Touch n GO Farm

Whitesburg Georgia

Danger on the Interstate PDF Print E-mail

by Gigi Nutter

An incident on the highway while traveling to a recent horse show made this a weekend one to remember. It also brought back many memories from my past. As a professional rider, I have been hauling horses for 27 years. It just goes along with the territory. Most of my "road warrior" time was spent behind the wheel of a 1967 International, six-horse van. The stories involving my adventures in that old van could fill a book. In addition to the van, I have driven a 4-horse gooseneck and 2-horse tag-a-longs. After arriving safely home from the show, I decided I should share some experiences so readers may benefit from my colorful past.

My first trailer mishap occurred in Pennsylvania back in 1973. Departing the show grounds, I had traveled only two miles when I merged onto the four-lane highway and started up a hill. The truck dropped down into passing gear as the grade increased when suddenly I heard a heavy "thump." The next thing I knew a green and white trailer that looked just like mine passed me on the left side. The world went into slow motion as I watched the occupied trailer cross the medial strip into oncoming traffic. Cars darted left and right in desperate avoidance. The runaway trailer left the road, hit an embankment, popped up on two wheels and, finally, came to a grinding halt completely upright.

I stopped the truck, leaped out and ran right through oncoming traffic nearly getting myself killed. Reaching the trailer, I flung open the door dreading what I might find. What I discovered was two horses munching their hay. No scrapes, scratches or blood. After my heart resumed its normal rhythm I waited for the police to arrive. We walked the horses the few miles back to the show grounds while the police followed in their cars with lights flashing. During the trek back, I thought about how blessed we were. The moral of the story: if someone else hooks up your trailer, double-check it yourself.

Years later I was returning from Gladstone when the carburetor float stuck. This caused the engine to catch fire! I guided the old van off the side of the road and waited for help. In the northeast, Union 76 is a popular chain of gas stations and truck stops. Following my engine fire, I was towed to a 76 truck stop with maintenance services. I stared in amazement as the van and six horses went up the truck lift for repair!

Traveling through Phillipsburg, New Jersey always merited special attention since the police department was known for strictly enforcing speed limits. The small town has a streetlight for almost every block. As I approached the center of town I felt the brake pedal go to the floor. Pumping the pedal had no effect. There I went in the van, sailing through a stream of lights in every color. With help from above and more than a little luck, I kept my nerve and turned off into a gas station parking lot that sat on an incline. I coasted to a stop.

For years I found myself sitting along side an interstate waiting to be rescued. This was in the seventies and early eighties before the wonderful cell phone was routinely carried. A CB radio was the only way to get help. If that was not working, it was the old "flag down the next trucker" technique. Over the years there were countless broken fan belts, blown tires and engine failures. Many times the old van would vapor lock as I tried to switch gas tanks.

My last hauling experience, and I do mean last, occurred after I married and moved to Georgia. My husband was on a trip so I loaded up the horse van and headed out across unfamiliar roads. Driving to a new show grounds never intimidated me much since I am good at following directions. I had conquered most of the northeast highways and had grown accustomed to crossing the George Washington Bridge on the way to Knoll Farms almost every month. How bad could driving in Georgia be?

The directions to Chateau Elan seemed clear enough. What I didn't understand was the daring ferocity that drivers all over Atlanta possess. Once inside the perimeter I sensed that the van was running poorly and that if I let up on the gas, it might stall. I went as fast as the 30-year-old van would go and used the HOV lane to try and stay clear of the interstate insanity surrounding me. I felt enormous relief as the Braselton exit approached. That relief was short lived as I slowed on the off ramp and the van stalled. That was it. The old International was done for the day. My complete embarrassment had to be obvious as I called the show manager who arranged for a tractor to tow the van the last mile to Chateau Elan. Quite an entrance for the new FEI rider in town.

That brings me to our recent trip to the Horse Park. We have a wonderful 2-horse Trailet trailer that is about 6 years old. It receives a yearly maintenance inspection with the last one being completed in September of 2001. The familiar drive to Conyers began in typical fashion. In other words, my husband drives and I panic. Since I stopped driving to shows, I have become a bit of a "front-seat driver" and help Scott every mile of the trip. I assist my husband by braking with my foot on the dash, steering an imaginary wheel and making hissing sounds at every vehicle that slows in front of us. There are permanent indentions in the seat cushions left by my fingernails. I am convinced that we would never make it safely to our destination if not for all my "help." Surely, Scott agrees.

