Last updated: February 2, 2023
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If you’re planning a road trip with your horse, it’s critical to know the laws regarding trailers. The US Department of Transportation has strict CDL and weigh station regulations, and you have to consider some state-specific rules before embarking on your journey!
As a general rule, you should stop at weigh stations when pulling a horse trailer if the road signs or station personnel require you to do so. And CDLs are necessary if your horse trailer has a GVWR of more than 26,000 lbs or if you make a commercial profit from your horse trailer.
CDL requirements and weigh station regulations regarding horse trailers can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes you are directed to pull into a weigh station but not the next time you pass one. Let’s learn what legally is required when pulling a horse trailer!
What Is a CDL?
Driving a horse trailer doesn’t come easy. Fortunately, traffic regulations like having a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) ensure that you are prepared to tow a horse trailer not only for your safety but also for the safety of others.
A CDL is a license required to drive Commercial Vehicle Motors (CMVs). CMVs include trailers, buses, vans, box trucks, pick-up trucks, and other large vehicles used to earn money. A CDL ensures the driver is capable and experienced enough to operate heavy vehicles on public highways safely.
The CDL was first introduced in the US in 1992. Before that, people driving large vehicles simply needed skills that were unique to such vehicles. However, the requirements for being legally able to drive a large vehicle differed in every state.
The lack of a national licensing standard caused a lot of trouble during interstate travel. More importantly, some states had poorly defined licensing requirements, which resulted in frequent accidents and deaths.
That’s why it’s important that commercial drivers have a special license so that they can drive professionally and safely, minimizing the risk of an inexperienced or irresponsible incident happening.
To obtain one, you must pass extensive written tests and a driving test to show that you have the required knowledge and skills to tow a trailer safely.
If you’re caught without a CDL and pulling any trailer that requires one, your fines will vary from $2,500 to $5,000–depending on the severity of the case.
When you are driving a horse trailer, accidents can often be prevented by following simple safety and essentials guidelines.
Do you need a CDL?
Many horse owners are confused about whether they need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to pull their own personal horse trailer. It may seem like the law wouldn’t apply to you because you just use your rig for transporting horses back and forth from competitions with friends.
But in fact, some state laws consider your truck and trailer combination a commercial motor vehicle (CMVs), and you are required to have a CDL when driving. So you should be aware of the requirements for getting a CDL before pulling your horse trailer.
When driving a horse trailer, you need a CDL if you earn money directly through your transportation. You also need a CDL if the combined Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of your towing vehicle and horse trailer is greater than 26,000 lbs.
If you are professionally compensated for transporting horses in your trailer, it is considered a commercial activity, and you are required to get a CDL.
In case you regularly haul your horses to win prize money or purse money and treat your trailer or other equine-related expenses as tax-deductible, you need to get a CDL.
However, if you occasionally visit tournaments, races, or horse shows in your horse trailer, and pay income taxes for all relevant expenses, then you don’t need to own a CDL. This is true even if you win any prize money.
Similarly, if you are making any reliable profit from your journey, like pulling your horse trailer in exchange for sponsorship money, you must have a CDL.
The minimum age to obtain a CDL is 18 in most states, though states like Hawaii and New York have a minimum age of 21. If you are hauling on an interstate in a commercial motor vehicle, you are required to be at least 21 years old.
Should you stop your horse trailer at a weigh station?
I’m usually not too concerned about our local weigh station when I’m pulling my horse trailer because they don’t require my size rig to stop. But you should be aware of what your state’s law says and whether or not it applies to horse trailers as well!
According to the FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), all motor vehicles are exempt from pulling into a weigh station unless an official highway sign directs them to do so.
For example, if the sign specifies “vehicles with livestock” or “trailers” to stop, you should pull in with your horse trailer. If you’re ever unsure what to do, stop at the weigh station, it’s better to be safe, and often horse trailers are allowed to pass through without inspection or delay.
Weigh stations are primarily used to ensure vehicles don’t exceed the legal weight restrictions. Some stations also inspect your safety equipment, driver’s license, and vehicle registration.
Most DOT (Department of Transportation) inspections are conducted at weigh stations. They include examining things like the exhaust system, seat belts, lights, and documents like logbooks, medical certificates, and waivers.
Some weigh stations also inspect the livestock you have in the trailer, so make sure your horse’s papers are in order, including valid Coggins, and ensure your horse is healthy when preparing for a long trip.
Because weigh stations are regulated by the state government, the respected policies vary widely. Many state policies or road signs only require vehicles with a GVWR greater than 10,000 lbs to stop at weigh stations. In states like North Carolina, trailers for four or fewer horses are exempted from stopping.
Another critical factor is whether or not your horse trailer is considered commercial. If you have a commercial plate, you will probably be stopped regardless of how you use the trailer and undergo inspection if you make a direct profit from your trailer.
Some places in the US use automatic weigh stations (called “weigh in motion” devices) that can weigh your vehicle while they continue to move.
Practically, most horse trailers are used for non-commercial purposes, and the weigh station staff is usually too busy with trucks and tractor-trailers, so they let you pass through. But as a general rule, you should pull in weigh stations whenever you are required to do so.
Below is a news story on YouTube about law enforcement cracking down on CDLs.
What happens if you don’t stop at a weigh station?
I haven’t seen anything bad happen from not stopping at checkpoints yet, but this is probably because I know and follow all local laws and guidelines thanks to living here most of my life! So just, what would happen if you skipped a checkpoint when pulling a horse trailer?
The consequences of skipping weigh stations illegally are serious, so ensure you abide by all laws when traveling with horses. Frequently you’re pursued and directed to drive back to the station, fined, delayed, and have to undergo a thorough inspection delaying your trip for several hours.
It’s important to note that many times weigh stations don’t inspect horse trailers, and you don’t have to stop. Weigh stations typically only take action against large vehicles that may be transporting hazardous material.
Fines for illegally skipping past a weigh station typically aren’t too hefty. The inconvenience arises if you are subjected to a Level 1 DOT inspection, which can take up to an hour and lead to further potential violations and fines.
The FMCSA uses a Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) score to identify high-risk motor carriers. If you are frequently caught illegally driving past a weigh station, it will negatively reflect on your CSA score that the FMCSA issues.
If your CSA score gets too high, you will become more likely to be inspected by officers.
What happens if your trailer is overweight?
If your horse trailer is overweight, you will usually be fined and given a temporary overweight permit for the duration of your trip.
In general, weigh stations require the excess weight to be removed or divided into smaller parts before allowing the vehicle to pass. However, that’s not a plausible solution if you are driving a horse trailer.
Also, some states are strict regarding weighing regulations, while others allow tolerances for most vehicles over the weight limit. In some cases, the driver is allowed to remove the excess weight. So if you are carrying extra grain or tires, you might want to take them off. You can call a friend or hire someone to pick up your property because they won’t store it for you.
Do I need a CDL to pull a gooseneck horse trailer?
The gooseneck trailer design doesn’t require a CDL, but if you use it to make money or meet the weight ratings, you must have a CDL. Don’t automatically assume when purchasing one of these trailers that they require a commercial driver’s license.
How much weight can a non-CDL driver haul?
If you are driving anything with a gross weight under 26,000 pounds, then you do not need a CDL as long as it isn’t considered commercial. You must have a commercial driver’s license to operate most vehicles used to make money in the United States.
Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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