Andrew Van Ord: Ox Drover
by Rob Collins of Centreville, MI
Producing and editing the newsletter for the Midwest Ox Drovers Association often feels akin to hitching a team to a load. Often, people approach with information that they want to pass on, but they don’t know how or where. Others need information, but can’t locate the right person to ask. I get to hook the chain. Along the way, I’ve learned some shortcuts. If it involves a history question, I have a few folks to turn to. If it’s training, a few others. Rare breeds? Still others.
Andrew Van Ord gets the questions for a number of categories as they come up. A breeder of Devon cattle, he’s one to ask about rotational grazing, Devons and small-scale farming. But as a lifetime teamster in Western Pennsylvania – just far enough outside of New England, he has taken a hard look at what works – and what doesn’t – in working cattle: Oxen, working steers, and working cows.
At the start of the Pandemic-related shutdown, I coaxed him into a lengthy phone interview, which he was gracious enough to sit for, in between checks on a cow about to deliver a newborn calf. – R.C.
Rob Collins: How do you get an animal to stand? Because I saw your dad’s that same way. He would park them and they would stay. I mean, force of will is one thing, but there must be a process to it. How did you train them where, regardless of what is going on, they will stay.
Andrew Van Ord: I would never trust younger animals that way, but the way we always did it… Dad was always a firm believer that the best way to train an animal was real work. As a kid, I always liked to take them out and take them for a walk down the road, and if dad would let me get away with that, that’s what I did. I still tend to do that, but he’s absolutely right: the best thing for training is real work and probably the best real work for them, that I can find, is picking rocks. We’ve got plenty of them around here. You know, you take a stone boat out. We generally kept a horn tie on them if nothing else but an insurance policy, but dad whipped on us very hard to manage the rope correctly.
If you watch videos on “All Things Oxen,” you’ll see people hanging on the rope and I guess it’s part of my childhood trauma: Every time that that rope comes up taut and that animal’s not running away it triggers me I guess, if you want to call it that, because that’s the way I was raised. If we were working them, once they got a little bit reliable, we didn’t have it in our hands anymore. We tied a loop in it and hung it on the bow or hung on the Britchen. You didn’t want to let dad catch you letting that rope come up taut. It was one thing to have it in your hand, but it should always have slack in it unless they are trying to run away.
The other thing, you go out with a stone boat and pick rocks or something like that, and once you get enough weight on there where they don’t want to run away. There’s enough weight on there or they’re too tired and they don’t want to, that’s the best time to start teaching them to stand and stay. That was our command. We would put the goad,or whip, down and say “stay,” and walk away. Practice how far you can walk away. With a little bit of practice, it got to the point where you could stop them in front of the house and go in and grab something to drink and come back out and they were usually still where they were supposed to be. I’m not going to lie: it doesn’t always work. Obviously, every once in a while, you get one that takes off. The way we always handled that, though, is that they almost always go to the barn and stand and wait for you. We always just matter-of-factly went to them and got control of them and took them right back to where they left in the first place and went back about your business. There’s no point in yelling at them or beating on them or anything. I think the only time I ever really remember my dad yelling at a team after they had taken off… We were in the woods and one steer tried to go on one side of a tree and the other steer tried to go on the other side and when the yoke came up against the tree, dad hollered “whoa!” Of course, they didn’t have any choice when the yoke came up against the tree. I don’t remember that team ever taking off again after that. They hit that tree awful hard and luckily didn’t break the yoke, but that was a hard lesson for them.
But yeah, most of it is just practice. Learning the animal. We would start by telling them to “stand” and “stay,” then back away from them or circle around behind them. Practice going further and further away from them. You can tell when they’re getting it in their head that they’re going to take off. You holler at them and stop them. Go back and work them some more. Just keep on practicing at it.
RC: I will occasionally hide in the barn. I get them where I can see their shadow, so I know they can’t see me but I can tell by watching their shadow if they decided to take a step or not. I usually lose my nerve counting to 100. At 60, they’re probably going to stay so I might as well go out.
