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Selecting the right truck and trailer

Michael Hillman

Like most amateur riders, I've often toyed with the idea of having a second horse. I can't begin to count the number of times I came off of a less then honorable dressage or cross-country ride, wishing I could do it all over. After much cajoling (including a forced vacation to Hawaii), I was finally able to convince my highly skeptical wife that I'd never make it to the Olympics on one horse, and reluctantly, she acquiesced to my obtaining a second horse. What I failed to mention, however, was the fact that our trailer was too narrow to ship two horses comfortably and that our 13-year-old truck was incapable of pulling my dream trailer.

Upon discovering these facts, my wife suggested that I sell my Preliminary horse and use the proceeds to pay for the new truck and trailer. Scratching my head in awe of her non-rider logic, I tactfully tried to convey to her that if I followed her advice, I would once again be riding one horse, making a new truck and trailer unnecessary. In the end however, she correctly recognized the futility of persuading an event rider to change course, and reluctantly agreed to my plan. The hunt for the perfect truck and trailer was on.

Selecting the best truck and trailer takes a fair amount of time and effort, but if you do it right, its worth while. Now if you have money to burn and don't mind spending it, go buy a big truck with a diesel engine and gooseneck; you'll have plenty of power and room to spare. However, if you’re eventing on a budget like I am, the day to day operating cost of a rig is almost as critical an issue as its initial cost. You don't get ribbons for having a nice rig, you get them for your performance with your horse. Thus, any money you can save and put towards lessons, or a new horse, will move you one step closer to that ever-elusive blue ribbon.

Based upon how much money you have to spend, you may want to consider buying used equipment. There are a lot of good used trucks and trailers out their, and as noted in Sophie du Pont's article in the January/February issue of US Event Horse, with a little paint you can have an eye catching rig for a fraction of the cost of a new one. If you're new to the sport, this route is probably preferable, especially if one day you may wake up and come to your senses. If, however, you're like most Adult Amateurs and are irreconcilably hooked on this sport, as you gain experience, you'll get a better idea on what you ultimately want in a truck and trailer, and someday down the road, select your perfect rig.

Whether you go new or used, selecting a truck and trailer is an iterative process. The first thing you need to decide is whether you want a gooseneck or a bumper-pull. This choice, more then anything else, determines your towing vehicle. If you go with a gooseneck, you have no choice but to go with a truck. However, with a bumper pull, any vehicle capable of towing will do. If you only have one horse, and intend to keep it that way (which means you still have some semblance of sanity), by all means go with a bumper-pull trailer. Fourteen years ago this advice was given to me by a friend and for fourteen years my bumper-pull rig has been both extremely economical and functional. Goosenecks on the other hand, while more expensive, do handle better and provide much needed storage space.

Once you select the style of your trailer, you have many options as to the materials it's constructed with and its internal design. If you're really on a budget, go with steel construction; it's cheap and reliable. Manufactures of steel trailers have come a long way in their fight against rust, and while you may have to repaint it six or seven years down the road, the cost of the paint job won't come close to what you'll save over the cost of an aluminum trailer. On the other hand, if you have a little more money and don't want the chance of even a little rust, go with an aluminum trailer. Many manufacturers also make trailers with a steel frame and aluminum skin, which is a good middle ground.

Aluminum trailers and fiberglass trailers are much in vogue today, and like most innovations, involve trade-offs, beginning with their higher cost. Aluminum are clearly lighter then all steel trailers and improve your rig’s fuel efficiency, but are not, contrary to popular belief, maintenance free. Fiberglass trailers, for all intents and purposes, are maintenance free, however they are heavier then steel trailers, decreasing your rig’s fuel efficiency. Based on the sheer number of them at events, if you have the money, they are definitely a good option to consider.

Slant load trailers are also in vogue, but the cost versus benefit jury is still out. You can figure paying anywhere from two to five thousand dollars more for a slant load trailer then a regular rear load trailer. In addition, because of their configuration, slant load trailers are longer then rear load trailers, which significantly increases their weight and translates into poor gas mileage. Most 'on the lot' slant load trailers are sized for quarter horses, and are too narrow for big thoroughbreds or warm bloods. A local neighbor of mine who owns a three-horse slant load can only 'squeeze' two thoroughbreds in her new rig. While this shortcoming can easily be rectified by purchasing the 'wider option', a wider trailer will significantly increase the weight of the trailer and, once again, costs more.

In my case, after years of squeezing in front of my horse to get dressed, watching my equipment get rained on, and yes, drooling over the gooseneck parked next to me, I opted to buy a two horse, rear load gooseneck with a dressing room. A steel gooseneck was ruled out of the question due to weight concerns, the all aluminum was ruled out due to cost. In the end, I settled on a Kingston. Its frame is made of steel, which significantly reduces the cost, while its skin is aluminum, which reduces overall weight. In the end, the trailer I've ordered weighs slightly over 3400 lbs., 300 lbs. heavier than an aluminum, but about $4,000 dollars cheaper.

