Long Distance Horse Trailering – A Reality Check
Frequent trail rider and Equitrekking contributor Susan St. Amand has a close call when an interstate accident injures her horse and totals her trailer en route to a trail riding vacation.
We have all read or heard stories about special horses and the bonds made between them and their owners. This is another one of those heart wrenching accounts, so bear with me.
My Horse History with My Mare “Sunday”
Born and raised on a small rural farm in Northern Maine, I was one of those horse crazy girls who read every library book on horses, became quite the artist on drawing horses, and was fortunate to have aunts who also shared their love of equines with me. First came the pony, then the horse. In high school, becoming the typical teenager, I fell in love and married a local sweetheart soon after graduation which took precedence over the horse at that point.
Susan on Sunday.
During the seventeen years of accompanying my husband, Michael, as a military spouse, moving from station to station across the United States and overseas on average once a year, owning a horse was totally out of the question. Through the years, we would visit horse shows and horse farms on occasions, and Michael knew that the passion for horses still existed in my heart.
At his last duty station at the Pentagon, we decided it was high time to settle down and we found a quaint little farm out in the Northern Shenandoah Valley area which was located in a rural and an agricultural area, reminiscent of the area where we both grew up. At this point, Michael said to me, “Now you can have your horses after supporting me in my military career all these years.” There was no hesitation after that for horses to appear on the property, and Michael even became involved in riding.
One late spring and rainy Sunday morning, our first foal was born, hence her registered name “Sunday Morning Rain.” I still remember seeing the four white stockinged spindly legs and large white blazed face peering at me from under my mare's belly. I couldn't believe I had missed her entrance into this world, as I had been checking my mare throughout the night on a regular basis. Regardless, my second romance began with this foal. In addition, her white markings were exactly like my previous horse I owned while growing up.
Sunday in the stables on vacation riding at Biltmore in North Carolina.
We both learned and grew together – me in horsemanship and training skills, and “Sunday” in developing into the great trail horse that she is now. I have always called her my “greatest piece of art.” I think what helped our bond is that we both had similar character traits that fed off each other – patience, tolerance, respect, and every once in a while feeling our “oats” which kept things interesting but controllable. I began halter showing “Sunday” but once she was broke to ride, I decided the competitive world of showing was not for me, and I hit the trails as I found it to be more enjoyable being closer to nature.
For the past fourteen years, we have ridden many miles and trails across the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. She also has been my best friend and therapy during many chaotic times over the years. Recognizing the same old Ford diesel truck I have had for the same amount of years, Sunday has existed. She frequently comes up to the gate to greet me when I pull into the driveway.
I have trained her to come to me when I whistle, saving me having to cross the pasture to catch her or bring her into the barn. She also recognizes my voice, even in the dark or out of view, as I always talk to my horses, being the great listeners that they are. In addition, if a firm tone is used, she knows she is being corrected and responds accordingly. I have since raised and owned several other nice horses and foals, but “Sunday”, being like a firstborn child-- she always holds a special place in my heart.
Now to the Trailering Part
While growing up back on the farm in Northern Maine, many farms and logging properties butted up against each other. As well, everyone knew each other, so accessible riding areas knew no boundaries and there was no need for me to trailer my horse to a trailhead.
Between the ears riding at Biltmore on Sunday.
Fast-forward twenty years later and living where I currently live, trails are not easily as accessible. Therefore, I bought a trailer and learned how to tow a trailer and a live horse to find ride-able areas permitted for equestrians-- all part of the horse ownership learning curve in addition to the horse science certification I pursued at the local college.
The trailering aspect opened up new and different experiences for myself and the horses, especially Sunday. I remember one of Sunday's first trailer experiences was to the vet at six months of age. The vet's comment was that she was a star-pupil in how well she unloaded and loaded as well as walking in quietly into the vet's barn. We all have heard vet's horror stories on trying to give medical care to an uncooperative horse.
We traveled to horse shows, as well as parades, and discovered new trail riding areas. Day trips progressed into longer distance trailering to overnight horse camping and trail riding into other states on a regular basis. Three years ago, I was in a transition point in my life and decided to take a month off in the fall to trail ride, just myself and Sunday. My trail riding took me to coastal areas of Maine, to the beaches and then up to the Northern Maine area. I went back to hit the trails I had experienced in my childhood days.
It was a perfect adventure, and Sunday was the perfect horse throughout this whole adventure, not minding the all the strange stables we stopped in to stay overnight. In fact, one barn owner mentioned that Sunday walked into her barn like she had been there forever. I felt that Sunday knew I needed this therapeutic time for myself and took care of me by being the perfect well-behaved equine. Sunday was always excited to hit a new trail and see what was around the next corner. Did I also mention she is frequently eager to take the bit in her mouth before I even get it close to her, sometimes lipping the leather straps in her mouth instead of the bit because she is so ready to go? In any case, this thirty-day trip was such a positive experience and a big stress-buster for me that I wanted to do it again.
Riding Sunday in Maine at Parsons Beach.
