My spare-bedroom office in Delaware, Ohio, faces the main entrance to the county fairgrounds, whose national claim to fame is harness racing and the annual Little Brown Jug competition. Harness racing, also called trotting, uses Standardbred horses, so I see a lot of horse-hauling rigs go into and out of the grounds at all hours of the day and night. Most are small to medium-size units pulled by heavy duty pickups.
This morning I saw the largest and sharpest horse trailer I can remember. It was big-rig size, and its polished metal sides glistened in the sun. I had to go see it, and had no excuse not to because it takes me all of five minutes to drive from my garage to the stables area on the fairgrounds.
Turns out this rig was one of four, all owned by J.R. Hudson Horse Transportation out of Massachusetts. Three had polished stainless steel sides and looked fairly new, and the fourth looked like painted aluminum. All were 53 by 102s, but to me they looked shorter. They had polished aluminum wheels and showed signs of good maintenance.
The one I spotted earlier was made by Fleet Equine, a specialty builder in Shorewood, Illinois, near Joliet. The company’s owner, Jerry Feyrzzula, said his trailers are built mostly of steel, using high-nickel-content stainless with galvanized underframes, running gear, and other parts. These materials resist corrosion from urine, a common problem with horse vans, and of course road salt.
Most vans are highly customized to suit customers’ preferences. Aside from the number and placement of horse stalls along the lower floor, there are compartments in the floor and the higher area near the nose. Size and location of doors, loading ramps and axles are other custom-spec items.
The drivers said they were hauling 120 “head” – a word I usually associate with cattle – to winter pastures near Deland, Florida. That’s a trip of about 23 hours, one of the guys said. They drive team, so can keep rolling except for regular breaks for basic personal needs, and to refuel the Freightliner tractors and water the horses. The horses stay aboard during such trips.
Each trailer carries 15 horses, the Hudson drivers said, so half the herd will leave today and the other half on Thursday. That’s two quick round trips of about 1,900 miles each. A Hudson rig can cover more than 300,000 miles a year, one guy said. The work is steady, though it slows down in January and February.
Standardbred horses are even-tempered and fairly easy to load and unload, but “babies can hurt you,” said a driver named Billy, talking about rambunctious colts. An adult Standardbred typically weighs between 800 and 1,000 pounds, so a basic payload is light by big-rig measure. However, “if a trailer isn’t full, they make it full,” Feyrzzula explained.
So handlers load tack – harnesses, blankets, and grooming tools -- plus their personal gear, hay, medicines, golf carts, and whatever else needs to get to where the horses are going. Sulkies, the lightweight buggies that the horses pull in harness racing, are placed atop the trailers in 16-inch-deep wells, he explained. Wheels are removed to make the cart-like conveyances more compact. Other gear goes up there too, and everything is tied down.
Although my wife and I once owned and worked with horses out in California, I never knew much about horse vans. Thanks to a look out my window this morning and some interesting and informative conversations, now I do.