Horse Safety through good design

Horse Safety by Kevin Parker

Horse safety through good design

Whether you are designing your own horsebox build or making manufacturer choices,  you will almost certainly need arming with a comprehensive list of items for consideration. Some items will come easily from your own experiences, others will need considerable research first. There will be many materials and finish choices along the way and many that deal with the safety aspects of the build alone. At some stage you will need to rely on additional advice and if you are ordering a new build, you will need to be one hundred percent confident that your chosen manufacturer has a good grasp of safety.

Safety and primarily horse safety should be at the heart of any good horsebox design. The goal is surely to manufacture the safest possible horse transport for horses. Planning and manufacturing around safety and worst case scenarios will generate topics for consideration and some will undoubtedly come as a surprise!  From the chassis up a firm foundation based on materials and coachbuilding expertise is essential. However,  you must also take account of behavioural characteristics. These include the fact that horses spook easily and are sensitive to noise and sudden movements, they get bored or anxious in the stalls,  kick both forwards and backwards, get hot and cold, rear,  jump, panic and paw. Designing with any safety for all these traits is an endeavor and takes experience. The ultimate goal is to reduce risk and wherever possible remove it completely. Below are some pointers for your consideration.



From the first hoof on the horse ramp, its size plays an important part of how your horses feel about loading. The simplest build option is to have large rear corner pillars with a narrowed ramp.  It makes the ramp lighter and is easier to manufacture. In reality the opposite works best and the ramp should be as near full width as you can design it, with the opening to the horse area as large and tall as possible, for stress free loading.

For all horseboxes the horse area should be a minimum height of 2.5 metres.  It makes the area inviting and ensures it can accept any sized horses and it ensures the largest possible demographic when you sell.

More importantly, the height directly influences heat build up and air flow and both are contributing causes of stress.  Stall sizes will depend on your horse size and a good design will see the option of adjustable horse partitions for width and, depending on the configuration, length.


Direction of travel

The most common accident scenario is a forward collision and for this reason horses should never face forward. This is because they will take the impact either on their heads or breasts.  Both scenarios are extremely undesirable.

The safest option by far is either rear facing or herringbone side/rear facing. A good design will ensure that the most padded area of the horse is presented where the impact will occur.


Horse partitions

Regardless of the materials used, horse partition design must withstand an accident at motorway speeds. Safety and strength are paramount here and it is worth considering that in an accident a horse suddenly becomes a much heavier moving object that needs restraining safely. Mounting points and fixings should be carefully considered too.


Air flow and heat

Air flow and heat build up must be near the top of any good design. Large head and tail windows placed to maximise air flow across horses are crucial, preferably with darkened glass to stop the sun radiating heat to the inside.

Roof vents and intake and extraction fans all have important roles depending on the size of the horse area. Roof vents are almost silent, however, fans are very noisy and need placing with care away from the horses heads.

I have a dedicated page on this topic, also worth reading – Horsebox Ventilation


Horse ramps

DEFRA recommend a 20 degree ramp angle and there are other considerations to take into account. For safe loading and unloading the step up from the road onto the ramp and the step up from the ramp into the horse area floor need to be as small as possible. This is difficult to achieve and I see many horseboxes with good ramp angles at the expense of very large steps and these are definitely not conducive to easy loading.

Ramp surfaces must be considered carefully and the best possible finish should work equally well in wet and dry conditions. For longevity the finish should stop water ingress into the ramp structure, so everything needs sealing very carefully.  Slats for grip, whilst loading and unloading, need equal thought on placement. Working out the amount and placement correctly will stop horses jumping on or off the ramp and facilitate easy loading.

For side ramps the outer finish should be free from any protruding hinges or closing mechanisms like gas struts. This is actually a test inspection point for anything above 3.5 tonnes and any design with safety in mind would do this (at any vehicle weight).


Load height 

Load height is basically where your horses stand in the horse area and their height from the road. The ideal is as near the road as possible. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this one point. It reduces body sway, helps stability and braking whilst driving and it directly affects the ramp angle and ease of loading.



Horses are herd animals and by design spook easily and especially so with unexpected noises like horns or passing motorcycles. So, the more outside noise you can remove, or at least reduce through good soundproofing design, the less chance of an incident there will be.

This process should include the inside of the horse area too.  Removing rattles, squeaks and vibration all help keep horse stress levels low.

It is also worth considering playing music to mask some of these noises. It works in the same way that white noise does to help with sleeping issues.


