Preparing your truck and trailer for the road calls for more than just kicking the tires. Unless you're mechanically inclined, it's a good idea to have both vehicles serviced at a trustworthy garage or at an established trailer service center before taking your trip. The experts can examine and reinforce supporting structures, recommend updates to increase safety and security for your horse and yourself, and check the weight, level and balance of truck, hitch and trailer to be sure they are up to a long ride.
But before you turn your rig over to the pros, there are some minor inspections and repairs you can do yourself, often with little more than simple hand tools, some thick vinyl tape and a tube of silicon sealer. Also, carry a small notepad as you work to itemize other bigger repairs.
Begin by checking out the trailer's interior:
Get a feel for the overall space. Walk around inside the trailer to experience it as your horse does. If you can, move interior partitions to give him more room and let him find his most comfortable traveling position. Consider all of the dimensions. Is there adequate headroom? Will your horse be able to lower his head to reach hay or water? Will a tall horse be forced to travel hunched over?
If your trailer is a poor fit for your horse, manageable only for short local trips, consider trading up, renting a larger rig or even shipping professionally. Hours and hours spent in an inappropriate space can hurt your horse or at least strongly reduce his willingness to get back on board for subsequent days.
Feel for rough spots. Run your hands around the interior surfaces. Where padding, breast bars and doors connect, are there any loose screws, bolts or trim that could cut you or your horse? Tighten them up and replace any missing bolts or broken rivets. Also, check even the smallest welds -- along supporting brackets or pipes and where feeders, tie rings or partitions connect -- for anything that might snag skin or hair. Use a file to smooth rough spot or a tube of silicon sealer to smooth and pad small bumps.
Check structural integrity. Look to see that the support members where the walls meet floors and ceilings have not been kicked, thumped or warped out of alignment. Check, too, for rust damage. Particularly dangerous are holes and crevices that could scrape a passing fetlock or, worse, trap a kicking hoof. A minor flaw can be covered temporarily with a plywood panel, but larger holes call for professional sheet-metal work.
Operate all doors and windows. Do they work smoothly? Oil, adjustment or replacement may be needed to repair broken hinges or loose, flapping panels. Replace bent brackets or dangling gaskets that might cut or entangle your horse.
Test the footing. Eyeball your trailer mats. Do they lie smooth, with no tears or curling? Consider replacing ill-fitting, worn or too-thin stall mats with thick, firm new ones cut to fit. If that's not an option, at least augment your old mat's sound- and vibration-deadening capacity with a thick layer of bedding.
Now pull back the mats and poke the floorboards firmly with a knife blade. Do you meet the resistance of good, solid wood, or does the tip sink into soft, weakened or dry-rotted lumber? Replacing flooring is fairly rudimentary as carpentry skills go, and thick hardwood boards of the required length can be dropped or screwed into place in an afternoon.
Test the ramp. If your rig is not a step-up, make sure your ramp works well. If it has helper springs, check that they are adjusted properly and that they allow you to lift the ramp by yourself, without hurting your back.
Examine the padding. Go over the interior padding at front, back and sides and have your tape handy to repair small or large rips.
Now tour the outside of the trailer, and look for similar problems:
Check exterior surfaces. Note any sprung trim or panels at curve and connection points, rust attacking the walls, fenders or door edges and peeling paint. Merely unsightly problems, such as rust peeking through in a corner, can be handled with a dab of rubbing compound or some light sanding and touch-up paint. But broken rivets that allow trim to spring loose can hurt you and your horse as you walk outside the trailer, especially in strange places where you're both distracted by your surroundings.
Test lights. All lights -- running to brake, turn signals to tack room overheads -- must be functioning reliably. In some states, every light on the trailer's exterior must function, not just the "essential" ones for brakes and turn signals. If your brake or turn lights are not as bright as they should be, check your ground wire for a solid connection and look for damaged insulation along the path from the hitch area to the light fixture. Secure loose wiring with electrician's tape or flexible conduit and clean out the main plug to be sure of a good contact on all the pins.
Check manufacturer's recommended tire pressure. Uneven inflation wears tires prematurely and can make your trailer wobble or drift on turns. Be sure your spare is not too worn, low on air or thin on tread.
Test your brakes. Cruise slowly along the driveway and manually depress the trailer brake lever a bit -- you should feel and hear the trailer tires grab as the brakes kick in. With older electric brake controllers, be sure the controller box in the cab is as level as possible, and that it is free of excessive dust and grime.
Check your road-emergency equipment. Make sure your jack is adequate for your loaded trailer, or bring along drive-up blocks of the type sold in tack and feed stores; these can support your trailer fully loaded. Does the tire iron or wrench that fits your truck tires also fit the trailer tires? If not, be sure you have both kinds. And practice changing tires before you go, especially if you're not the mechanical type. You can't always rely on the kindness of strangers.
Include a can of tire sealant for emergency puncture repair, and consider getting one of those small air tanks, available for $30 in most auto-supply stores, that can reinflate a tire in minutes. These two items can help you limp safely to a gas station in many situations, and the air tank is a great gadget to have around the barn, too, where it will resuscitate a wheelbarrow or lawn-tractor tire faster than you can say, "it's flat."
This excerpt originally appeared in the article, "The Long Haul" in the April 1998 issue of EQUUS magazine.