer with chest bars and divider giving plenty of leg-spread room.Source: Internet stock photo

2-horse trailer with chest bars and divider giving plenty of leg-spread room.
Source: Internet stock photo

Finally, I am going to refer strictly to horses for a moment, since I am more familiar with this area, but I’m sure similiar issues can apply to many other animals.  You want to ensure that the trailer fits your horse and the number of horses you plan to haul.  A horse should always have a good experience in a trailer, and the more comfortable they are, the better the experience will be.  I have seen some horses really crammed into trailers.  I have seen 3 horses crammed side-by-side in a straight-load position, so that 5-6 horses could be squeezed into a standard stock trailer–and they weren’t ponies either!  I have seen saddled horses crammed 5-6 in a slant-load position in a trailer intended to haul no more than 4 horses.  The worst case I saw though was a very tall, off-the-track thoroughbred whose owner went and bought a used, standard, 2 horse, straight-load with a manger in front in order to attend the event at which I met them.  Fortunately for the beginner owner, this horse had the most incredibly amazing disposition, and tolerated a lot!!  As I observed on the day we left, this poor horse walked into that trailer, with the manger literally STUFFED with half a bale of hay (no exaggeration!), meaning there was no head room.  He pressed his head down one side of the hay, and squeezed his tall, lanky body into the trailer.  His high withers were almost touching the top of the trailer as he rounded his back to squeeze his hindquarters into the trailer.  The owner then firmly pushed the butt-bar into the horses rump in an attempt to latch it securely.  I’m telling you, this was an awesome horse!!  Nonetheless, we tried diligently to kindly convince this new horse owner to consider a new trailer.  The owner was taking him home from the event–an 8 hour drive, just for the record!  I was borrowing a truck and trailer and going several hours in the opposite direction, or I would have offered to give the horse a lift.  I can only hope the owner took our advice when he got home.  Fitting the horse to the trailer isn’t really an exact science; rather, just observe.  If the  horse looks comfortable, can raise his head around 8-12 inches higher than his withers (more is great or you might want to use a head bumper), can freely move his head slightly side to side, has at least a few inches between his body and the divider on each side and behind him, and can easily stretch his neck and head downward, he probably is just fine.  One discovery we made during our search is the fact that a trailer height is typically measured on the very back, where the door opens.  It is measured from the top of the bottom frame bar to the bottom of the top frame bar.  If, like most trailers, the top frame bar hangs lower than the rest of the ceiling, you may actually get more height.  For example, a number of trailers we looked at were classified as 6’6″ high, when inside the trailer, they were actually closer to 6’8″ high.  It’s worth noting, expecially if you are the type that hauls animals wearing tack.

Before I totally close this thought, in a straight-load trailer, you may want to consider a butt-bar rather than a chain or cable.  I have seen the back doors actually bowed and warped from a horse leaning back on his chain, or directly on the door itself.  The bar, on the other hand, takes the weight of the horse if he leans back or sits a bit, thereby protecting the doors.  I recently heard rumor that many manufacturers are installing more chains or straps and fewer bars due to the “inconvenience” of  horses leaning on the bar, making it difficult to open upon arrival at the destination.  In my opinion, this is a training issue.  The horse needs to step forward when I ask him to, rather than lean on the bar when I am trying to open it.  I would not want to risk damage to my trailer simply because I was too lazy to train the horse.  Also, by adding a little extra grease to the latch of some designs can help prevent stuck bars.

At first glance, this trailer appears to fit these horses nicely.Source: Internet Stock photo

At first glance, this trailer appears to fit these horses nicely.
Source: Internet Stock photo

In closing, comfortable animals make for happy animals, and allowing them the ability to stand (or lay) comfortably will significantly help reduce their stress level, thereby automatically improving their health and dispositions upon arrival.

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