Slam Latches and Half-Tops: Stock Trailers for Modern Cowboys

September 13, 2018 - Comment

The design of a stock trailer factors into how efficiently modern cowboys do their job. Saddles, bridles, spurs and ropes are timeless tools of a cowboy’s trade. But trailers have served a vital role in ranching for decades. Riley Smith uses a stock trailer nearly every day. His job at Sandhill Cattle Company, a pre-conditioning feedlot


The design of a stock trailer factors into how efficiently modern cowboys do their job.

Saddles, bridles, spurs and ropes are timeless tools of a cowboy’s trade. But trailers have served a vital role in ranching for decades.

Riley Smith uses a stock trailer nearly every day. His job at Sandhill Cattle Company, a pre-conditioning feedlot he owns in partnership with Tripp Townsend, involves regular trips down narrow county roads and two-lane farm-to-markets around Earth, Texas.

During the past several decades, stock trailers have become an essential tool of modern cowboys.

“We keep our horses here at the feedlot, and in the mornings we just saddle up and ride the pens here,” Smith says. “But then we go check [yearling calves in surrounding] pastures they are scattered here and there in probably a 30-mile radius.”

Sandhill Cattle runs thousands of stocker calves every year, and whether they are placed in the feedlot or turned out on irrigated wheat pastures, the cowboy crew rides through them daily, checking their condition and doctoring any sick ones.

Smith pulls an 18-foot steel gooseneck trailer. With two axles and a half-top roof, it is ideally suited for hauling horses and transporting cattle when necessary. Its design becomes increasingly important when driving off-road, crossing soft patches of ground or deep ditches left by irrigation pivots.

“It’s 5 feet wide where it will travel behind my pickup,” he says. “You don’t want a wide trailer because it’s too easy to get stuck with all the sandy country we have here. So you want [its wheels] to follow in the tracks of your pickup.

“A lot of us used to pull 16-foot single axles. And the reason for that is you can turn them in a tiny circle. If you’re in a tight spot, you can completely jackknife them and it won’t hurt the axle. But the downfall is they’re not very smooth, especially if you’re driving across a wheat field that’s being watered with a sprinkler. When you cross those sprinkler tracks, it’s a big ol’ bounce. A double-axle is so much smoother on your horse.”

The half-top feature of his trailer comes in handy whenever it’s necessary to load cattle from an open pasture. While the front of the trailer, with its roof and mostly enclosed walls, shields his horses from the wind while going down the road, the back half of the trailer has no roof and the sides feature more bars than solid steel.

“A half-top is pretty mandatory, with wheat pasture cattle especially,” Smith says. “We’re always loading something to take to the feedyard. We’ll pull the pickup and trailer into the pasture, then rope the yearling and drive it or lead it to the trailer. Then you can flip your rope over the trailer wall and drag him in there. If you have a full-top trailer you have to feed your rope through the sides of the trailer, then dally again to drag the calf in there. Also, the sides on the back end of my trailer are lower and more open so you can see inside as you’re dragging.”

cowboys loading a half top stock trailer
Half-top trailers are designed to help cowboys load cattle from open pastures.

Smith adds that slam latches on the back gates and interior gate of a trailer are crucial.

“If you’re loading something that is a little stirred up, whenever that cow jumps in the trailer you can just slam that gate behind and it’s latched,” he says. “I’m a big fan of those slam latches.”

Smith often competes in ranch horse shows, ranch rodeos and team ropings, and if they are close by he uses his stock trailer. However, if he hauls a significant distance he hooks onto an aluminum slant-load gooseneck he owns. It has a larger compartment for saddles and tack, plus enough space in the front for a few beds whenever he and his family stay overnight.

Other than those times, Smith rarely looks into his rearview mirror without seeing his steel stock trailer following behind.

“I stay hooked onto that trailer almost all the time,” he says. “[Pulling] it is just part of the job.”


This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Western Horseman.

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