Horse Trailer Myth – Asking the Experts Gooseneck vs. Tag-along Interview

by USRider with Tom Scheve 3/8/11

USR: Tom and his wife, Neva Scheve, have been advocating horse trailer safety since 1984. Both have written numerous articles for Dressage Today, Horse Illustrated, Equus, Horse and Rider, Trail Blazer, Southeast Horse Journal, and have been safety clinics around the country. Neva has written three books on horse trailers including “The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailers.”

We asked Tom some questions about the differences and advantages of different styles of trailers.

USR: Is a gooseneck horse trailer safer than a bumper pull trailer?

Tom: We prefer to call them “tag-along” trailers rather than “bumper pulls”. It’s just semantics, but the idea is that you should never hook a horse trailer to the actual bumper of a tow vehicle. So, the term “bumper pull” makes people believe it’s OK to use a ball installed on the bumper, but it’s important to always use a frame mounted hitch, usually with a weight distribution system. That being said, we use the term “bumper pull” on our website since it is the “common term.”

USR: Good point. So, is a gooseneck safer than a tag-along trailer?

Tom: Great Question. It’s a common misconception that gooseneck trailers are always safer, and that myth needs to be dispelled. But it gets tricky.

USR: How so?

Tom: Well, first of all, I always recommend a gooseneck trailer for 3 or more horses, whether it’s a slant or a straight load. But for a two-horse trailer, a tag-along (bumper pull) can be just as safe, and tow just as well if hitched up with the right equipment. The tricky part is the word “safer.” There are so many variables with towing that just calling the trailer itself “safer” doesn’t take in all the other parts, such as using the proper tow vehicle with the proper hitch. And, of course, the operator’s driving expertise is also a factor.

USR: Okay. I get it. So why would one choose a tag-along trailer over a gooseneck?

Tom: The benefits of a tag-along, or bumper pull, over a gooseneck is that it’s cheaper, shorter, tracks closer to the path of the tow vehicle when turning, can be pulled with a properly rated SUV or a truck, and it’s lighter so you don’t need such a big tow vehicle. If you don’t have a lot of storage space for the trailer, it doesn’t take up as much room in the yard. Unless the gooseneck area is needed for sleeping or storage, it doesn’t make sense to spend the extra money, unless one just prefers to have a gooseneck because they like it better.

USR: And the gooseneck?

Tom: Well, if you want a place to sleep or extra room for tack, the gooseneck area gives you plenty of extra room. If you want living quarters a gooseneck is usually mandatory. Also, it’s easier to pick the right tow vehicle and hitch because it’s obvious a full-sized truck is needed and the hitch only installs in the bed.

One of the reasons people believe a tag-along (bumper pull) trailer is not as stable is because it’s so easy to make a mistake when putting the tow vehicle/hitch combination together. And we often see people tow with some scary combinations. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, by towing directly on the bumper, the trailer would be susceptible to sway and other problems. There are also so many tow vehicles to choose from, it’s easy to choose a less capable tow vehicle.

USR: Which is easier to hook up?

Tom: Now remember, we’re talking about a two-horse gooseneck vs. a two-horse tag-along. The tag-along tongue weight is lighter maybe by 1,000 lbs. or more, so if the jack is in good working order it can be easier to jack up and down. And you don’t have to crawl up into the truck bed as you do for a gooseneck to fasten the safety chains, or in some cases, secure the coupler onto the ball.

USR: How about backing up to line up the coupler and ball?

Tom: Both are tricky but can be mastered with practice. If you don’t have a built-in tool chest in your truck you can see the ball from the cab when lining up. Because you can’t see the coupler or ball on a tag-along, you might need someone to guide you or do a “hit and miss.” With experience, it’s possible to hitch a tag-along alone with no problems. There are, however some innovative devices on the market that can help, and some tricks I’ve learned that can help with either style trailer that don’t cost anything.

USR: I’m sure our readers would like to know the tricks. Are they secret?

Tom: Not at all. With a gooseneck, the trick is to put your tailgate down, of course, and then place a small stone or piece of tape at the tip of the rear of the tailgate where you can see it from the driver’s seat. This stone or tape should be placed directly in line with the ball in the truck. Then, you back straight under the trailer, making sure that the coupler goes right over the stone. If you are driving in a straight line, the coupler should then end up right over the ball.

USR: And for the tag-along?

Tom: With the trailer hitched up to the vehicle, take a piece of visible tape and put it up high on the nose of the trailer directly up from the coupler so you can see it from the driver’s seat. If you have a truck or tail gate on your SUV, put another piece on the end of the tailgate to line up with the tape of the trailer. When you next hitch up, just align the two pieces of tape again.

USR: What about length? Do some like to pull the tag-along because it’s not as long or big?

Tom: Actually, a two-horse tag-along with a dressing room is an average of 17 ½ feet including the tongue. So, you are pulling 17 ½ feet behind your truck. An average length for a gooseneck with dressing room is 21 ½ feet, but the gooseneck area, which is usually around 7 ½ feet, is over the truck. So, you really only have about 14 feet, give or take, that you’re pulling behind your truck. So, the gooseneck can be a bit shorter. Of course, a tag-along without a dressing room is really the shortest option.

USR: Which do you think would fare best in an accident?

Tom: There are a lot of opinions on this, but I’d say it would depend on the type of accident.

USR: How so?

Tom: If it’s a major accident, let’s say a head on collision, there’s a chance the gooseneck could pop off the ball, and if the safety chains break, the trailer is heading straight for the cab where you are sitting. By the way, this is why you always want to use safety chains.

In a minor accident, where you might have to do a severe swerve to avoid hitting something, the heavier gooseneck would be a bit more stable than being hitched behind the vehicle like a bumper pull. That’s why it’s important to have the proper hitch. A weight distribution system on a bumper pull adds quite a bit to the safety factor.

So, a lot of it depends on the circumstances and the quality of the trailer. I think either type of trailer should be strong enough to hold up as well as possible in an accident. There are no requirements for trailer strength, and no crash testing is done, so we only have to go on the information we get from examining accidents after they happen to see which type of construction holds up better. In my many years of experience, steel and steel framed trailers hold up much better in accidents.

USR: Any other insight you might want to add about gooseneck vs. tag-along?

Tom: The best choice is a trailer that makes one feel comfortable. Over the years, many of my customers like to see the horses in the trailer while they are traveling. So, a tag-along with big windows gives them that ability which results in a feeling of comfort. Others just like the feeling of a gooseneck because they feel safer or more secure. In that case, a gooseneck is the best choice. The point I’ve tried to make today is that, for a two-horse trailer, one doesn’t need to buy a gooseneck trailer "just because.”

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