We had no sooner merged onto Interstate 85 when my husband looks back and says "oh no". Now he does this to me occasionally just to get my goat. So I said, "Come on and stop trying to scare me". He was not teasing this time. We found an old, closed rest area that looked like a safe place to pull over. He went out to inspect what was wrong. My daughter, Cassidy, and I sat there hoping it was nothing. When I looked back I saw smoke coming from under the trailer. I immediately jumped out, leaving orders for Cassidy to "stay in the truck". My first thought was that we had to get the horses off right away in case of fire. Scott assured me that it was just smoke from a failed wheel bearing, and not to worry. Right.... me not worry,... when the trailer is smoking!

We were not going anywhere soon, at least not with the horses in the trailer. It was a time for planning. I saw one horse trailer pass and they waved. That wasn't much help, now what? I called home and asked the girl who works for me to call everyone she knew with a trailer, especially my students. The problem was that most of my riders were going to the same show I was. Just then another trailer passed and this one pulled over. It was Lee Burton and Kathy Beall, two of my students, headed to the Horse Park. She had one open stall, but I did not want to separate the two horses I had in the trailer. One in particular would have panicked. It was comforting to have some help in such an uncomfortable situation. With three cell phones working, we finally found anther rider, Shelby Miller, with a three-horse trailer that could come our way. As I hung up with her, I was pleased to have a replacement trailer coming but I was concerned with the loading. Shelby has a slant load with a step up. My horses are all accustomed to straight loads with ramps. How would they react to the difference? Would I ever be able to make the switch into a strange trailer along a busy interstate? I had to hope for the best.

My hands had just stopped shaking and decided to wait in the truck. Meanwhile, a six-horse trailer slowed down and pulled over in front of us. The truck door opened and out popped local trainer Jos Sevriens. After a quick conversation he said he had two open stalls. His trailer was a straight load with a ramp. What a blessing.

Scott called the Coweta County Sheriffs department to explain what we were about to attempt. The dispatcher initially said we should only call if there were problems with the transfer. My husband explained that by the time a problem arose, people and horses could be injured. Shortly thereafter a Sheriff pulled up to supervise.

By now Shelby and Lee's husband Jeff had joined our little spectacle. Scott eased the damaged trailer as close to Jos' rig as possible. Shelby and Jeff parked right behind each other just to the highway side of our truck. This provided a 75-foot long barrier between the back of our trailer and the interstate. The moment had arrived. I got a lunge line with a chain on it and backed Wendel out. He was a trooper and walked right on to the next trailer. The other horse, Lala, rocked impatiently while waiting to get back with her partner. This just made her very agreeable when I put the lead on and walked her to the trailer. With enormous relief, we closed the doors and were off to the show.

Scott stayed behind and prepared the trailer to take to the repair shop. He drove it to the garage with one axel. The sheriff was kind enough to escort him to the nearest exit. Later the mechanic called and said the axel was also damaged. I don't like to think of the outcome if Scott hadn't noticed the problem early and the wheel had failed completely.

Trailering is a frequent proposition for horse people. I am not sure how much thought we give the dangers involved. I wanted to write this story for horse people to read. The best suggestions I can offer are:

  • Keep your vehicles inspected regularly. Pull pads and check the floorboards.
  • Replace you tires on a regular basis. Mileage isn't the only indicator of wear. Trailer tires with little use can have severe dry rot. I replace mine every five years, regardless.
  • Ensure that your hitch system is rated for the load you intend to pull. Too large is far better than too small. Many bumper-pull hitch units are rated with the use of load-leveling bars. If you have them, use them. The ball alone may not be up to the task.
  • Keep a list of important phone numbers in the truck including mechanics, vets, friends who have trailers, and shippers. Whatever you do, DON'T forget your cell phone.

I wish for a Guardian Angel to be with all of you but.....don't drive faster than she can fly!

Happy trailering,

Gigi Nutter

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