When it comes to hauling our horses, we all put safety first. But most of us have only so much room in the driveway, and that means a “towing vehicle” might also be used for trips to the grocery store, errands and even commuting. A full-size dually just seems like overkill for such tasks, especially if you haul your horses only a few times a year.
So it’s natural to wonder whether you can get by with a smaller towing vehicle. After all, the many sport utility vehicles (SUVs) look rugged and powerful, plus they offer appealing versatility. But can an SUV safely pull a two-horse trailer? You’ll find plenty of purists who’ll say “no”—the standard thinking has long been that only a pickup could tow horses safely. But in reality, the answer is, “It depends.” Several of the larger SUV models are now engineered like trucks for towing heavy loads, even horse trailers, safely and well. And on the flip side, not all small or midsize trucks are suitable for the job.
If you’re more conversant in horse power than horsepower, it’s wise to do a little research on what you need in a tow vehicle before you start shopping for your next one. Start by assessing the load you’ll be hauling. Your requirements will be very different if you’re hauling Percherons, or ponies, or warmbloods, or Arabians.
“No matter how you put a rig together, it’s important to do it in this order: horse first, trailer second, tow vehicle third,” says Tom Scheve, cofounder of EquiSpirit Trailer Company and coauthor of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer. “You’d be surprised at how many buy a tow vehicle first only to find out later that it won’t do the job.”
In other words, once you’ve considered the sizes of the horses you will be towing, both now and in the foreseeable future, your next task is to select a trailer that will hold them comfortably. “You need to get a trailer with the right stall length, width, and height to reduce claustrophobia and that will assure the ability of your horse to properly balance when traveling,” says Scheve. “You also need to know what tack and equipment you will be carrying in the trailer.”
Then you’re ready to shop for a tow vehicle that can handle the load you need to pull. Here are some of your most important considerations:
1. Towing capacity
Determined by the vehicle manufacturer, towing capacity is the maximum weight that a vehicle is rated to tow. “The first thing you look at in a tow vehicle is to make sure the towing capacity is enough to handle the maximum loaded weight of the trailer you will be towing,” says Bill Riss, general manager of USRider, a national organization that provides roadside assistance for people who haul horses.
Estimate the total weight of your average load by finding the empty weight of your trailer—either in the owner’s manual or on an identification plate on the trailer itself—and adding the weight of your horses plus any cargo you normally haul. If it’s feasible, you can get a more accurate weight by loading up your trailer and having it hauled to a public vehicle scale. Larger truck stops and landfills, for example, often have vehicle scales that anyone can use; call ahead to check on availability.
A vehicle’s towing capacity will be listed in the owner’s manual, on the compliance certification label (the sticker on the driver’s doorsill) and online. Several figures are significant, especially when considered in combination:
• GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) is the value specified by the manufacturer as the recommended maximum loaded weight of a single vehicle.
• GCVWR (gross combined vehicle weight rating) is the value specified by the manufacturer as the recommended maximum loaded weight of a combination of vehicles (the GVWR of the tow vehicle plus the GVWR of the trailer).
• GVW (gross vehicle weight) is the actual weight of the tow vehicle alone, without the trailer, when fully loaded. GVW applies to the actual weight of the trailer itself as well.
• GTWR (gross trailer weight rating) is the manufacturer’s recommended maximum weight of a fully loaded trailer that a tow vehicle can handle (towing capacity).
For safety, it is important that your tow vehicle, when fully loaded with luggage and passengers, does not weigh more than its maximum GVW rating, and the trailer weight when fully loaded cannot exceed the GTWR. Those two weights added together cannot be more than the GCVWR. If your towing rig exceeds any of these ratings, it could stress your vehicle’s engine, transmission, brakes or other systems beyond their design limits and potentially cause them to fail.
Although technically you can tow a trailer up to the same weight specified as the GTWR, it’s wise to remember that hauling horses is different than pulling, say, a boat. If horses throw their weight about inside the trailer, they can add torques and stresses you wouldn’t get from your boat, which sits closer to the road and has a stable center of gravity. “You want to stay under the GTWR, but I’d recommend staying 10 to 20 percent under,” says Kent Sundling, publisher and editor of the online truck-review site MrTruck.com. “A horse’s center of gravity is about four feet high, and they will move around. You need to control for that.” In other words, if your loaded horse trailer weighs around 4,000 pounds, then you’ll need a tow vehicle with a GTWR of about 5,000 pounds.
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2. Curb weight
This measure reflects what the tow vehicle weighs when fully fueled but empty—carrying no passengers or cargo. It used to be said that a tow vehicle had to be heavier than the trailer load it was pulling; however, trucks and SUVs engineered to contemporary standards can be lighter for better fuel efficiency yet still be powerful enough to tow a heavier load safely.
