Several significant changes have occurred to the trucks we pull our horse trailers with, and to the trailers themselves, since we last reviewed trucks six years ago. Some of these changes may affect the most important factor in this transport process—safety. Horse trailers already represent some of the heaviest loads non-commercial drivers pull on the highway, and trailers are getting heavier. This places greater demands on truck and driver.
The most significant change in trucks, though, has been brought about by the manufacturers’ market battle, which has led to a wide variety of platform setups. A quick web search found over 30 different setups for a Ford F250. Your grandfather might have had four or five such options for his F250. Options that affect towing capacity include engine and transmission size, cab size, bed length, rear end axle ratio, tires and traction (4WD/2WD), plus braking and hitch systems. Changes unrelated to safety include such things as fuel economy and adjustments to meet new fuel regulations for diesels, and comfort and other luxury options not usually found on trucks in the past.
If you’re looking for a new truck, you must first know the weight of the trailer you will tow—the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum amount that the trailer will weigh, fully loaded with horses and gear. Trucks use the same rating. Engineers use this information, along with information on the weight of passengers and cargo, to size things like the cooling system, engine and transmission, axle ratio and brakes. Choose a truck with a comfortable safety factor built in. That is, if your trailer’s GVWR is 10,000 pounds and a vehicle has a towing capacity of 10,500 pounds, it would be best to move up in capacity.
Trailer weight is a key issue. People are pulling heavier trailers. This doesn’t necessarily mean all trailers are getting heavier; use of aluminum and polymer plastics has, in fact, reduced trailer weights for some models. But if you are hauling more than a couple of horses and their feed, along with other supplies for a number of days, towing weights go up quickly.
In addition, living quarters trailers are following the trend of many other luxury items: they are getting bigger—and heavier. A quick tour of options found on these trailers includes such things as pullout vestibules, marble showers and sinks, water heaters, leather couches, and ducted AC/heat systems. One trailer we found had a GVWR of more than 20,000 lbs. If you have a newer trailer or are planning to purchase one in the near future, take its weight into consideration as you shop.
Expanding trailer weights have led to an increase in what is now called heavy range capacity trucks, such as the Ford F450, with a towing capacity of 24,000 pounds, and the Sports Chassis P2 by Freightliner, which can haul considerably more than that. However, be aware that these upper range weight categories may require a commercial driver’s license to operate them. All states have combined truck-trailer weight limits (gross combined weight rating, GCWR) that determine what weight rigs you can operate without a commercial driver’s license (CDL). The GCWR of the F450 and the 20,000-pound trailer cited above would exceed the non-CDL limit of 26,000 pounds in many states.
Truck choices have mushroomed in recent years. Along with ever-increasing numbers of platform setups, Honda (Ridgeline) and Nissan (Titan) have moved into this market with full-sized models. In addition, Ford (Lincoln Mark LT Luxury Truck) and GM (Cadillac Escalade EXT) have come out with “luxury” pickups. These last two vehicles are essentially luxury SUVs with a small pickup-type cargo box, although the Cadillac features a removable “midgate” that, when removed, utilizes the crew space for cargo.
Speaking of options: pickup manufacturers offer an increasing array of “trim” options rivaling the luxury pickups. These include rear backup cameras, GPS-based navigation systems, power telescoping side mirrors, tailgate steps, MP3 ports, and surround sound systems with Bose speakers. One option, rear seat entertainment systems with DVD players, might be useful on long trips with young equestrians. The list of available options goes on far too long to chart here, but your local dealerships will be glad to show them to you.
Manufacturers have also made changes to increase fuel economy and decrease emissions. In 2007, Federal regulations went into effect lowering the allowed sulfur content in diesel fuel, making some diesel engine changes necessary. Ford (in conjunction with the EPA) developed a new 6.4-liter clean diesel engine available on the F series trucks from the F250 and up. Not only does this larger engine run cleaner and deliver more horsepower, it also gets better mileage. Diesel engines have become the powertrain of choice for heavy-duty pickups in the U.S. because they provide more torque for maximum towing and hauling. Most pickup trucks in the mid or 1/2 ton and lighter category are still gasoline-powered.
