The good news about buying a pre-owned horse trailer is that you can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars over buying new. The bad news is that it's hard to shop confidently unless you have solid information on what constitutes safety and value.
This page will provide you with a system for making complete inspections of used rigs you find available. When going on your own inspection you may want to take a few items with you: a pocketknife, measuring tape, flashlight, notepad, pencil, stepladder and kneepads. A still-shot or video camera will be helpful in viewing your finds at home.
What to inspect: The exterior metal
How to do it: Walk around the trailer, closely observing every surface for dents, scratches, and other dings. Flaws of this nature may not be hard or expensive to correct; you can pound out small dents yourself with a rubber hammer, and you can fix fresh scratches with a $5 can of touch-up paint. But rust, the enemy of any nonaluminum trailer, can be another story. If left unchecked for long, rust will devour metal.
Use your pocketknife's tip to poke along seams, where walls meet floor, and into areas of bubbled paint. If your knife point pierces metal, you'll probably open a vein of rust. Push against a suspected area with your hand; a rusted wall will sound as though it has been filled with the telltale snap-crackle-pop of Rice Krispies.
Redo prices: $50 and up for professional repair of a minor rusted spot (3x5 inches or smaller).
Red flags: Major crunches (indication of collision that may have bent the trailer's frame); rusting that has eaten through metal.
What to inspect: The roof
How to do it: This is where your ladder will come in handy. Climb up for a bird's-eye view of the trailer's top, noting any cracks, gaps, dents, or rust. Don't fret if you see silicone sealer applied along seams or around vents. This indicates the owner's been diligent in caring for his rig's roof.
Redo prices: $5 for a tube of caulking to fix minor seam gaps; $250 to $500 to replace the fiberglass roof on a side-by-side two-horse; $400 for a new metal roof on the same trailer. Adjust estimates upward for larger trailers. (If the roof is rusted through, it needs replacement.)
Red flags: Significant cracking or denting; both point to a possible roll-over and accompanying hidden structural damage.
What to inspect: The tongue (applies to frame-hitch trailers only)
How to do it: Stand in front of the trailer, eye-balling the tongue to make sure it's not bent. To determine whether it's centered, measure from the front of the hitch coupler (the part that drops onto the tow vehicle's ball) to the start of the wheelwell, on each side. Measurements should match.
Redo prices: Not applicable
Red flags: If the tongue is bent or off center, you can be sure the trailer won't pull worth a darn. It's also safe to assume that the trailer has other problems with structural integrity.
What to inspect: The hitching system
How to do it: On a frame-hitch trailer, look for the sort of hitch known as a "bulldog" system (also a good brand name to look for, as is Hammer Blow). This system, generally accepted as the safest of the frame-hitch styles, features a spring-loaded metal sleeve that slides forward over the ball coupler to hold it in place, and a small metal arm that pins down to keep the sleeve secured. Pull the sleeve back and forth several times, feeling for the springiness that indicates a viable spring-load mechanism.
If the sleeve won't move, it may be rusted shut or even bent. If the lock-down pin is missing, you can buy a new one at any hardware store for about $1; just make sure the locking arm has a 1/4" hole that'll allow it to be pinned. On a gooseneck trailer, inspect the hitch welds, looking for stress cracks. Ask the owner to hitch the trailer to his tow vehicle and to crank the trailer off its jack. The hitch should be able to lift and hold the truck bed up without popping out the ball and dropping the truck.
Redo prices: $75 for a new frame hitch; $100 to $300 to replace a gooseneck hitch assembly.
Red flags: Not applicable
What to inspect: The undercarriage
How to do it: Using your knee pads, pocketknife and flashlight, kneel and peer under the trailer. Check the axles to make sure there are no bends, welds, or other signs of damage. Same goes for the spindles, those arms coming down from the axles. Use your pocketknife to check for excessive rust on each of the eight or nine cross-member frame supports that hold up the trailer's floor. Also check the shackles and shackle bolts for rust, as it's not unusual to find them completely rusted through. These are flat 1x3" pieces of metal attached to the trailer's springs. Make sure the trailer has at least two axles.
Redo prices: Not applicable
Red flags: Walk away if you find anything wrong besides a minor dusting of rust on a trailer's undercarriage.
What to inspect: The tires
How to do it: Examine each tire's tread for uneven wear, which can indicate frame damage or faulty wheel bearings. Uniform wear with thin tread indicates old tires in need of replacement; be sure to factor that in when determining value. Beware of cracks in tire walls - not a serious threat for short hauls around town, but not something you want for long hauls on hot days.
Redo prices: $75 and up for each new tire.
Red flags: Uneven wear. Depending on cause, the problem could be relatively easy to fix - but it might be nearly impossible to fix, too. Why risk it?