AVO: I really think the big secret is to have something that you are dragging. I don’t particularly care for using a wheeled implement for this, but a stone boat or a good sized log or something, and then to have them sufficiently tired. That’s kind of a trick: dad sold a pair of steers to a couple out to Tillers one time and we had dickered on them before we ever took them out. We met at Tillers and they were on the trailer. They were little calves, and they were still young – I don’t know, probably 18 months or two years old – and I hitched them up for, I think, the first time in a few days and took them out and they were a real handful. The guy mentioned that, and I said, “just give me a few minutes.” Dad had taken his steel stoneboat out, so I started taking it around and gathering up whatever I could find to put on it. They wanted to – not run – but go at an awful brisk pace. I let them go at whatever pace they wanted to go but just kept on adding more and more weight to it. Everything I could find, until they finally figured it out. Then they slowed down and were a dream to handle, and that’s pretty much the way that we usually worked.
I had a little Charolais that my dad bought against my better judgment, I think, but he ran off. Dad was going to show me how to do something one time and the steer ran off on dad. He blew up and told me to take him down to Hidden Valley and back, which was a campground about 5 miles from here, and being a stubborn, pigheaded kid, I took him the 5 miles there. I tried to teach him a lesson. I don’t remember him ever running away after that.
(That Charolais) was kind of interesting. We never had that much regard for Charolais as far as oxen, but we went to an auction sale and this calf was there. I didn’t pay any attention to the mother, I just liked the calf and was bugging dad for him, but dad always said there was something about the mother that he really liked. So anyhow, he bought the calf and hired a trucker to bring him home in the truck and to put him up in the gooseneck, because he had a bunch of mature cattle in the back, so he stuffed that calf in the gooseneck. When he got here, he opened up the door and this little calf came out the door, and knocked him over, and got away. Oh, I remember him yelling about how evil that calf was and he “didn’t care if he ever saw that calf again!” He trucked cattle for us all the time, so we knew each other pretty well. I took the calf down and tied him to a tree. Him and I were good buddies in probably 20 minutes: curled up in the yard, brushing him and laying down. He always was a bit of a hothead. One of the things that I kind of lost touch with was – I don’t remember the young lady’s name – she came over from Switzerland to Tillers…
RC: Anne Wiltafsky?
AVO: Yes, she was talking about using a brush as a training aid, and I know that that just drives a lot of the pullers up the wall to think of a brush as a training aid, but she’s absolutely right. There’s a knack with training. You want to be the boss, but you want to be their friend, too. Dad always equated it to being a parent.
RC: What kind of a… You alluded to your dad being maybe rougher on the kids than he was on the cattle… What kind of a teacher was he? He gave me a little advice the few times I saw him, but in terms of running his 4-H club and training you guys to train cattle, what was that like?
AVO: He was very passionate about oxen, so you did it the right way or you didn’t bother doing it at all. That type of thing. He was pretty hands-on. He helped us a lot and he was a stickler for trying to find jobs to do with the cattle that were interesting but, like I said, he was a stickler for real work being the best training that there was for them.
Kind of a case in point: I would have been in sixth grade, I think. We went on vacation and when we came back from vacation we were supposed to build a patio on the back side of the house. I was a knife collector, so we went to Sevierville, Tennessee. Smoky Mountain Knife Works was there. At the time it was nothing compared to what it is now, but anyhow, I was just drooling all over these knives, begging and begging in hopes of getting one of them. Dad finally broke down and said, “You know when we get home I was going to hire a contractor to come in and dig out for the cement pad for the patio. If you want to do that with your steer, I’ll buy the knives instead of paying the contractor.” I guess I was dumb enough to take the yes, because the patio was 20 x 60 and I can’t remember the totals now, but I’ve done the math before on the tonnage of it. We dug a foot of dirt out and hauled it away with that Dexter steer. And then dad, being true to form, instead of having the gravel dumped in the patio or near the patio, he had it dumped in the front yard and the patio is on the backside of the house, so that – not just for the sake of creating work – but for the sake of creating work that I could do with the steer as a training aid.