I planned a thirty-day itinerary to head up North again, adding a few more stops and new trail riding areas to explore, but knowingly going into it that I could not hope that I would be so lucky as to have a second perfect trip without incident, as I tend to look at life realistically. I even went out and bought the US Rider Equestrian Motor Plan (http://www.usrider.org), similar to Triple A (AAA) motorist plan, but specifically for equestrian trailering. For those of you familiar with trailering, you probably have learned and know the drills of safe trailering, inspections, brakes, lights, tires, care of horse while long-distance trailering, first aid kits for both horse and human, food, water, etc. There is no one size fits all in regards to equipment, as each person has different needs and resources, but first and foremost is safety and commonsense. However, the reality is that, as I unfortunately learned, no matter how many precautions you take, things do happen that are out of your control.
Horse Trailering Gone Awry
During the afternoon of the very first day of my thirty-day adventure during a re-fueling stop, I checked my tires and noticed three small splits in one of my truck tires apparently due to dry rot, which had not been there before I left home. Concerned, especially since this was the beginning of 30 days on the road, I did not want to take a chance having a tire blowout in the middle of the interstate and cause a major catastrophe. I pulled into an auto repair service station and had them take a look. I ended up having to replace tires. It took two hours and meanwhile I had to unload Sunday so they could unhook the trailer to replace the tires. Sunday calmly ate grass by the station while I held her on her lead for the duration.
Riding into town in Maine, outside of "Bubba's", a small local diner for coffee and donuts.
Once done, I rehitched and reloaded Sunday and got back on the road. No more than ten miles later while going up a curved hill and passing a slower vehicle, one of my tires touched upon the left roadside rumble strip. I steered the truck back inside the lane (not an unusual occurrence for anyone who drives on the interstate frequently), but this time, for some unknown reason, my trailer (a 16 ft. bumper pull stock trailer) started fish tailing. I tried slowing down, taking foot off accelerator and tried to use the steering wheel to straighten up, but it just got worse (I am thinking at this point Sunday was getting off balance and getting thrown around, not helping matters) and so I finally tried the brakes as a last resort knowing it is not the recommended thing to do, but I did it anyway in the moment of panic. This is when the trailer jacknifed, flipped onto its side and then flipped back upright at the same time pulling my truck so that it sat across the highway lanes where someone could have easily t-boned me.
Thankfully everyone behind me stopped in time and no one else crashed to pile up into each other. I got out of the truck to check the trailer and on Sunday. When I got to the back of the trailer, the door was crushed and open, while the inside gate door had come off and was laying on top of the things strewn about. I did not see Sunday and thought maybe she was crushed underneath it all but when I lifted up the door to look under it and she was not there, you can just imagine my panic and distress rising. I turned around and there she was a little ways in the median strip between both sides of the highway and someone already had caught her.
The person who caught her happened to be a vet tech, and her husband an EMS person who had been following a bit behind me and saw it all happen. Fortunately for me they were quick to assist and get help on the move. Sunday was beginning to go into shock but the vet tech managed soothe Sunday to stop it before it escalated. Finally Sunday began to relax and began eating grass in the median like nothing was happening.
Water was offered and she drank as well. She had just a few minor scrapes and a hemotoma to the shoulder muscle. The trailer was totaled. When the trailer flipped it fell upon a metal sign post which went right through the steel side of the trailer like a spear directly where Sunday normally would have been standing in the trailer, and if her leather halter would not have broken and she would have had a nylon halter on instead, it could have been possible for her to have hung by her neck, and again, that sign post would have severed her neck. The vet tech mentioned that is was a good thing I had a head bumper and leg wraps on “Sunday” as that certainly could have lessened any other potential damage to her. In addition, mentioning that the fact I had a steel trailer might have also helped.
There was damage to the roof of the trailer and the front window panel was busted out. When the trailer landed upright again, it landed so forcefully that all the axles bent and all four tires and rims were cockeyed. The trailer stayed fully hitched – chains did not come off nor did it come off the hitch ball, however, the hitch ball extension was twisted from the trailer flipping over. I had to have one of the rear truck tires remounted, but the rim was not bent. The exhaust muffler clamps broke and we had to remount the muffler. In the process of the trailer flipping, the tailgate and rear sides of the truck bed panels were damaged.
On a group trail ride at the Cass, WV trailhead.
During this incident, another person hauling a horse trailer driving on the opposite side and stopped to assist. He had horses occupying his trailer and had to go 30 minutes down the road to drop them off and offered to return to pick up Sunday to bring to his stable. He also made arrangements for his vet to meet us there to make sure Sunday had no internal injuries as at one point it seemed like she was breathing very shallow.
Since I had to take care of the minor repairs on the truck before proceeding any further, I did not make it in time to meet the vet that checked Sunday but we kept in communication on the phone and I told him I would take care of the vet bill when I arrived. Upon arrival, the vet had already left and prescribed bute for Sunday. The person who hauled Sunday told me the bill was taken care of and it was ripped up, saying that I didn't owe anything. I suspect he paid the expense. Earlier, I had inquired with him if there was lodging near where his barn was situated. His reply was yes.
Once I arrived he proceeded to tell me that a room was ready for me at the nearby mountain resort that he was president of. (If you ever are in upstate New York, stop in Greek Peak Mountain Resort – awesome facility!) I was overcome by all of his assistance, and offered to pay for his assistance but he continued to refuse. He then elaborated that he had been involved in a trailering accident many years ago hauling one of his prized show horses and it did not turn out good and had a hard time receiving assistance, so he sympathized with my predicament. One of my trail riding friends was scheduled to meet me at my first stop on my trip itinerary, so luckily she was close by to offer to trailer Sunday back home for me.
My trip came to a quick and abrupt end, which was a big letdown for me in regards to all the months spent planning it and securing reservations. However, I can be grateful that both Sunday and I survived that accident so well. It definitely could have been a lot worse. I would have been a basket case on the side of the highway if I would have had to put Sunday down or if she would not have survived that accident. I believe that for some unknown reason, we both still have unaccomplished missions to complete here on earth in touching someone else's life before we get called to the heavens above. My husband Michael affectionately now calls Sunday by the name of Pegasus because he says she must have grown wings to fly out of that trailer accident without more damage than she received.
So I know we hear a lot of horror stories and things going bad, but there are still good people and strangers out there who are angels among us. My hat is off to those who assisted me, and rest assured that I will do the same if need be.
But this is a kicker – I got a ticket after the accident report was completed because in the process I “damaged” state property – the sign post that the trailer flipped on.
The Accident Aftermath for Sunday and Me
Back to my amazing horse… In most severe trailering accidents, many horses will refuse to step back into a trailer without a lot of retraining. Sunday did not hesitate to step back onto a strange trailer at any point. And, when I first pulled up to the barn where she had been hauled after the accident, my benefactors were in the barn and witnessed her neigh out to me when she heard my truck pull in. They were impressed to say the least. So this story has a happy ending, and I treasure Sunday more now than ever, but my heart goes out to those whose stories did not end so well.
Susan's faithful horse at Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia.
As mentioned before, I am a realistic person and in the past few years have made efforts to get mementos of my horse during our best times, such as braided jewelry from mane and tail hairs, crafts with horseshoes, and a painting. One of the items on our agenda on the recent trip itinerary was a professional photo shoot of “Sunday” and myself amongst the Northern fall foliage as fall is one of my favorite seasons and holds a lot of memories for me. So don't wait on getting momentos of your favorite horse, as life is unpredictable and when you are caught up in a crisis, that is the last thing you think about. Then when its all over, you wish you had taken the time to preserve a precious memory.
I have begun looking for another trailer, as I plan to continue my trail riding adventures. In my search for a trailer replacement, I have looked at a few used trailers, but after my recent experiences, I am leaning towards putting more money down on a new trailer so that I have more peace of mind-- although, again, that is no guarantee. A few lessons learned during previous trailer purchases and shopping around is as follows:
-If you live in an area where “Farm Use” tags are allowed and used for local trailering, that means the trailer has not had the otherwise annual inspections required. Make sure you thoroughly have it checked out prior to purchase as you may well have to invest more money to make it road worthy such as brakes, tires, flooring, electrical wiring, etc.
-Again, check the underneath of the trailer for the same as above if the trailer looks like it has been sitting in an overgrown field for awhile. In addition, bees or wasps may have built nests somewhere in the trailer.
-When shopping for trailers at a dealership, run the VIN number, as you would in purchasing a vehicle, to see if it has been previously involved in an accident or disaster. I bought a Living Quarter gooseneck trailer before from a dealer, and when I had to call the trailer manufacturer for some reason, I found out it was not covered under the warrantee because this particular trailer had been situated on an original dealers lot that had a tornado run through their yard. The trailer had been listed as an insurance loss and then resold to another trailer dealer to be refurbished and re-sold again as a “new” trailer.
- Most vehicle insurance coverage will not cover the towing of a trailer, only the liability of if the trailer does damage to another person's vehicle. Depending on your Homeowners Policy, it may be partially covered under your personal belongings. I would suggest reviewing your insurance policies, and if you do a lot of long-distance hauling, adding a special rider to your insurance policies to cover your trailer and horse. If you are operating under a business, then the coverages would be different under your business insurance, but again, if this is a concern of yours, inquire with your insurance agent. I know people hate to dish out extra funds for insurance on “what ifs” but in today's world, if something does happen, its an expensive experience and you will be glad you had the extra coverage to help recoup the losses.
So take the time to do your homework on what you are buying. Safety issues should always be at the top of the list. And there is no real good or bad answer as what type is best to buy, because each person's situation is unique, depending on what type of vehicle you also have to haul and purposes you are needing a trailer for – whether its long distance or just for local hauling. Regardless, some things happen anyway that are out of your control. Never think that it will not happen to you.
Happy Trails and Safe Trailering!
About the Author: Susan St. Amand is a Board Member of the Shenandoah Trail Riding and Horseman's Association and employed with the Virginia Cooperative Extension as a 4-H Youth Program Assistant. She grew up in Northern Maine with horses on a farm and has been a transplant to Virginia for the past 25 years. She enjoys planning horse vacations with friends and has currently completed many rides in Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, as well as Virginia, trailering her own horse.