Today, when we see an all-aluminum horse trailer, riding on tandem axles and containing a bed, bath and kitchen for the owners, it's hard to believe this ultra-modern conveyance is only about 50 years old. The evolution of livestock hauling is a unique chapter in transportation history.
The earliest livestock hauling conveyance we can find is a wooden-wheeled wagon with a dropped rear axle using the rear end-gate as a loading ramp for animals. We guess the date to be about 1890 or 1900.
When motorized vehicles came along, we located photos of single animal trailers, obviously homemade and mounted on differentials stripped from automobiles. The sideboards and end-gates were wood slats bolted together with canvas stretched over wooden bows for a top.
By 1920, after post-World War I auto production made its rapid advance, most farms acquired utility vehicles or light trucks. This independence triggered the term "truck farming," where produce and livestock were hauled directly from farm to market, eliminating middlemen and traders. This movement was encouraged by the establishment of huge livestock commission houses such as those in Chicago, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.
Improved truck tire design, capable of carrying much heavier weights, spawned many livestock rack improvements patterned after the long-used rail cars that hauled livestock. At the same time, livestock trailers were being developed with a few early manufactured units appearing.
Like all new ideas, the livestock trailer had to go through many painful growing stages. When the average farmer saw, examined and priced his first trailer, as usual he went straight home and built "the better mousetrap" out of metal and wood from his junk pile.
Charles Goodnight, inventor of the first chuck wagon, made his invention so heavy and stout it took six oxen to pull it and they could not keep up with the long-legged longhorn steers in his trail herd. Homemade trailers usually followed this pattern and did not perform well.
A classic example of this practice occurred at the Trew ranch in 1954, when we built an iron cage on truck wheels that would have held elephants. We could ride our horses faster than we could pull the monster trailer out in the pastures. When traveling on the highway, it became a case of the tail wagging the dog. After several near-accidents, we parked the cage in the junk pile.
Finally, Dad broke down and bought a manufactured Hale tandem horse trailer that was a dream to pull down the highway. However, out on the ranch when using the old wagon roads, we found the low-slung trailer dragged high-center most of the time, forcing us to repair roads to reposition our tracks. If I remember correctly, we also spent some time trying to train our horses to load and unload from the new conveyance.
One improvement I remember came when the old hitch pins were judged to be dangerous. Laws were passed requiring all trailers to have ball pivots with safety latches and tow chains so a trailer could not come loose from a vehicle. At some stage, new rules required trailers to have clearance and brake lights. Heavier trailers were required to have an independent braking system.
The final and greatest pain of owning trailers and trucks came with the problem of flat tires during transit. For more than 50 years, every country road, ranch driveway and feed track had been accumulating a collection of rusty nails, staples and pieces of wire and metal. The common mesquite bush and cactus, usually ignored, now jumped out in front of every passing trailer tire. The tandem axles of the new trailers seemed to draw pointed objects like magnets.
Stockmen and trailer owners paid a price for this wonderful timesaving device each time they had to change a flat tire. Jacks, tire tools, lug wrenches, tire pumps, air tanks and air compressors soon became common sights at rural barns.
Horse trailers and livestock hauling trucks changed continually from wood, to wood and metal, metal and finally aluminum to save weight and fuel. Cargo also changed from strictly livestock to animals and feed. Some models today contain living quarters for the owners as well.
Ironically, the Old West horse who stood patiently tied to a hitching rail outside the local saloon awaiting his owner has been replaced by a trailer load of horses waiting patiently outside the local coffee shop for their owners to "saucer and blow" their morning coffee. Some things never seem to change.
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org