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Horse Show Review of the GMC Yukon Denali

Like many large SUVs, the GMC Yukon Denali is often accused of being a mall crawler – the kind of vehicle that never does any real work while in the hands of “soccer moms” – so with the help of my wife and her champion horses, I spent a weekend putting the plush GMC SUV through the paces of a grueling horse show weekend.


I certainly understand why some SUVs are accused of being unable to work – especially more luxurious models - but in the case of the large General Motors models like the GMC Yukon Denali and the Cadillac Escalade, they can do much of the same work as a full sized pickup. These are some of the longest-running SUVs on the market because throughout their history, they have built on a truck chassis with truck abilities. Even with that in mind, some uninformed critics insist that the Yukon Denali is best suited for parking at the mall.

Granted, the GMC Yukon Denali is a gorgeous daily driver with space for 6 adults in a plush, comfortable cabin, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be worked like a truck. To prove this point, I spent a weekend using the Yukon Denali in place of my own half ton truck as my wife and I headed to a horse show.

The Horse Show Weekend
The horse show weekend is a unique test which many truck and SUV owners face dozens of times each year. This entails loading the truck full of all of the supplies needed for the weekend including bags of grain, bales of hay, saddles, bagged shavings and assorted necessities followed by hooking up the 2-horse, 5,000lb trailer. The drive to the show grounds almost always includes a long stretch of highway travel followed by several miles on rough dirt roads, which are often rough mud roads and when we get to the show, the truck is then forced to serve as a climate controlled command center for the weekend. That means three days of sitting in the heat or cold, idling and giving us a place to retreat from the elements.

In addition to using my own truck many times, I have taken quite a few test trucks and SUVs to horse shows in the past few years, and when it comes to the sport utility models – the GMC Yukon Denali proved to work just as hard as a half-ton truck, while offering far more interior space.

Loading Up the Yukon Denali
Before we head off to the horse show, the first step of the weekend is to pack up everything that we need to take care of ourselves and two horses for three days. This includes 50lbs of bagged grain, 6 bales of hay, 6 huge cubes of compressed wood shavings for bedding, a muck bucket a pitch fork, my wife’s show clothes, a 200lb tack trunk and everything that the horses wear while there – such as saddles, bridles, blankets, etc.

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There is very little storage space in our little 2-horse trailer, so we need to fit as much as we can in the truck bed, but since I couldn’t bring myself to load the hay into the plush cabin of the Yukon Denali, we put the hay in the trailer and everything else was jammed into the back of the SUV. We strapped the saddles into the second row seats and folded down the third row seats – making plenty of space for everything else. The grain, the shavings, the tack trunk and the random buckets all fit into the cargo area with space to spare while the hay took up all of the storage space in the trailer. I’ve previous done the horse show test with the longer wheelbase GM SUV, but even the shorter Yukon was able to hold everything that we needed for the weekend.(More on the Next Page)

Next, we hooked up the horse trailer, which was a breeze with the backup camera of the GMC Yukon Denali and loaded up our champion show horses to make the two hour drive to the event. When we were ready to pull out, we had packed everything in the Yukon Denali or in the 5,000lb horse trailer out back and at that point – this big GMC was already better than some other “large SUVs” which have far smaller cargo areas.

Driving the Loaded Yukon Denali
The GMC Yukon Denali comes loaded with many of the premium amenities which you would expect from a Cadillac, but in this case, I am talking about the interior and trailer being loaded to the hilt. This Yukon is capable of towing a much heavier trailer than my 5,000lb 2-horse unit, but this is the same load which many horse show competitors handle almost every weekend. Literally everyone who comes to the show brings the same supplies for two horses, so while someone who wants to see a vehicle worked at its capacity will question my relatively light load – getting all of this stuff from point A to point B is a key step in a successful horse show weekend.

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As soon as we left home, it was evident that the GMC Yukon Denali with the powerful 6.2L V8 would have no problems pulling my 2-horse trailer. That 420 horsepower and 460lb-ft of torque make short work of the trailer from a stop and when accelerating on the highway, so where other large SUVs might feel a little short on power when filled to the roof and hooked to a loaded trailer – this big GMC felt strong under load in every driving situation.

More importantly, the GMC Yukon Denali felt perfectly stable when cornering or braking with the trailer out back thanks to the Magnetic Ride Control suspension setup. Many SUVs and some smaller trucks (even in the half ton segment) can feel like they are being pushed around by the trailer, especially when the big end has been pulled down a bit by a trailer. A vehicle that is being pushed around while braking can cause sudden changes in brake force, which can lead to the cargo (horses) being shifted around inside of the trailer. However, the big GMC SUV never felt like it wasn’t in control when we were slowing down or taking tighter corners, while the longer sweeping highway turns were as smooth as they are without a trailer. The high tech suspension adjusts to the added weight in the trailer and in the cargo area, preserving many of the great handling characteristics of the Yukon Denali even with the extra 5k hooked to the hitch.(More on the Next Page)

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The end of the trip required us to drive the Yukon Denali down a muddy dirt road which had been ravaged by the weather and the heavy trailer traffic – resulting in deep ruts which could practically swallow a compact pickup. While the optional 22 inch wheels are less than ideal for offroading purposes, a little patience on the rough road allowed us to make it safely down the trashed thoroughfare. I imagine that we could have gone quite a bit faster than we did, but in an effort to not break a wheel or bounce the horses out of the trailer, we took it slow and steady – and we got to the show grounds without any problem.

Finally, once we had unloaded the trailer, dropped it and unloaded the cargo area of the Yukon Denali, we had to run some errands in the nearby town to pick up things which my wife pointed out that I had forgotten. This gave me a chance to take the big, beautiful SUV around town without the extra weight – at which point I was able to put the hammer down and get a real feel for the acceleration capabilities of the 6.2L V8. Not surprisingly, the combination of 420hp and 460lb-ft of torque makes the Yukon surprisingly quick from a stop while also being able to reach speeds that most large SUV owners will never consider. Also, when taking the muddy road back and forth to the show grounds, I was able to seek out some deeper holes to see how well the plush SUV handled the slop – and in every case, the Yukon Denali passed the test with flying colors.

A Luxurious, Comfortable Cabin
So, the GMC Yukon Denali has plenty of interior space to hold everything that we need for a weekend of horse show work and it drives great both with and without the trailer hooked up out back, but a big part of the Denali appeal is the plush, loaded interior. This includes heated heavily padded, leather wrapped seats in all three rows, with heated, cooled and power controls in the front row and heated seats in the second row with power control for all of the rear seats making for easy cargo loading in a hurry. These seats are as comfortable as the seats in any of the GM models, with the only possible exception being the Cadillac Escalade – but shy of that pricey luxury SUV, the Yukon Denali has about as comfortable as a cabin as GMC can offer.(More on the Next Page)

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After the premium seats, the next most enticing feature of the GMC Yukon Denali is a premium infotainment system which offers easy access to the sound system and the navigation software. With the combination of touch screen controls, traditional buttons and knobs below the touchscreen and a huge spread of controls on the steering wheel (including the voice control button), the driver can adjust the sound system or the navigation without stopping or taking her or her eyes off of the road. Also, thanks to the Bose sound system, every type of music that we listened to on the trip sound amazing while the three-zone HVAC system kept us both comfortable – even though my wife is always cold.

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The drive to the horse show allowed us to experience the front seats, sound system and navigation software on the road, but once we got to the show, the Yukon Denali served a very different purpose. It never fails that the horse show grounds are cold in the morning, hot in the afternoon and fairly uncomfortable in any temperature. Because of that, every vehicle that we take to a horse show spends the entire weekend idling next to the stalls, so that I have somewhere to sleep between classes and so that my wife and her friends have someplace to get out of the elements.

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The biggest advantage with a huge SUV like the Yukon Denali is that you can fold down the second and third rows of seats, making an area as big as a queen bed. When lined with blankets, the rear cargo area of the Yukon made for a great place for me to sleep during the early morning hours, but there was still enough space with one of the second row chairs in its upright and locked position that my wife and two of her friends were able to relax in the AC and watch a movie while I spent in the back. The spacious front and second-row seats comfortably accommodate even very tall passengers, so during the course of the horse show weekend, plenty of our friends relaxed in the inviting environment of the Yukon Denali.

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There is enough space in the GMC Yukon Denali that you can literally live in it, with the cargo area acting as the bedroom and the front seats serving as the nicely equipped living room – complete with a premium sound system and a DVD player. Also, thanks to the wireless charging pad and the ample USB ports, everyone who was relaxing (or sleeping) in the Yukon could charge their phone.(More on the Next Page)

The Final Word
The GMC Yukon Denali is a beautiful SUV which serves as a fantastic daily driver with a powerful V8, tons of passenger space and a long list of luxury amenities, making it a great SUV for the family on the go. However, as much as the Yukon is a great daily driver, this big SUV can easily replace a pickup in a hardworking situation like a horse show – and it does just as well as a half ton pickup while performing those tasks with the only key difference between the trade-off of bed space for added passenger space and a climate controlled area that is big enough to sleep two people.

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I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Yukon Denali to someone who is looking to regular use this big SUV for a horse show vehicle, but for those people who don’t have any involvement in the equine world – this big SUV can just as easily serve as a great vehicle to use for a weekend camping trip without a tent. It is a great daily driver, but the capabilities of the Yukon Denali go far beyond anything that happens during the daily drive.

Patrick Rall is a professional writer and photographer with a passion for all things automotive. Patrick has been sharing his automotive expertise in automotive journalism from Detroit for more than a decade covering the Big Three. Having grown up in his father’s performance shop, he spent extensive time at the oval track and drag strip – both driving and wrenching on various types of vehicles. In addition to working as a writer, Patrick previously worked as an automotive technician before moving on to a business office position with a chain of dealerships, and this broad spectrum of experience in the industry allows him to offer a unique look on the automotive world. Follow Patrick on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.