So we hauled a foot of dirt out, and 6 inches of gravel back in with that little Dexter steer and a cart that had a wheelbarrow pan. We would wear that pan out every other year I would say, and have to replace it. I know I wore it out that year. To haul the dirt away, dad would go out to wherever he wanted it put. You know, “I want it put right here, not 6 inches to the left, or 6 inches to the right. I want it right here,” and then he expected you to back the cart up and dump it right on that spot. That was the best year that I ever had at our county fair. I was unstoppable, or I should say: the steer was unstoppable that year at the fair. Nobody could touch us because we had worked all summer hauling dirt.
He (dad) was a real stickler. He had… I guess I would call it a code that he evolved over the years. He studied everybody, I mean, you, anybody out to Tillers, trying to pick up on anything new that would have been good. Pick up on “Boy, you really shouldn’t do that. Here’s something that maybe we should emulate, and here’s something that you definitely don’t want to do.”
He had a whole list of a code like that: you don’t let them eat in the yoke. You don’t let them drink in the yoke. You don’t let them lay down. You don’t expect them to pull without putting their butts together. Like I already mentioned, he was a stickler for the rope. All kinds of stuff like that. It evolved over the years of his experience, and he could go through and give you an excuse, or a reason, for every single one of them.
When he was first starting out, they did a parade and they hauled a wagon around a lake. The whole time, the steers were thirsty – I want to say they were somebody else’s steers that he was driving – but the whole time going around the parade, they were desperately wanting to go down to the lake to get a drink. That was the last time he ever let any steers drink while the yoke was on them. Just so you reinforced – they know that when the yoke is on, it’s time to work. They don’t bother trying to take a drink. Of course, eating is a little bit more difficult but that was the way I was raised: you didn’t let them sneak a blade of grass. You certainly didn’t let them graze freely with the yoke on and that type of stuff. I know a lot of people allow it, but I was raised with his code. You don’t do it and there’s a reason for all that stuff. It wasn’t just for the heck of it. The same thing with using treats and that type of stuff. We use treats for bait, basically to get them into the barn and that type of thing, but as far as a training aid, that’s pretty much a no-no for us.
He was a good teacher. He was very focused. I know some people thought he had natural talent. I never really felt that he had natural talent. I think he just had a passion and he worked at it. He was very focused and very consistent. That was his big thing. You know, you always put the yoke on the exact same way. You always put the key in from the back to the front… Everything was done kind of in a ritual-type of way. In fact, when I was in college, it would be kind of tough to come home and help with chores and stuff, because it transcended into that, so when you come home and he had a routine of how he did things on his own and the cattle are all accustomed to that and I’m thinking, “gosh, I’m going to help the old man out.” You kind of end up messing things up because you break the routine. At that point he had a big pair of Devons that he would feed out round bales of hay with and he could – I think the feeder’s on its last year now – but he made like a wooden shed on skids. One end would open up on a hinge and – I don’t know if you know what a tumble bug is, the tumble bug that they have for hauling hay. We have one of those – and he could back it up and put a bale of hay in the feeder. There’s only about 6 inches of clearance on either side and there’s no clearance in the height. The bale just barely fits in there, but he could dump a bale in there by himself without any problem with those steers. If I came home from college and tried to help him, it always just seemed like you ended up being in the way because you messed up his routine.
RC: Did you butt heads?