But, in general, the heavier the tow vehicle, the better it will be able to control the weight of the trailer. Think of the physics of a small girl running with a large dog on a leash. If the child stops or turns suddenly and the dog doesn’t, his weight is going to yank her off her feet. The girl would have more physical control over a dog her own size or smaller.
“The tow vehicle needs to have enough actual weight to be able to control the rig safely, especially in a critical situation such as swerving to miss something in the road, having to slam on the brakes, or being cut off in your lane on a highway,” says Scheve. “You don’t want the tail wagging the dog.”
On the other extreme, bigger isn’t always better either. “Often, the thinking is that stronger is safer, but too much can be stressful for the horse,” says Scheve. “Too large of a tow vehicle in relation to the size and weight of the trailer can give your horses a very rough ride.”
Ideally, then, you would choose a tow vehicle that is fairly close in weight to your loaded trailer.
Critical to the maneuverability and stability of a vehicle, the wheelbase is the distance from the front axle to the rear axle of the tow vehicle. “Simply put, the longer the wheelbase, the safer the tow vehicle,” says Scheve. “The longer this distance, the less likely it is that the tongue weight of the horse trailer pushing down behind the rear axle will cause the front end to be lifted, creating a teeter-totter effect. Also, the longer the wheelbase, the more control you will have of the rig and the better it will track.”
This is an area where smaller and midsize trucks and SUVs—even those with higher towing capacities—might fall short for hauling horses, although there is no one “right” answer to how long a wheelbase needs to be for safe towing. “While it is generally agreed that a longer wheelbase will provide more stability when pulling a longer trailer, there are no real industry standard formulas for calculating the proper length,” says Riss.
However, even if your vehicle meets your requirements for towing capacity and curb weight, with a shorter wheelbase it may still have difficulty controlling the trailer. “The feeling will be that of bouncing from front to back, which is often called ‘floating’ or ‘trailer hitching,’” says Scheve. “The shorter the wheelbase, the easier it is for the tongue weight to rock the unit from front to back.”
In that case, your rig may benefit from a weight distribution system, a set of additional spring bars and brackets that stabilize the hitch. “A weight distribution system’s job is to eliminate the rocking,” says Scheve. “It does this by taking the downward weight of the singular focal point—the ball hitch—and distributing that weight throughout the tow vehicle and trailer. This eliminates the front end from floating and gives you greater control. A weight distribution system is a must for SUVs and lightweight trucks.”
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4. Drive system
Most pickup trucks come with rear-wheel drive, as do the largest SUVs. This design directs the engine’s power toward the axle that is bearing the most weight when carrying heavy cargo or towing. Many smaller and midsize SUVs, however, come with front-wheel drive, which does offer better traction in rain and snow but provides less control over the rear of the vehicle, which is critical for towing. When a trailer is attached to a front-wheel drive vehicle, most of the weight is placed on the wheels that are significantly less powerful.
All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) systems are different methods of delivering power to all four wheels. Traditionally, AWD systems relied primarily on front-wheel drive but could redirect power to the rear axle as needed when the front tires slipped in slick conditions, and 4WD vehicles constantly directed 40 percent of the power to the front wheels and 60 percent to the back. However, contemporary engineering is blurring the distinctions in many models, which can act like both types of system at times.
AWD is available either standard or as an option in many SUVs and trucks. The upside is better traction in slippery conditions. However, an AWD system adds weight to the vehicle, which reduces fuel efficiency and also subtracts from the weight it can tow. “Vehicles driven by only two wheels generally have higher towing capacity ratings,” says Riss. “But if you regularly trailer to a lot of trail rides or areas of rough terrain, you may want to consider four-wheel drive for added safety.”
4WD vehicles typically give the driver the option of keeping the vehicle in two-wheel drive, then switching into four-wheel mode as needed. “Typical instances for switching into 4WD would be on slippery roads, in muddy or wet grass, on snow-covered terrain and icy roads,” says Scheve. “A four-wheel-drive truck will sit higher than a two-wheel-drive truck so the center of gravity is higher and the risk of rolling over is a bit greater than without it. Also, because your truck sits higher, so will your frame-mounted hitch, so you will need a ball mount with a bigger drop.”
Many people have strong preferences regarding manual and automatic transmissions, depending on how they learned to drive and their local terrain. “Mountain folks like to slow their trucks manually,” says Sundling, “but nowadays it’s hard to even buy a manual transmission in a truck.”
A manual transmission does give the driver direct control of shifting gears. “An advantage of a manual transmission is that you can downshift on a hill for additional braking, if needed,” says Scheve. But the extra “work” in operating the stick shift is one more distraction for a driver and creates a potential for error. “If you are pulling out into busy traffic and your foot accidentally slips off the clutch, you could be in serious trouble,” Scheve adds.
The automatic transmission allows you to concentrate more on the trailer and the road. Plus, says Scheve, “Contrary to popular opinion, a vehicle with an automatic transmission usually has a higher towing capacity than the identical vehicle with a manual transmission.”
Nevertheless, says Riss, “The best choice when considering automatic vs. manual transmission is to go with what is most comfortable for you. There are plenty of options for either transmission type that are capable towing vehicles, but it is most important that you are comfortable handling the vehicle and can operate it safely.”
6. Chassis design
One primary difference between larger trucks and SUVs and their smaller counterparts is the design of the chassis, the framework that mounts all the other systems and provides the structural strength of a vehicle.
Full-size trucks and large SUVs often have a “body-on-frame” design: The chassis is a rigid, steel “ladder-like” shape that forms the foundation for the rest of the body. In a tow vehicle with this design, the hitch is attached directly to the frame, as are both axles. “Body-on-frame construction typically provides more stability and capacity when towing,” says Riss.
In contrast, most cars and smaller SUVs are constructed in a “unibody” design (also called “monocoque” or “unit body”), in which stresses are distributed among the body panels, floor pan and roofline made of galvanized steel. The axles are mounted to the floor pan on subframes, which do not extend the length of the vehicle.
Traditionally, unibody vehicles have not been recommended for towing because their bodies are not as strong. “However,” says Scheve, “this distinction is becoming blurred because premium auto manufacturers are developing larger, stronger unibody SUVs with sufficient tow capacity to pull a two-horse trailer safely, such as the Porsche Cayenne, the Volkswagen Touareg and the Lexus LX 579.
“The question is, do you gain any safety with unibody style over a truck- body SUV,” Scheve adds. “Where the unibody-constructed tow vehicle could be called safer is that the center of gravity is lower to the ground. Since it doesn’t sit up high on a truck frame, a ‘car-type’ SUV would have less chance of rolling over from a sharp turn or sudden stop.”
7. Tow packages
A tow package is more than just a factory-installed ball hitch. A vehicle equipped with this option is built with beefed-up suspension and brakes, a larger radiator with added cooling capacity, and a transmission capable of sending more power to the drive wheels—all of which adds up to a more powerful vehicle that is better prepared to manage a heavy load. Many tow packages might include mirrors that extend outward so the driver can better see the road and trailer.
A tow package does add to the vehicle weight, and it will decrease gas mileage. If you’re making only occasional jaunts with just a trail horse and saddle, all of this extra capacity may be overkill. But if you frequently tow heavy loads over long distances, a truck or SUV equipped with a tow package is likely to be more reliable, and it will probably last longer.
“A lot of these options used to be available as individual upgrades, and you had to know a lot of things,” says Sundling. “But now, most pickup lines know everything and do everything for you. It’s all changed for the better. So get the tow package. It’s so much easier.”
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Making the right match
How big and powerful a tow vehicle you need depends first and foremost on what type of trailer you have and how much weight you need to haul. Gooseneck trailers, obviously, require a pickup, and you’ll probably need a larger one to handle the weight. Among the bumper pulls, any designed to carry three or more horses, especially if they are equipped with tack rooms or living quarters, will quickly reach the weights that require the largest tow vehicles. Many models of the largest trucks—such as the Chevrolet Silverado, the Dodge Ram, the Ford F-250s to F-450s, and the GMC Sierra—are rated to tow well over 10,000 pounds.
But smaller trucks and many of the largest SUVS—including the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, the Cadillac Escalade, the GMC Yukon, the Lincoln Navigator, the Lexus LX 570 and the Ford Expedition—can be rated to tow 7,000 to 9,000 pounds, which is enough to pull a more moderately sized two-horse trailer plus a tack room with plenty of gear.
A fairly large number of small trucks and more moderately sized SUVs are rated to tow loads in the range of 4,000 to 5,000 pounds or more, including the Chevrolet Traverse, the Dodge Durango, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Ford Explorer and the Toyota 4Runner. If your trailer is small and you don’t travel often or carry much gear, a vehicle in this range will probably meet your needs. Just remember—a longer wheelbase will give you more control, and you will likely need to add a weight distribution system to stabilize your rig.
A number of these vehicles come in different models, some of which may be a better match for you than others. For example, the GMC Sierra 1500 is rated to tow 10,700 pounds while the Sierra 3500 HD can pull up to 23,100 pounds. Do your research online, but make sure the vehicle you actually buy is the one with the towing capacity that meets your needs. “You want to have a dealer you can trust to help you set [your towing rig] up properly,” says Sundling.
Above all, though, you need to choose a tow vehicle that you are comfortable driving and can control easily. Seemingly minor details, such as a driver’s seat that supports your back and fits your body well, can make a big difference over the long haul.
And once you have your new truck or SUV, practice driving it in safe conditions before taking it out on the road. “I’m big on practice—learning how to drive with a trailer,” says Sundling. “Find a big, empty parking lot and practice braking, turning and backing, first with the trailer empty, and then loaded up. Remember, it’s not about how much you can haul but how much you can stop.”
This article was originally published in EQUUS 432 (September 2013).
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