Small But Mighty? Considerations For Towing Horses With an SUV

Reader Lisa Landis emailed me the following photo with a question: “I want to know the reality of trailering with a small vehicle. I tow with a pickup so when I see this I think these people are crazy.”

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Photo by Lisa Landis.

Certainly the vast majority of horse towing is done with pickup trucks — but in reading Lisa’s email, I realized I had seen my fair share of bumper pulls towed by SUVs, and I had never thought too much about it. Having never owned my own truck and trailer, only ever towing with vehicles either owned by my place of employment or family members who presumably did their own research, I scoured the internet, tracked down friends with SUV (or other) towing experience and bugged my local auto dealership for their thoughts.

The million-dollar question: Is towing with an SUV safe?

Answer: It depends.

Towing basics

Vehicles are given a tow rating from the manufacturer, which refers to the maximum weight that a vehicle can tow. This information should be somewhere on the vehicle itself (like that handy chart on the door panel that you never remember to look at until right now), or you can speak to your manufacturer directly. I also found this handy quick chart from How Stuff Works that lists almost every vehicle on the road — as it turns out, my small SUV, the Ford Escape, is rated to tow only 1500 pounds (oddly the same as my husband’s Crown Vic).

When consulting that doorsil sticker, pay attention to a few figures:

  • gross vehicle weight rating, referring to the manufacturer’s recommended maximum total weight of the vehicle when loaded with passengers, cargo, feed sacks, etc
  • gross combined vehicle weight rating, referring to the manufacturer’s recommended maximum total weight of the vehicle when loaded PLUS the trailer, also when loaded
  • gross trailer weight rating, or the manufacturer’s recommended maximum total weight of the trailer

Exceeding these ratings is a good way to overly stress your engine, transmission, brakes and other systems.

Additionally, any towing vehicle should be equipped with a tow package, which includes not only the physical ball hitch for making the connection but also a fortified suspension and brakes, transmission cooling and a power steering package. The trailer brakes need to be properly calibrated to the towing vehicle as well. You may find extended mirrors a necessity as well to be able to see past the end of your trailer.

For towing a bumper pull, the tongue weight of the trailer is recommended to be no more than 10% of the tow rating for trucks and no more than 5% for SUVs, according to the dealership I spoke to. So for an SUV with a tow rating of 5000 pounds, the tongue weight should be no more than 250 pounds.

The old rule of thumb was that a tow vehicle had to be heavier than the trailer and load, but newer trucks and SUVs are being manufactured lighter for fuel efficiency while maintaining the horsepower to tow safely. That said, basic physics suggests that a heavier vehicle will be more likely to control a trailer, and ideally your vehicle is close in weight to your loaded trailer.

Flickr/Roger H. Goun/CC

Flickr/Roger H. Goun/CC

Where SUVs are different from trucks

So far, so good — let’s say we’ve run the numbers and figured out that our mid-size SUV should safely be able to tow our two-horse bumper pull, including both horses, tack, feed for a day and our show trunks as well as the driver and passenger plus our luggage. We’re ready to roll for the show season, right? Technically, yes — but there are a few more considerations as well as after-market installations that might come in handy.

Horses are not “dead weight.” A horse’s center of gravity is much higher than a trailer full of inanimate cargo. Also unlike the inanimate cargo, horses can and will move around somewhat during transport. If you’ve ever experienced a horse suddenly shifting his weight, or perhaps pawing or kicking out while in transit, you know that the trailer that’s been rolling along so quietly behind you can suddenly feel like it has a life and direction of its own. Some professionals in the truck industry recommend keeping the loaded gross trailer weight about 10% or 20% lower than the rating for the vehicle to better handle those stresses of a higher center of gravity and surprise shifts in weight.

The wheelbase matters … maybe. However, there are no industry standards to go by for determining what is a “safe” wheelbase length in relation to the trailer — it’s simply a fact that a longer wheelbase will provide more stability for the trailer. A shorter wheelbase could feasibly lead to the rear axle being pushed down by the trailer tongue and lifting too much weight off the front of the vehicle, leading to a loss of control. It’s worth noting that when I asked my local dealer about wheelbase, he told me that staying within tow rating and tongue wait would generally eliminate the wheelbase length ever coming into play — since there is no industry rule of thumb to go by in this situation, I would recommend speaking to other drivers about their experience.

Both of these factors can combine to form a potentially dangerous situation — it’s possible that even with the right SUV and trailer, I could possibly haul one of my Belgians around town, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to. The size of horses and their individual centers of gravity isn’t considered when tow rating and gross vehicle and trailer weights are configured by manufacturers, and having a tow vehicle that’s too light when compared to the trailer load can lead to a loss of control.

The bottom line: towing your bumper-pull horse trailer safely with an SUV is definitely possible, and it may the most economical option for horse owners with only one vehicle. However, we highly recommend doing plenty of research into your specific vehicle and trailer to ensure that you are staying safe on the road. There are enough hazards on the highways for hauling our horses as it is without further compromising their safety with a poor match of vehicle to trailer. Some drivers may simply feel safer in a truck while others find hauling their horse with an SUV to be just fine.

We recommend this article from TransWest, which provides even more in-depth information about selecting the proper tow vehicle.

Do you have an experience to share? Let us know in the comments!

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