Four classes of trucks
For comparison purposes, let’s view the market as divided into four ranges of towing capacities for trucks: light range, mid range, mid/heavy range, and heavy range. Models listed in every category are 4WD or, in the case of some SUVs and luxury trucks, all-wheel drive, and include the highest towing capacity available for that model. Know, though, that each model comes in a range of towing capacities, depending on engine, transmission, and other factors. Towing capacity is GVWR of whatever it is to be towed. Except as noted, we only list the single-rear-wheel setup as opposed to dual-rear-wheels (DRW) for all but the heavy range capacity.
For lighter trucks, we have assumed use of the conventional towing option (or tag-along) as opposed to a fifth wheel (or gooseneck) setup. A frame-mounted class III or IV receiver hitch should always be used for tag-along setups, as federal highway laws only allow for pulling 5,000 pounds with a bumper hitch. Conversely, the fifth wheel setup is the only hitch option for heavy-range trucks. Consider this setup for all tow weights above mid range.
It is important to note that both the fifth wheel hitch and DRW options can significantly increase towing capacity, and that the fifth wheel hitch necessitates a gooseneck style trailer. The towing figures shown here are subject to change, and should be used as a general guideline. For the exact capacity of any vehicle, check with the manufacturer.
Consider the hitch, too. Every hitch has weight ratings stamped on it, and all hitch configurations should be checked to make sure you aren’t exceeding the GVWR of the trailer. It is important to note that the second rating stamped on a hitch indicates the weight at which it requires the use of weight distribution bars (anti-sway devices). Many operators are not aware of this requirement. If you have a question about the proper hitch setup, consult the trailer manufacturer or dealer.
A final note: Most of the heavier trailers come equipped with electric trailer brakes, and most trucks set up with a towing package have the necessary hookup and activation system for these brakes.
Light range towing
The trucks in this category have a towing capacity range sufficient only for the lightest of trailers, such as a Brenderup two-horse Prestige HB with a GVWR of 4,400 lbs. Although it is billed as a full-sized half-ton truck, the Honda Ridgeline (introduced in 2006) is included here based upon its relatively light towing capacity. The towing capacities of most SUVs also fall into this category (see box).
Mid range towing
Trucks in this category are good local haulers capable of limited long-range work. Note that the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks in this range and higher have identical motor and other drive train platform specs.
Mid/Heavy Range Towing
These vehicles are better suited to hauling several horses and/or living-quarters trailers. This category and above represent the only type of vehicles that are still the exclusive domain of American manufacturers. There is some talk of Toyota possibly moving into this size truck in the future, but nothing official has come from that manufacturer. Also exclusive to this category and above is the option to go with either gasoline or diesel fueled engines. We list the heaviest pulling capacity regardless of fuel and omit horsepower, as confusing rear axle ratios and transmission torque outputs change the metrics affecting towing capacities.
Heavy range towing
To call trucks in this category a pickup (other than the Ford F450) is a stretch. Some lack beds, and others may stand up to eight feet tall. There are limited-run custom pickup builders, such as Monroe Trucks, who will take a manufacturer’s cab and chassis normally used for applications such as dump trucks and convert them into a pickup, such as their Chevrolet Kodiak. All of the trucks in this category feature dual rear wheels and a fifth wheel trailer setup, and all are turbo diesels. Also, other than the Ford F450, these trucks only come standard in two-wheel drive.
It should be noted that this class of vehicles moves into the realm of commercial operations and, again, the GCWR of the truck and trailer may require a CDL. This is a good thing, as anyone dealing with trailer weights even close to this range should have the additional training a CDL requires.
While the options to be found for pickup trucks for the purposes of hauling horse trailers are almost limitless, the essential need is for a vehicle to safely and efficiently haul your total load. Keep in mind there are other factors affecting highway hauling safety, such as tire conditions, road conditions and weather, and even the operator’s experience level. Using the many research tools available, anyone who hauls horse trailers should be able to find the ideal truck platform for the loads they haul.