AVO: Well yeah. I think every father and son butt heads at different times, but for the most part I think we got along. I remember my parents kind of had to goad me to go out and work my steers when I was nine or 10 years old, probably. After that, it got to be where they didn’t have to push me quite as much. There wasn’t a whole lot of competition at our fair, so it was kind of hard to be too motivated. It wasn’t like New England where they have a lot of competition, but I did get competitive and so I would go out and practice. I wouldn’t call it butting heads, but sometimes with him being such a stickler on things – which I think was a good thing now, but at the time – it’s kind of daunting as a kid. You know, every time the rope comes tight he pointed it out. That type of stuff. It’s the only way you’re going to learn, but at the same time, it’s kind of overwhelming, I guess. Most of the time though I don’t think we really, on oxen, bumped heads too much. All of us kids drove just like my dad. We could all drive each other’s steers. We always use the same commands. We used the same driving style. My wife picked on me when we were still going to the fair: Going to the show ring, I put my left hand into my pocket and that’s about the only time I ever put my hand in my pocket, and my dad was the same way. Just driving around the farm, he never did but for some reason in the show ring he would put his left hand in his pocket and somehow I picked that up over time. That’s kind of an interesting thing, too, some people thinking he had some God-given talent. He always thought a teenaged girl made the best teamster. One of my older sisters, I don’t think she’s as good of a teamster as my dad was, but she had more talent. Just natural talent. She could usually take, sadly, my own steer or my dad steers and get one more pull out of them than we could. She and I were very competitive at our fair. We had a log pull. It was an obstacle course, you know, a precision type of thing. She didn’t have a steer; she hasn’t had any cattle for decades and decades, so she would always take one of my dads out and I would compete against her. Sometimes she would beat me. That would be the only time that year she had driven that animal. Dad would have worked it through the summer, but the only time she ever touched it was at the fair and then she’d end up beating me. She always had a knack for it.
We had a percentage pull. There were times dad would pull and she would go out and take his cattle and get another pull out of them. He didn’t think he was going to be able to get that out of them.
RC: Do you drive with a goad or a buggy whip?
AVO: Different things for different times. I kind of prefer a goad for the most part now. When I was a kid we always used – we had a bunch of broken off buggy whips around. I always preferred a leather lash. To me, that is a very personal thing. I see people now driving with a fiberglass fence post and it just makes me cringe because it has no life to it. There’s no flex to them. I would never be able to drive anything with something like that. Dad used to sell – he used to call them a black hornet goad. I prefer those for the most part. They have a lot of life to them. They are flexible. The ones that they sell out of New England that are nylon are probably second-best. When I had my four heifers that I was driving abreast, I had to use a buggy whip with a long lash in order to be able to reach all the way to the off side. I remember as a kid we used to fight over a particular whip: all of us kids just preferred that one until it finally broke. When we preferred it, it was already broken: it started out as a long whip and then the fiberglass inside of it snapped off. You pull the fiberglass out through the weave… I think it was about a 4 foot whip with a 4 foot lash on it. We used to fight over it. At the fair – going into the show ring – if I showed before my sister, I would use some other goad outside of the ring and then I would use the “coveted whip” inside the ring. As I was going out of the ring and she was coming in, we’d have to trade off so that she could have the good whip in the show ring. That’s how much we used to fight over it. You get used to it. It has the right balance in the right length and if you practice with a whip you get pretty good with it. You could predict how it’s going to swing and everything. It’s a very personal thing and, like I said, I kind of cringe when people talk about driving with a fiberglass fence post, but if that’s what they like, then by all means that’s what they ought to use. It’s just not what I prefer.
RC: Yeah, I have one that I really like: an old buggy whip that has lost the handle; I had my daughter braid me a lash out of fly fishing line – which really only serves a purpose to give me a break while I am untying the knots that it ties in itself. (Laughs) it’s ridiculous. I spent half my day untying these dumb knots. I can’t figure out a better way, but I really like that one.
AVO: It’s a fiberglass whip then?
RC: It is. Just one of those with the weave on the outside.
