Pulling a Stock Trailer

Pulling a Stock Trailer

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Article and photos by Heather Smith Thomas  Hauling livestock or horses can be easy and safe — or risky, depending on the experience and judgment of the person driving the rig. Even if you’ve never pulled a trailer before, it’s not difficult if you are a good driver and pay attention to factors that change when pulling a stock trailer.  

The main thing to remember is that your vehicle is now much longer and heavier and contains animals that should not be jostled around. Pulling a trailer will affect your acceleration, stopping distance, etc. Always start slowly and gradually to create a smooth start.   

The extra weight of the trailer and animals makes everything different. A 20-foot trailer with five or six horses or a load of cattle or sheep will affect acceleration and stopping distance more than a two-horse trailer. There is also a big difference between empty and loaded. Even empty, allow extra stopping distance. If you allowed 300 yards to slow down and negotiate an intersection with just your truck, now you should double that. With a full 20-foot trailer traveling 50 mph, allow as much as 1/3 of a mile to slow down so you can negotiate the turn at about 5 to 10 miles per hour.   

It’s essential to have trailer brakes set correctly. If brakes are adjusted without animals in the trailer, they won’t be adequate when loaded. Learn how to adjust the brake setting because you may be hauling horses or cattle on one trip, and the next time you may be empty — picking up animals.   

It’s essential to have trailer brakes set correctly.

Michael Thomas, an Idaho horseman/rancher who has been hauling horses, cattle, and fencing materials for 30 years, says brakes are not something you set once and forget. “You need to reset the control unit for the current load. If you pull empty and forget to change it (set for hauling livestock), you’ll drag the tires when you put on the brakes — which may result in a slide-off, jackknife, or some other kind of wreck. Conversely, if you set it for empty and forget to change it when hauling a load when you are rolling down the highway and need to slow down and turn, the timing is off. The truck brakes are now doing all the work, and the trailer isn’t doing any; you won’t be able to slow down enough to make the turn even if you allowed 1/3 of a mile for slowing down,” says Thomas.  

The greater the weight and length of your rig, the longer it takes to get to traveling speed and the greater time needed to merge with traffic or accelerate. “You’ll need to use all your gears and run up to maximum torque rpm (revolutions per minute) on a diesel truck before you shift. If you usually need 100 yards to merge with traffic in your truck (without a trailer), make sure you have at least four times that length when pulling a loaded trailer. Even then, don’t pull into a lane where traffic is also coming in the other direction because the person you pull out in front of will need to pass while you’re getting up to speed,” he said.  

It will take time to get used to using side mirrors. “You need mirrors that extend out farther, designed for use with trailers since they give a better view of your whole trailer. You won’t have as many blind spots as you’d have with regular pickup mirrors. Glance in the mirror at all your trailer tires periodically while traveling to make sure none are going flat,” says Thomas.    

“Know where your truck tires are on both sides, front and back, and how they track on a tight corner or through a gate. You need a feel for where your tires are without having to look. When pulling a trailer, also learn where your trailer tires track. They usually stick out a little wider than the pickup tires unless it’s a narrow two-horse trailer. Always allow a little extra room for the trailer.”  

Slow down for bumps. Make sure the trailer is past the bump before you speed up again. Always think about where your trailer is and what the animals will encounter. A bumper-pull trailer rides rougher than a gooseneck.   

“When turning at an intersection, always allow extra room. The tighter the turn, the farther the trailer pulls in.”

“Practice turning before you have to do it on the road to find out how your trailer tracks; it will always make a sharper turn than your truck, so you need to allow for that. The longer the trailer, the more the tail end will move inside the radius of your truck, cutting the corner. A longer trailer will pull in farther, and a gooseneck cuts the corner even more than a bumper-pull,” explains Thomas.   

“When turning at an intersection, always allow extra room. The tighter the turn, the farther the trailer pulls in. On a 90-degree turn, a 20-foot trailer may come in 6 feet — and more on a tighter turn. You should overdrive the turn by at least that many feet,” Thomas says.  

Learn your blind spots. There are places along your trailer (and behind it) you can’t see with your side mirrors. Check mirrors often, especially when turning. If you haven’t driven a truck and trailer before, have a person walk around the rig at different distances while you check the mirrors to find out where your blind spots are, and keep these in mind.   

Driving in Traffic

Allow plenty of space between yourself and the vehicle in front. If pulling a heavy load, stay well back — so that if you have to stop, you can do it gradually. “In town, a safe bet is to allow at least a 4-car space between you and the next vehicle (especially when approaching an intersection). Then, if the vehicle in front of you slams on the brakes, you’ll have time to stop without throwing the animals against the trailer or having one fall down,” says Thomas.   

“A 20-foot trailer with five horses, pulled by a diesel pickup and traveling 65 mph, takes between 1/4 and 1/3 of a mile to come to a complete stop without tipping horses over.”

As your speed increases, spacing must increase. “Determine the stopping distance of your loaded vehicle because each rig will be a little different depending on weight, speed, condition of your brakes, etc. Do this out on a road with sparse traffic. Drive at various speeds, practice a controlled stop without upsetting the animals, and determine the distance it took and mark it. Pick a spot on the road as a starting point and then go back to see how far you went,” he says.   

“As a ball-park example, a 20-foot trailer with five horses, pulled by a diesel pickup and traveling 65 mph, takes between 1/4 and 1/3 of a mile to come to a complete stop without tipping horses over. On the freeway, ensure at least 100 yards between you and the vehicle in front. This gives you time to either change lanes or stop if that vehicle slows or stops,” explains Thomas.  

With several lanes of traffic, travel with the lane going closest to your speed, so you won’t have to change lanes often or cause people to have to pass you. If you’ll be turning off, get into the turning lane well in advance so you won’t have a problem finding room at the last minute. Check mirrors often when moving in multi-lane traffic because you now have more blind spots with traffic on both sides of you.   

“Don’t just look in your mirrors once and go; make sure another vehicle has not come up behind or beside you in a blind spot. Use your turn signal well in advance of where you’ll turn to give adequate warning. Tap your brakes gently a couple of times to give the following vehicle notice you are about to do something and to give the animals a little notice.” They will be more prepared to brace themselves or balance. This is especially important if it’s been a long, straight haul and the animals might be relaxed.  

“On a mountainous 2-lane road, you may be going slower than the regular traffic. Be aware of cars behind you, and let them pass wherever you can. If you have to pass a vehicle, ensure you have plenty of room. Make certain you are clear of the vehicle before you swing back into your lane,” he says. Most mirrors make objects look farther away than they are.   

Whenever you make a turn, steer wide. Remember that the trailer will cut the corner on the inside, making a sharper turn than your pickup. “If you don’t swing wide to allow enough room, it may hit a stop sign or a parked vehicle or run over the curb on a street,” says Thomas.  

At an intersection, when making a 90-degree turn to the right, do not swing into the left lane to give yourself room to make the turn. “You always have a blind spot between your mirror and the back of your trailer, and a car might be trying to pass as you swing out. It is illegal to swing into that left lane to make a turn,” he says.   

“The correct way is to stay in your lane until making the corner, swinging into the oncoming traffic lane on the road you are turning onto after the intersection. Oncoming drivers can see you making the turn and can slow down, allowing you to swing and get back into your lane. This is the only legal way for a big truck/trailer combo to make a turn at an intersection,” says Thomas.  

“By contrast, if you change lanes to the left (before you pull through the intersection) to initiate a right-hand turn, there’s the possibility that a little car might be directly behind in your blind spot, and it might pull up alongside you on the right. An impatient driver trying to pass you on the right (as you are swinging to the left) could get run over when you make your turn,” he explains.   

HEATHER SMITH THOMAS ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history. She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Find Heather online at heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.  

Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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