Should a Horse Trailer Have Brakes?

My wife and I trailer our horses all across the country, that being said we use the brakes are trailer on every single trip. But do all horse trailers have brakes?

Most horse trailers in the United States will have an electric braking system. In fact, 43 US states require that any trailer has its own braking system above certain weights. Most horse trailers will quickly surpass these weight limits and should have a braking system installed.

In most states, 3000 pounds is the limit before brakes are required however some states such as Idaho have a maximum of 1500 pounds. So you need to do your research and understand what the laws are in your state.

Why are trailer brakes important?

The weight of your horses coupled with the weight of your trailer adds up to a lot of pounds really quickly. Stopping this weight is no easy task.

An object in motion remains in motion

Isaac Newton

Every trailer in the United States is assigned a numerical value known as the GVW or gross vehicle weight. This value represents the weight of the trailer plus the weight of the maximum cargo.

This value is important to know and will determine if you legally need to have brakes on your trailer.

Legality aside, attempting to stop something heavy with something light is exactly the safest idea in the world. All vehicles in the United States are also assigned a GVW Rating.

For example, my 2017 Ford F250 has a GVWR of 10,000 pounds. Now, this value is actually quite high given that it’s a rather large truck with an equally large diesel engine. So I would actually be relatively safe towing beyond the Iowa limit of 3000 pounds without brakes.

I wasn’t able to find any research that gave me a hard percentage when it comes to whether or not you should or shouldn’t have brakes on your trailer. However, states that do not have a specific weight limit typically state that you should not exceed 40% of your GVWR.

Accidents with horse trailers do happen although it’s hard to say which accidents are caused by a lack of proper braking ability. A study was done in Australia where nearly 25% of owners said their horses had been injured during transportation in the last year.

Admittedly, those numbers include minor injuries such as cuts or scrapes caused by the animal moving about in the trailer. That same study does go on to state that they found correlations between the number of injuries and participants that didn’t regularly check their brake system.

How do electric trailer brakes work? And how do I maintain them?

Electric trailer brakes work by using an electromagnet, activated by the tow vehicle, to push brake pads onto a brake drum. This in turn helps the tow vehicle slow the trailer down.

Regular inspection of your brakes is essential to ensure that you can safely stop when you need to. At least once per year.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to go about it. You will need to jack your trailer up, pull the wheel, and then remove the brake drum so that you can take a peek at the internals.

If you’re not into getting greasy or you are unsure of your skills please take your trailer to a shop. Pretty much any shop that works on brakes will be able to run through the checklist on your trailer. That being said I would definitely call ahead and make sure that they will be equipped to work on it.

Can I install electric brakes on my trailer if it doesn’t have them?

You absolutely can install brakes on a trailer that doesn’t have them! It is however a fairly involved process. In the worst case scenario you will have to actually replace the entire axle. However that’s only if it doesn’t have the appropriate brackets.

Installing electric brakes on a trailer that doesn’t have them is a few steps further than pulling the drum off to check the pads. You have to jack up the trailer, remove the wheel, and then remove the hub from the axle.

At this point if axle does not have a squarish bracket on it that you will need to replace the axle altogether. This is probably a little more than we can job unless your mechanic. At least based on the research I’ve done I think that’s about how long it would take me.

In order to accomplish this, you will need to purchase the appropriate parts. These parts vary in price however I can say that they are relatively expensive depending on the quality of the trailer. For example, my horse trailers actually very cheap and quite rough around the edges. If my trailer didn’t have brakes, and I wanted to install them, the cost would be about $400 per tire or $1200. Which is actually more than I paid for the entire rust bucket.

You will have to make a judgment call to determine if it’s worth it for you to add brakes to your trailer if it doesn’t already have them. However, in my case it would be more cost-effective to just find another trailer that already has working brakes.

Should I buy a trailer without brakes?

So this leads us to ask should we even bother buying a trailer without brakes. Personally, when I go to purchase any trailer, especially a horse trailer, one of the biggest things that I look at is the mechanical aspect.

Are the floors solid, are the axles bent, how rusty does the frame look, and finally do the breaks look like they work are all questions that I asked myself as I walked around my very own trailer.

You will need to make your own decision depending on your own situation. However, you are going to want to check and see if the brakes are working even if you know they’re there before you purchase. Repairing them could be minor or you could end up spending the 1200 bucks for a tandem axle trailer.

The video below demonstrates a quick way to test the brake system that won’t take up everyone’s time while you are looking at the trailer you want to purchase.

If you happen to be unfamiliar with the process of hooking up a trailer, the beginning of this video explains it very nicely.

Side note: ensuring that your trailer is hooked up with a safety pin in place is another major cause of accidents.


Hey! My name is Jeremy. So far I haven't convinced the wife to hop on and write anything so I'm pretty much the only face you'll see. I've been a horse owner now for about 10 years, I bought my first horse while in college for a measly hundred bucks to impress this crazy horse lady that I wanted to date. Turns out we got married, adopted some kids, and kept on with our horse lifestyle.

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