Colours and lighting

Colours can make all the difference to your horses and the goal is to make the horse area a safe, calm space that is as inviting and stress free as possible. Light colours work best and the fewer the better. Bear in mind horses have little to no interest in stitched logos or advertising on padding!

Travelling lights in the horse area that come on with the sidelights of the vehicle should preferably be green.  This is because green has a calming effect on horses.  For other lights, it is worth considering that modern LED as they are super bright, but need placing carefully. The best option is plenty of white diffused light, but always away form your horses head.  Ramp lights should be discrete and not spotlights with beams pointing directly into the eyes of your horses. The goal is to make it inviting to load and diffused LEDs pointing directly down work best. They actually soften the light and illuminate where your horse needs to tread.

Sharp edges

It is an obvious part of good design and unfortunately one I see overlooked repeatedly. You should be able to run your hands around all the cappings, edges and horse partitions etc and everything should be super smooth.  There should be an absolute minimum of screws rivets or cappings in the horse area too.


Drain holes

These should be at the lowest points in the horse area and need to be tubes to take the water and urine past any chassis mechanisms. All too often I see a drilled hole in the floor and mechanical parts directly underneath. Any hole drilled in the floor could allow said liquids to ingress the floor structure, so care waterproofing this area is crucial.  A more seriously overlooked point to consider is placement of drain holes in relation to exhaust gasses. The very last thing you want is exhaust gas coming up through drain holes!


Safety padding

This should be thick, smooth and durable. My rule of thumb is, if it’s easily pressed in with fingers, it will be almost useless with a 500kg plus horse leaning on it. The foam needs to be quite dense and waterproof.

I would add, it needs fixing in position without dangerous screws or fixings where the horses lean.


Steam cleaning, power washing and disinfecting

In conjunction with all other design criteria is the consideration for daily washing.  It is an essential aspect of horsebox ownership and any horsebox design should deal with cleaning the horse area and ramp. I recommend planning around the toughest steam cleaning and this includes chemicals like disinfectants. Materials need choosing with care and they should be fully waterproof. As an example, it is not a lasting finish if you use vinyl padding stapled to thin wood because water can ingress the back and start rotting from day one!

If you must have fixings at all, then every nut, rivet and capping should be thoroughly sealed and all lights should at least be IP66 rated for waterproofing and preferably IP67.



This touches on several previous points, the most important one being longevity.

If you were buying a car, would it be acceptable to have the manufacturer fully complete the build in bare metal and then just paint the external parts that you could see? Worse still, fully complete the build and then drive it to another company for spraying. I know I wouldn’t accept it for a car, yet it happens daily with horseboxes. Quality paintwork is not just painting the outside, it means painting at set stages throughout the manufacturing process. This includes chassis, subframe, cab and spraying component parts off the vehicle. Done poorly it can severely effect the lifespan of components and ultimately compromise safety.

It is not uncommon to see unpainted horseboxes still in the build process being used on the road with all the bare aluminium and steel parts oxidising from water and road salts. These builds are painted at a later date when the oxidisation has really taken hold. So even when sanded down and painted these horseboxes  start to rust again very quickly indeed.


Double skinned walls

Unfortunately there are always unpredictable events or circumstances we cannot plan for, including other road users, or even external influences such as loud noises. Some horses simply present with problematic or ingrained behaviour and a few are first time offenders. A safe design will take this into account and manufacturers should always anticipate that bulkheads and walls will take some extended kicking, or worst case scenario an external impact.


Bearer spacing

Planning here is extremely important and I have seen examples of horse area floors with bearer spaces in excess of 24″.  Ideally they need to be 12″ centers or less.


Technology for horse safety

Within the industry, rearing horses or ponies are the hardest thing to design for. We see plenty of reactive designs, either driven by sales or dealing with the serious after effects of rearing.  Reading a review of horse transport safety the study explained that 51% of reported incidents involve horses rearing. Planning safety here is crucial and the best possible designs are preventative solutions, rather than ones that deal with serious incidents after they occur.

The best product I have seen that deals specifically with rearing is the Equi Travel Safe Harness.



Finally, longevity must be considered a safety aspect of the whole design. However, there are consequences to manufacturing with longevity. Because it comes at a cost, the question you have to ask is, how much longevity do you want?. The labour aspect is probably negated somewhat if you are building a horsebox yourself and have good materials and processes experience. Disregarding the labour cost, you still have increased materials and design costs and these do add up very quickly. In some cases it may be the cost of sealing a capping fully and in others, the difference between an aluminium ramp or a stainless steel one.

Either way there is no substitute for experience.


Any queries or questions?

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