AVO: Yeah, and eventually someday, 6 inches of fiberglass is going to break off the end of it and it will become a different whip: it will no longer be the whip that you love anymore. I don’t know what it is about that. We used to try to emulate them. We’d get a whip that was longer and take a pair of pliers and try to snap off the fiberglass at just the right length and pull it out of the weave to replicate another whip. Sometimes you came close, but usually it was never quite the same. I’m really not – as far as between a whip and a goad – I’m not too picky. I definitely have a type of whip that I like and a type of goad that I like, but I can drive with either one. I do believe that you have to be able to reach. Driving a big pair of steers, I would prefer a lashed whip over a goad, just because I want to be able to reach. With a single or with a pair of calves, I can usually reach them pretty good with the typical goad and I generally think I’m a little more accurate with a goad than a whip. The public seems to be a little bit more accepting of a goad, I think, than a lashed whip, not that there’s too much logic in that. It’s pretty easy to make a lot of noise with especially a leather lash or even with the cod line lashes that they braid in New England. It’s pretty easy to make a lot of noise with that. The public seems to get their hackles up over the noise, without any real consideration of what it is. I used to judge our pulling contest when I was a little bit older, before it all folded up. Inevitably there would be somebody from the public that would complain about a certain driver – that they were being too rough on them and stuff – and I always took into account what they were driving with. One particular year, they were complaining that the guy was whipping them too hard. He was using a shoelace for a lash. You can’t hurt them with the shoelace. I went and got his whip and showed them what the lash was and I explained to them, “you know, if this was a whip – a wet piece of leather – I’d be completely agreeing with you. I would’ve chastised him in the ring and told him to hold off on them. But it’s a shoelace and not even a leather shoelace.” There’s no weight to it and you’re not going to hurt them with that. I don’t care how hard he hits them with it, he isn’t going to hurt them with it.
RC: I guess my only question is: does it tie itself in knots, because maybe I’ll get myself a shoelace!
AVO: (laughs) I always prefer to have what I would call the “nuclear option.” When I was a kid, with lashes, I always preferred the leather lash, because you could use it “strenuously” I guess, if that’s what you want to call it, if you had to, but with a little bit of practice you could also be very gentle with it. The same thing with a goad, and especially with these black polypropylene ones, if you ever wanted to be you could be extremely brutal with them, but there’s no excuse for that. If you use it properly you can be very gentle with it, where if you’re driving with a shoelace, you really don’t have any options. At least in my opinion.
RC: For a leather lash, what does that look like? Is it braided?
AVO: I was always too cheap to use the braided ones. I do have several braided lashes. I actually have one that’s woodchuck rawhide. It’s a little bit dry-rotted now. It was on a whip from my dad’s mentor. I never use the braided leather lashes. We just used – in fact I think it was a piece of leather shoelace – but it was just a single strand of leather and it was well-worn. Like everything else, it would slowly break off and get shorter. I don’t think there was really anything special about it that I can remember, but it had weight to it, and especially if it got wet. That was the thing as a kid that I remember learning was with a leather lash there’s a big difference whether it’s dry or whether it’s wet. It would be real easy to raise a welt if it was wet in comparison to dry. But it had enough weight to it that you could swing it pretty good if you needed to. I got pretty good at making it crack. I made a big habit of that but – not while I was driving the steers. That was one of the things dad used to get after me about, and I get after my daughter about: you’re always training them. If they can see and hear you you are training them. It doesn’t matter if they’re still in the pasture and you’re outside. But as a kid, you’re standing in front of the barn cracking the whip for the fun of it, not realizing that they are picking up on all of that. So I used to like to play around with it in the barnyard. Yeah the leather lashes we used were nothing special: just this strip of leather with a slit cut in the top end of it that you would run through the thong on the whip just like the cod line lashes. Those make a fantastic lash, too. My only complaint with them is that I wish they were longer. I don’t know of anybody that braids them more than maybe 2 feet long. I always preferred a 4 foot long whip and I like to have the ability of holding the lash… When you’re holding the end of the whip I like to be able to hold the lash in one of your fingers so that it’s not flopping all around. You have to have a longer lash in order to be able to do that, so that was always my big complaint with the cod line lashes. But they make a heck of a good lash, too.
Dad always carried a little glob of beeswax in his pocket. I don’t think he ever went anywhere – even in the wintertime when he wasn’t driving very much, you know after he wasn’t driving cattle very much – he always had a little stub of a carpenter pencil, a little mini tape measure, a pocketknife, and a glob of beeswax to wax the lash.
RC: Do you favor a team or single?
AVO: I have to say I favor a single. Well, that’s what I grew up doing. We’ve always had more singles than we did as a team and then- even if we were going to break a team- then we broke them single first. Even the four heifers that I broke all of the same time, I did it the same way: I broke all four of them single, and then I paired them up into two teams and worked them as individual teams, and then eventually put them together as four.
But I really prefer singles. They are more handy, I guess. You can get them in the tighter places. I always felt that you had a better bond with them when it’s just the two of you, instead of three. I think they rely on you a little bit more. A lot of the New Englanders don’t think much of it: I’ve seen several times with someone making a big deal out of them running away – and there is some truth to that – but I always felt that most people blew it out of proportion. As a team, in order to run off they have to get together and agree that they’re going to run off, where a single can do anything it wants, making up its own mind that way. I think that that’s a small issue. I don’t think it makes that big of a difference. By far the biggest issue is that there’s very little equipment that’s designed to be used with a single.
RC: We had Oxen Basics Class last summer. One of the students, she kind of took a shine to Zeus, my Dutch belt. I was out doing the obstacle course, and I just had him tied to the trailer and I said, “Well sure, you can go get him if you want.” A couple of minutes later, everybody’s all in an uproar because here he comes just racing down the lane. He had decided, “No, there’s no way I’m going to listen to her.” And he came running right through. I called to him. He trotted over to me and stood there like: “Well, what do we do now?”
AVO: (laughs) Yeah, I have to admit that that type of stuff happens a little bit more with singles, but I’ve seen several of the New Englanders who make it out like you can’t possibly drive a single without them running off and that just hasn’t been our case. I don’t really remember having that many cattle ever run off. In fact, the last ones that did were those four heifers together. I took them for a walk down the road. We were hauling a tire. I can’t remember if I had them in tandem or four abreast – I want to say I had them four abreast – but anyhow, a car went by and they didn’t even bother slowing down at all. (The car) spooked them just enough; they didn’t run off. They lunged ahead far enough that I couldn’t reach them anymore and the faster I walked to try to catch up to them, the faster that they walked, and they could outpace me without running. I wasn’t gonna try to run after them, because that would just set them off, so I basically ended up chasing them the whole way home at a brisk walk. They came down – they were four abreast -because our road is crowned. It’s a dirt road so it’s crowned real steep. They like to go down the middle of the road so the tire will balance on the top of the crown instead of constantly sliding down the slope and into the ditch. When another car came, I was pretty impressed with them: they actually got off towards the side of the road to let the car by. I didn’t tell him to get off to the side. They did it on their own when they heard the car coming. They didn’t stop, or even slow down for me to try to catch up, but they crowded off to the side of the road and let the car go by, then they went back up to the ground in the middle of the road and came home. The neighbor was getting a new roof put on his house, so the construction crew got a good chuckle out of me following along behind them. My wife and mother were sitting on the patio. The calves walked by and went down to the barn. By that time, I was probably 75 yards behind them. My wife joked, “Didn’t Andy go with them when they left, and now they are back without him.” Pretty soon I come around the corner of the house, grumbling to myself. I go down and don’t yell at them or anything. Turn them back around and go back out for another walk and pretend like nothing ever happened. That’s our way of dealing with it anyhow, and it seemed to work.
RC: As Almanzo says in Farmer Boy, “They’re not running away, they’re just running.”
AVO: (laughs) It all depends on if they go where you want them to go or not.