Throughout my search for a trailer, I kept in constant contact with truck dealerships. My selection of a trailer was based to a large degree on how much weight my new truck would pull. The other significant consideration in my selection of a truck was the gas mileage it would get hauling a given weight. Every dealer I contacted tried to convince me that I need a big V-8 with an automatic. However, in talking to owners of trucks with this configuration all expressed dismay over the fact that while they could pass just about anything, rarely could they pass a gas station. After several fruitless forays into dealerships, I finally got my hands on some truck technical manuals and worked my way through the maze of power train options.

Trucks come in both heavy duty and light duty configurations, with the light duty obviously cheaper and more economical. In general, your selection of a truck should be based first and foremost upon the amount of weight you intend to pull on a regular basis. If your trailer is a bumper pull and you'll only be pulling one horse, a light duty truck such as a Ford F-150, or Dodge/Chevy 1500, with a six cylinder engine and a manual transmission will provide sufficient pulling power while simultaneously providing you the highest gas mileage. If you'll be pulling two horses more than about 20% of the time, consider going with a V-8. If your bumper-pull has a dressing room, go with a big V-8 and an automatic, since the light duty clutches can't handle towing loads over 3500 lbs.

If you've selected a gooseneck, you have no option but to go with a heavier duty truck like the Ford F-250/350 or the Dodge/Chevy 2500/3500. Heavy-duty trucks offer a wider range of power train options. As to engines, depending upon the weight of your trailer, you can go with medium (e.g., Ford's 351) or big (Ford's 460) V-8. While bigger engines give more power, they eat a lot more gas. So while with a big V-8 you'll never feel under powered, you might not be able to afford to drive it. However, if you go with the medium V-8's, you'll get adequate gas mileage, but might sometimes feel like your truck's get up and go has got up and left. Diesels of course provide the most power and greatest gas mileage, however, they cost about $4,000 more, and if you only drive the truck 10,000 miles yearly, it will take you eight years to earn back the difference on what you will save on gas.

Fortunately there is a middle ground. The last part of the power train, and the probably the least looked at by purchasers, is the rear differential. Most stock Ford trucks for example come with what is called a 3.55 rear end, which means the engine will turn over 3.55 times for every revolution of the wheel. For only one or two hundred dollars more, you can order a truck with higher gear ratio, such as Ford's 4.10. Now while the 4.10 rear end will require the engine to run faster for a given speed, it will provide a bigger 'sense' of power. Adding a manual transmission to the equation, like I did, enhances your ability to always have the power to climb any hill.

In my book, manual transmissions are the only way to go. Manual transmissions in heavy-duty trucks can pull as much or more then automatics and are much more reliable. Based upon the number of people I know who have had to replaced automatic transmissions, having a manual was a given for me. A manual transmission gives you better control of your rig's speed, especially when you're going up hills, which can translate into increased gas mileage. Manual transmissions are also cheaper and can reduce the cost of a new truck by about as much as $800 off the regular base price. Now be prepared; the salesmen will try to tell you automatics haul better, which is a bunch of garbage. If you think about it, how many tractor-trailers have automatics? One million long haul drivers can't all be wrong!

Whether you go with a 4-wheel drive or 2-wheel is up to personal preference, and of course your pocketbook. Four wheel drive will add up to about $4,000 to the sticker price, while simultaneously reducing your gas mileage and increasing your maintenance costs. Since almost all event organizers are thoughtful enough to have tractors ready to pull you out of the mire, a four wheel drive isn't really necessary. If most of your driving is on the highway, go with a 2-wheel drive; you will significantly increase your gas mileage. However, consider purchasing a 'limited slip-lock' rear end. Limited slip-lock causes both rear wheels to drive, as opposed to only one wheel, thus helping to prevent spinning. This option only costs about $200, but it will immensely improve your truck’s handling ability, especially in bad weather.

After months of searching, I selected a 1997 Heavy Duty Ford F-250, with a 351 V-8, 5 speed manual transmission, and a 4.10 limited slip-lock rear end. To keep the cost down to the bare minimum, I passed on most of the options offered for the truck. In selecting the options I did take, I weighed their price in the 'number of lessons' I would have to give up. For example, a sliding rear window cost the same as 4 lessons while the cost of air conditioning was equal to 30 lessons. The way I figured it, I need the 30 lessons more then I need air conditioning. The cost of an extended cab was equal to 100 lessons, etc. Remember, anything you save in the cost and operation of your truck is money available for lessons. The more lessons you take, the more you'll increase your fun and safety, not to mention your chances of winning!

Lastly, if in the next few years your may even remotely consider buying a new truck, apply for a either a GM or Ford Visa card. The rebates are rather nice, and in my case, the price for the F-250 I just ordered was reduced by $2500 after I made my best deal. With free money, you can't go wrong.

While I've tried to go into as much detail as I could, the rig you buy will depend upon your unique circumstances. The key to being successful however is to take an iterative approach to your search. Look at the cost, weight, and size of your trailer, then look at what will tow it, then go back and look at trailers again. Eventually you'll focus in on a rig you like. Just remember, always err on the side of power and size, for there is nothing worse then ending up with a rig that you dislike. My new truck and trailer should be delivered in mid-May; I'll let you know how I make out!

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman