The Pros and Cons of Straight Load vs Slant Load Trailers

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Straight load vs slant load trailers: The debate continues. However, the one factor that everyone will agree on is that horse safety comes first. It is a given that when a horse enters a closed, dark space it is counter to his survival instinct, a throwback to living in the wild. That said, what we think of as a simple walk up a short ramp might well be viewed as a dangerous, “No way am I going in there!” exercise for the horse. But, walking into a light, airy trailer that accounts for your horse’s size and has adequate ventilation can reduce the most common causes of stress and stress-related accidents. 

Tom Scheve, owner of Equispirit Trailers and co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, underscores the importance of considering your horse first when choosing a trailer.

“How tall is your tallest horse? Does the trailer give that horse enough headroom? Can he stand comfortably and not bump his head when loading?” he asks for starters.

“He also should have enough room to use his head and neck for balance and to lower his head to cough out dust and debris he may have inhaled in the trailer," added Scheve. "And he should be able to spread his legs both forward and backward to stand easily without having to lean or scramble to find his balance.”

The breed of your horse is also a factor as you compare trailers. While a 15.2 to 16.3 H Thoroughbred might need a tall trailer, a 16.2 H Warmblood might need not only a tall trailer, but one that is wide. And, with the heavier horses, especially drafts, weight becomes an issue, from both a hauling perspective as well as from the potential damage a larger horse can cause. Scheve likens the experience to carrying bricks in a plastic bag. He then noted a few other points to consider, namely age, prior training and temperament.

“Since horses are prone to feelings of claustrophobia, particularly young or green horses that are unused to entering into small spaces, they will likely need to develop a sense of self-assurance as they learn the ropes," he said. "And while it’s ultimately up to you, your handler or your trainer to instill confidence and trust in an untrained horse, having a trailer that is open and welcoming can help make the process easier than trying to encourage an unwilling youngster to walk into a close, dark, place, reminiscent of a lion’s den.”

Scheve also said that your horse’s temperament plays a role in your finding the right trailer.

“If you have a calm, easygoing horse, you can pretty much pick and choose, but if your horse is high-strung and nervous, finding a trailer that will help to alleviate his anxiety," he advised. "Providing more interior space and extra comfort features (see additional safety features below) can make the difference between your horse feeling comfortable or becoming colicky as he rides down the road.”

Trailer Safety

Just as important, the trailer needs to be safe. Here is a check list of items that should not be overlooked:

  • Sharp objects or edges are an invitation for injury, so make sure that all surfaces, exterior as well as interior are rounded or smoothed out
  • Latches, tie rings, butt bars, breast bars, etc. should be strong enough to withstand wear and tear from the largest, strongest horse
  • Dividers, posts, butt bars, and breast bars should operate freely, yet can be easily removed in an emergency
  • Ramps should be solid, low, non-slip, and long enough to protect you from getting kicked while lifting the platform.
  • Step up (no ramp) trailers need to be wide enough to allow your horse to turn around and unload headfirst instead of having to back out (a front unload ramp is even better).
  • The construction material of the trailer should be strong enough to handle the size, weight, and strength of your horse(s) plus the equipment that will be hauled
  • Additional safety features that can help reduce stress and which may not be expensive include, removable hay bags, mats, screens, bar guards on windows, removable or no rear center post, and water tanks

Walk-Through (Straight Load) - Advantages

  • Open from ceiling to floor, the walk-through trailer is sometimes referred to as a “Thoroughbred” trailer because it is considered tall at 7 feet (newer models are even taller). Traditionally on the narrow side (5 – 5 ½’ ), today’s models reflect the current concern for comfort and safety by offering 6’ as the standard for the interior width and added dimensions as options
  • Equipped with a breast or chest bar to keep the horse from going through the walk-out door
  • Open appearance to quell feelings of claustrophobia
  • Unencumbered space permits a horse to brace himself with his front legs while enabling him to lower his head in order to clear his respiratory tract should he need to
  • The walk-out door is an added safety advantage for you. If your budget permits, consider a trailer that has a walk-out door on each side so you can reach one horse without disturbing the others

Walk-Through (Straight Load) – Disadvantages

  • If you are planning to haul more than two horses you will need a larger straight load trailer to accommodate them
  • There will also be an increased expanse attached to this along with additional customizations, i.e., the need for a side ramp
  • A larger trailer is also heavier, which will add pressure on your towing vehicle

Slantload - Advantages

  • More horses can fit in a shorter length trailer, making it possible to haul more horses in a shorter trailer, i.e., a four horse slant load with 3 x 7 foot tack storage is 24’ to 25½’ long whereas a four horse straight load, head to head, with 4’ x 6’ tack storage is 34’ to 36’ long
  • Since the dividers are pushed to the sides and the rear entrance is spacious, it looks more inviting than a straight load; consequently horses are usually easier to load
  • Horse can be turned around and led out head first
  • Removable dividers make the trailer easier to customize to your needs
  • More room for tack storage (and dressing rooms) at the front and rear corners

Slantload – Disadvantages

  • The overall stall length is limited to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) restrictions on width (8½’) of the trailer. Since the wheel wells end up inside the trailer when it’s over 80”, and increases as the trailer is made wider, the stall length is greatly restricted, and often not enough for horses over 16 hands
  • If you have a problem with the front horse, and he has to be unloaded, you have to unload all the other horses to get to it – not a good thing in an emergency

Scott Riley, Director of Director of Dealer Education for Sundowner Trailers weighs in by adding that a straight-load, walk thru trailer allows a horse to use both his front and hind legs to balance better during acceleration and deceleration,rather than trying to brace with the leading foreleg and trailing hind leg, or having to lean into the divider to for balance.

But, in the end he maintains it comes down to personal preference.

“Slant load verses straight load is often determined by how the customer uses the trailer. Ropers, team penners, and barrel racers tend to tie their horses outside the trailer, making a slant load more convenient. And polo players, who use several horses for each match, usually favor slant loads. Straight loads, on the other hand, are used more often by people who hardly ever tie their horses outside the trailer, choosing to unload only the horse they’ll be using at the time.”

To sum it up, Scheve looks at the horse’s perspective when discussing trailer styles.

“I believe that we have to balance the ‘horse’s point of view’ with sound research and knowledge when designing trailers. Just because a horse walks into a unmoving trailer and stands at an angle, doesn’t mean that he wants to travel that way, and even if he does, it doesn’t mean it is safe, i.e., let a four-year-old child choose how he wants to travel in your car, and he’ll probably end up by standing on the back seat looking out the rear window. We, however, know that he’s safer strapped into a car seat, even though he may not like it.”