What to inspect: Wiring, brakes and wheel bearings
How to do it: Ask the seller to hitch the trailer to his tow vehicle (yours may not have the right wiring harness and hitch), then observe whether all lights work when switched on. Ride along as he takes it for a short spin, noting whether the brakes seem to have enough "grab" without the telltale squeak of metal on metal, and without pronounced trailer sway in one direction or the other. A properly maintained trailer will have had its wheel bearings repacked annually; ask to see receipts.
Redo prices: $250 for a complete rewiring job; about $200 to replace the brakes; $40 to have all wheel bearings repacked on a double-axle trailer.
Red flags: Though some states require brakes on all axles, and some also require emergency "breakaway" systems, not all trailers have these features. Some have no brakes at all! To learn your state's requirements, contact a state partol office. Don't buy if a seller can't verify that his trailer meets requirements.
What to inspect: The flooring
How to do it: If the trailer has mats, pull them up to inspect the floor itself; its integrity is the most important safety feature of any trailer's interior. Floor rot begins in the corners, so start there, tapping the boards with your pocketknife. A hollow sound indicates rot. If it's pronounced, the wood will appear crumbled, and the tip of your knife will penetrate it easily. Look for sagging or cracked boards (they'll need to be replaced), and make sure the floorboards run the length of the trailer, not the width.
Redo prices: Approximately $100 to replace the entire floor of a two-horse; $6 for a single plank; $175 to remat a two-horse floor.
Red flags: Not applicable, unless you just don't want to bother with replacement. (Flooring and matting are two of the easiest features to replace, so this could be where you get your great deal.)
What to inspect: Remainder of interior
How to do it: Check for rust, especially where walls meet floor and ceiling braces, and around mangers. Interior roof rust indicates a leaky ceiling. Note whether the trailer is single- or double-walled; double walls offer more protection against damage from kicking or scrambling horses. If the interior's been lined with plywood, check for splinters, cracks, and rot.
Redo prices: $50 and up to treat small rust spots; $100 to $300 to replace or add wall liners.
Red flags: Rusted-out mangers. Replacement cost is prohibitive - about $1,000 for both in a side-by-side two-horse.
What to inspect: Interior dimensions
How to do it: Use your tape measure to determine floor-to-ceiling height; 6'6" is minimum height for a 15.2 hand horse, and you'll want at least another 6" for larger horses. Also measure for width, accepting 5'6" as the minium.
Redo prices: Not applicable
Red flags: Reject a trailer if it's not tall or wide enough for your horses.
What to inspect: Paint (nonaluminum trailers only) and accessories
How to do it: Eyeball the paint job, note peeling paint that exposes bare metal. This often signals lack of protective primer coat, and without it, paint won't adhere for long. Also make note of oxidation, as indicated by a faded, cloudy, dull appearance. Write down whatever options the trailer may have, such as sliding windows, walk-in tack room, saddle racks, and feeder bags. Then attempt to operate them, document obvious damage or difficulty in operation.
Redo prices: $600 to $2,000 for a full new paint job. If oxidation is the problem, you may be able to work wonders with ample amounts of polishing compound and elbow grease. (Experts say that red, blue, and green are three of the toughest colors to sell. The most popular color is white, with silver a close second.
Red flags: Black paint is a used-trailer death sentence, not only for the resale market, but sometimes also for horses traveling inside. No other color absorbs more heat.
Once you have established that a used trailer isn't an unfixable lemon, you'll want to calculate its value. Just because the seller has named a price doesn't mean the trailer is worth that.
Let's start with the premise that you are looking at the following rig: a basic name brand side-by-side two-horse; single-walled; tongue-pull steel trailer with dual axles and brakes; in good condition; built in the early 1980s; and priced at $1,200.
Deduct: The total estmated amount you'll have to spend for repairs (check your notes)
$200+ for one of the hard-to-sell colors
Add: $500 for every 5 year increment of lower age
$300 if extra tall or extra wide
$300 if fully enclosed
$500 for walk-in tack room
$200 for hay rack
$100 for excellent tires
$50+ for chrome wheels
$100 for pull-out saddle racks
$50 for ramp
$200 for double walls
$50 for padded dividers, matted walls
$50 for roof vents
$50 for interior lights
$1,000 for premium paint (barn-stored trailer)
Other computations: Add $2,000 for aluminum or FRP (fiberglass-reinforced plywood) instead of steel siding. Add $500 to $700 for each additional horse space. For a slant style, add $1,500 for a two-horse; $2,000 for a three-horse. Add $1,500 to $2,000 for a gooseneck; $300 for a rear tack room; $500+ for drop-down feed doors. Reference: Horse & Rider 3/97
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