Towing a trailer requires more knowledge and skill than normal driving and this puts additional responsibilities on a driver. You need to make sure that you understand the general principles of driving with a trailer before attempting to tow. The experts in the field are The Organisation of Horsebox and Trailer Owners. Set up over twenty-five years ago, specifically to cover the needs of the horse owner. Their Managing Director, Jon Phillips spoke to us about the pitfalls that can lie ahead for both the new and experienced trailer owner.
The correct matching of a suitable towing vehicle with the right trailer is the first step to ensure safe towing practices. All cars have a maximum weight that they can safely tow, determined by the manufacturers. You can find this out either by looking in the vehicle’s handbook or by contacting the appropriate dealer. Very generally, the weight of the trailer plus any load that it is carrying, (it’s laden weight), should not exceed 85 % of the unladen, weight of the car. This is so that the car is always substantially heavier than the trailer. Basically, the closer you get to the car’s weight, the greater the risk of problems with control, and the more careful you have to be.
Now let’s hitch up. The best way to connect the trailer is to back up to the hitch neatly and precisely. This is not as difficult as it sounds. Firstly you need to get the vehicle lined up with the trailer hitch. If you can see through the back window of your vehicle, position your head directly in the middle of the vehicle. Now reverse the vehicle lining a mark in the centre of the rear window with the tow hitch of the trailer. This will mean that you are lined up correctly; all you have to do now is judge the distance back. This only comes with experience so some practice with a helper standing back, but in your line of vision would be helpful.
Next connect the two. This is possibly the most dangerous part of the operation and you should be wary of trapping fingers in the hitch and getting trapped between the trailer and the tow vehicle. With a ball and socket hitch make sure the closest your hand gets to the hitch is holding the lever on the top. Do not try to couple a trailer on steeply sloping ground as both trailer and vehicle handbrakes can be notoriously unreliable.
On coupling the hitch you will also notice a piece of light wire with a hook on the end. This is to be connected to the vehicle and preferably not to the tow hitch itself. The idea of this little bit of wire is that if for some reason the vehicle and trailer become separated, the wire will tension and apply the trailer hand brake, bringing the errant trailer to a standstill rather than becoming an out of control 2.5 tonne object of destruction. The reason for not connecting it direct to the tow ball is that if your ball should fail or become un-bolted the brakes would not be applied. Next it is time to connect the electrics. This is probably the most temperamental part of trailer towing.
There are two main problems with trailer electrics; damaged cables and corrosion. Damaged cables are generally caused by either the cable dragging on the road and chafing or the cable being stretched by forgetting to uncouple it when unhitching the trailer. As trailer sockets on vehicles tend to hang low under the vehicle they are subject to the full onslaught of the elements and in the winter the added bonus of salt on the roads. Corroded terminals mean poor connections, which mean faulty lights. This problem can be alleviated by coating the socket with Vaseline or grease and a good spray of WD40 to prevent water getting in.
Due to all this it is always good practice to check trailer lights before you set off. Put the indicators on and firstly check your warning light or buzzer is working, this will tell you from the cab that the indicator is working. Then go out and check the right one is flashing! Also check, tail lights and hazard lights. You will need an assistant to check your brake lights or an appropriately sized block of wood to wedge the pedal down.
Loading the Trailer
Now we load up, leaving the horses till last. Most incidents involving trailers are preceded by “snaking”, where vehicle and trailer start swaying from side to side. Nine times out of ten this is caused by poor loading, causing the tail to wag like a dog. The idea of a trailer is to carry the weight on the trailer axles, not on the back axle of the vehicle so do not go putting copious amounts of tack and feed right at the very front. Ideally a trailer should be loaded with a weight of between 50kg and 75kg on the drawbar. This means an average man should be able to pick up the nose of the trailer when it is loaded.
Driving with the Trailer
Finally you are in a position to move off and start your journey. Most horse trailers are wider than the towing vehicle and are certainly taller. Firstly check you can see behind you in your wing mirrors. If you cannot see past the sides of the trailer you will have to consider fitting wing mirror extensions. Having a trailer wider than the tow vehicle will affect your road positioning; drive your vehicle on the kerb and the trailer will be bouncing along the pavement. Generally though, people will tend to drive wide with a trailer leaving more space between the kerb and trailer than is totally necessary. The best way to check your road positioning whilst going along is to glance in the wing mirror and see where the trailer is, then look ahead and adjust your vehicle position to suit.
As the overall width of the trailer is wider than the tow vehicle take special care when turning corners or pulling alongside kerbs, shop signs, fuel pumps and the like, as they may be missed by the tow vehicle but not the trailer.
You must also remember that a trailer will cut off the corners when you turn and thus you must leave enough space to avoid bumping the kerb. Riding the kerb is a terminal sin if you are an HGV driver, indeed it can lead to instant failure on your test. Roads are designed to take large artic trucks and they need far more space than a four wheel drive and trailer, so you have no excuse!
If you do find the trailer starts to “snake” whilst you are travelling down the road, do not try to correct it with the steering wheel, you will only make it worse. Hold the steering wheel straight ahead and slow down gently, do not brake hard, the trailer will eventually come back in control. Some people will tell you to try and accelerate through it; generally this is a very poor idea. Firstly it may get worse before it gets better; secondly you are never going to be able to accelerate faster than you can slow down.
Your vehicles’ engine will work hardest when climbing hills, and therefore great care should be taken to ensure it doesn’t overheat. Keep a close eye on the temperature gauge at all times and investigate any sudden rises in temperature.
When descending, make use of the engine as a brake, by selecting a lower gear (before starting your downhill run) – as a guide, select the same gear going down as you did coming up. (In the case of automatic transmissions it is permissible to manually select a lower gear in order to maximise engine breaking.) Never descend on any downhill run (short or long) with the gearbox in neutral – with no engine breaking whatsoever the vehicle will quickly run away and greatly increase the risk of losing control.
The most important thing about driving with a trailer is anticipation. Know what the road is doing, and know what everyone else on the road is doing as well. If you see a car far in front put its brakes on, start to slow down yourself, don’t wait for the car directly in front to brake. With a loaded trailer you will not stop as quickly as you are used to, so leave plenty of space. Anticipate traffic lights, if they have been green for a long time, expect them to turn red.
With a trailer attached you also need more space on the road, so dominate it, and clearly assert your right of way. If you are travelling down a road with parked cars, position yourself firmly in the middle to induce others to give you right of way. They can back up easily, you can’t. If you want to turn left, move out to the right a little to give yourself room, you will cause less of an obstruction temporarily blocking both lanes than you will jamming your trailer up against the kerb or hedge.
After travelling a few miles pull up in a safe location. Walk methodically around the trailer to ensure all is in order. Check the coupling and safety chains are still fastened, lights are working, tyres are inflated correctly and everything is properly secured.
On long trips, repeat these checks every 2-3 hours when taking a rest stop.
Reversing the Trailer
Reversing with a trailer is the one aspect that really sorts the men from the boys, do it right and everyone will be impressed, mess it up and no one will forget. The first and foremost rule is slow and steady, the faster you do it the faster you can get into trouble.
Learning to reverse a trailer takes practice. Thus the best thing to do is find a big empty field or car park, preferably out of sight of anybody so you can quietly make your own mistakes. The first thing to do is to find the jack-knifing point of your trailer. Jack-knifing is when the trailer and towing vehicle are at an angle whereby you cannot recover the position by going backwards. To do this drive forwards in a circle on full lock. The angle made between the trailer and tow vehicle is the maximum angle you can manage without jack-knifing. This is also the tightest corner you can back your trailer round.
Check the immediate area around and behind the trailer using the tow vehicle’s mirrors. If unsure what is behind the trailer the driver should get out and inspect first hand. Alternatively, have someone guide the driver whilst standing in the driver’s field of vision (and never behind the tow vehicle or trailer).
The next challenge is to make it go around a corner. The ultimate success of this operation or indeed any reversing operation starts before you even begin to go backwards. Where you start from ultimately defines where you end up. Start in a position with as straight a line as possible to where you want to end up.
To steer the trailer you need to move the wheel the opposite way, for first timers this is difficult, but the more you do it the more natural it becomes. With one hand placed on the bottom of the steering wheel, move it to the right to move the trailer to right, or to the left to reverse towards the left; in other words, steer the tow vehicle in the opposite direction to that normally taken. Start by just trying to reverse the trailer in a straight line. This will require constant input from the steering wheel to anticipate the trailer’s every move. If it starts to go wrong, pull forward and start again. There is no easy way to do it; it takes practice, practice and some more practice.
Even though you are not an HGV you are largely governed by the rules and regulations of the highway that apply to them. The speed limit on motorways is 60 mph and you are restricted to the inside and middle lanes. Venturing into the fast lane in the view of a member of the local constabulary will reward you with a £40 fine and three points to endorse your licence. You can also be pulled over and escorted to the nearest public weighbridge if the officer considers you to be overweight. If you are towing for hire or reward you will also need an HGV tachograph fitted and conform to driver hour’s legislation.
Many people still believe that their normal breakdown scheme covers the vehicles transporting their horses. It is important to realise that no livestock is covered whether in a trailer or lorry. Membership to a dedicated rescue scheme is therefore paramount. A recent survey showed 82% of trailer owners believed they were covered by their normal breakdown service when towing their horses. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Although they may receive help for their towing vehicle their horse will be left behind. The police and major equine bodies recognise the AA and Organisation of Trailer Owners as the experts and strongly recommend having breakdown cover for your trailer.
Contacts and Further Information
For breakdown cover: The Organisation of Horsebox and Trailer Owners tel: 01488 657651 or www.ohto.co.uk.