Nova Scotian Head Yoke
by Carl Russell of Randolph, VT
During the winter of 1991 I had to bury one of my workhorses. It was a bit of a set-back because I was in the middle of a winter logging job. I had been cutting white pine sawlogs in a stand with a long haul to the landing, and I needed a team to pull the bobsled. My quickest and most affordable solution was to use the two-year-old Holstein steers that I had started to work in the woods. The mare I had was a good horse, so I twitched logs with her, then hauled the sled with the steers. It worked so well that winter that I spent the next five years working almost exclusively with the cattle.
Not too long after that winter I came upon In Praise of Oxen, a book by Nova Scotians, photographer Terry James, and research librarian Frances Anderson. It is a fascinating display of photos and text portraying a culture of people who take working oxen seriously. Not only are the pictures of high quality, but the presentation by the teamsters of their cattle is across the board, exceptional. The head-yoked beef-cross oxen epitomize the old adage, “thick as a brick, and smooth as a trout,” and they are captured in a wide array of real working situations.
Although these pictures show amazing landscapes and colloquial settings, they clearly display the craft and culture of people who truly know how to work animals. I was so inspired by the images in the book that I contacted Ms. Anderson and made arrangements to meet with her and some of the teamsters while taking a vacation on the South Shore of Nova Scotia.
The character of the “Ox-Country” of southwestern N.S., as it is referred to, is that of rolling hills occupied by small farms and woodlots, where people keep alive the traditions of a culture of animal power. A strong and active tradition of ox pulling is evident nearly every summer weekend, as pick-ups with cattle boxes virtually block the roadways adjacent to the yards at Community Meeting Halls. There is little fanfare, other than the constant tone of ox-bells hung from ornate neck-straps on every team, as these friends and family members line up their cattle for the weekly contest.
When the pulls get under way these teamsters get right to business. Lined up one behind the other, each team is ready to hitch before the boat is completely returned from the prior team. Very few teams show any hesitancy, nor the need for more attention, and it is clear that they are worked regularly by people with expectations for excellent performance. One of the big differences from how oxen are used in New England, is that the Nova Scotians use head-yokes exclusively.
Francis Anderson gave me the name of an ox teamster in Pleasantville, N.S., whom she said would be a wealth of information, and would act as liaison to the broader community. Bazil Meisner is a tall and powerful man with a gentle and genuine demeanor. I felt immediately comfortable in his presence, and our conversations erupted spontaneously with the common language of rural communities where people work together in soil, or in the forest, and with animals. We had many shared interests and I was able to learn a lot from Bazil about the use of head-yokes on cattle.
Although some young teams are trained using bow yokes, as soon as the steers have stout horns started, they are fitted with a head-yoke. Headyoked cattle push the load with their forehead. The beam of the yoke is carved to fit behind the poll, and rests smoothly on the flat above the ears. Horn pockets are custom fit to each animal and each horn, so that the yoke can be strapped snuggly to the animal’s head. Traditionally, the long straps were made of leather, but today nylon is also used. The pressure of the load is born on a heavy leather, and often ornate, head-pad that is fitted to the forehead of the yoked animal.
Because the animals push the load with their foreheads, there are several factors that affect draft. One of the most important is that the steers need to have short thick necks so that there is less tendency for the neck to curve or sway. This is why the preferred breeds for oxen in Nova Scotia are Hereford crosses, most often Hereford x Durham. The angle of draft is controlled by a pole, or wooden tug, that is attached to the yoke with two adjustable lengths of chain. The angle with which the tug meets the yoke can be adjusted so that when the steers push into the load, the draft neither forces their heads up too high nor down too low. Like all draft animals, they need a constant angle of draft that allows them to lift the load.
A student of all things related to working animals, I decided that I had to get a head-yoke for my steers. Through Bazil I met Gordon Lohnes, the creator of the vast majority of yokes being used at that time in the area. Gordon reminded me of so many men I had known growing up in Vermont. He lived an uncomplicated life with his wife Doris in a small cottage with a shed and workshop nearby. Over the years he had worked at many aspects of rural life, and in the process had developed the skills of an artist, making yokes, handles, sleds, and many other pieces of necessary equipment.
He showed me how to take a bolt of yellow birch wood, and using a chainsaw, axe, draw-knife, and rasp, to shape it into a beautiful piece of functional equipment. Similar to bow-yokes, there are standard ratios between the size of the animals, and the length and dimensions of head-yokes. The blank he made for me was cut to fit the dimensions I gave him for my Holsteins, with the exception that the horn pockets would have to be gouged out by me when I fit the yoke. Using a pair of local cattle he showed me the process, so that I would be able to do it myself.
By holding the blank in place on the back of the head, the horns are traced onto to the front of the yoke using a pencil. This way the size and shape of each horn can be recorded accurately. Because the horns are not like stone, they can cause pain if they are squeezed, bent, or twisted, so the horn pockets must be cut very carefully. The first step is to trace a second pencil line about ¼ inch inside the first line drawn. Because the horns curve forward away from the yoke, the pockets are somewhat elliptical-shaped shallow cups, cut to fit snuggly along the contour of the horn at about 2/3-3/4 of its diameter. Repeated preliminary yokings show those places where wood needs to be removed so that it doesn’t touch the horn.
It is a time consuming process, but eventually the pocket is shaped so that the only place where horn touches wood is 2-3 inches from the base of the horn, and only at the very rim of the pocket. The straps that hold the yoke onto the head are wrapped at this pressure point in a pattern that goes around the yoke and horn, and across the forehead and head-pad. The load is born on the head-pad, but the yoke is held in place by the horns, so the horn pockets and straps need to come together at the strongest point on the horn.
There are wooden pegs mounted on the yoke, and grooves cut into the beam where the straps are attached and wrapped around. If the straps are not tight, then the yoke can slip back, pulling on the horns, which can cause pain to the animal. The process of tightening often requires the teamsters to place a knee against the forehead and pull with the strap wrapped around fist and elbow to provide the most pressure possible.
Two staples straddle the yoke near the center, about 8-10 inches apart. From hooks on the bottoms of these staples two lengths of chain loop from one side to the other, one chain in front, and one at the back of the beam. The angle of draft is controlled by the adjustment of these two chains. A wooden tug fits into the front loop with a steel hitch pin that bares the weight of the load. If this is the only point of draft, then the front of the yoke is forced downward. The second loop of chain cradles the tug behind the yoke, and holds down on the back-side of the beam. Head-yoked cattle will learn to adjust the tilt of their foreheads until they get their body right in line with the load, before they lift and push.
I used the head-yoke on my Holsteins for about a year, until they outgrew it. I really liked several aspects, including the fact that the animals move much slower, and absolutely together. However, there were a few aspects that proved unfavorable enough that I never refit them with a larger model. At times I felt they moved too slowly, and didn’t have enough freedom of movement for certain tasks. The major limiting factor was the conformation of the Holstein neck. Because my steers did not have short thick necks, there were situations working in the woods when it seemed as though they could not stay in line with heavy loads, and they would sway off to the side.
All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed my travels to Nova Scotia, where several years in a row I visited the community I found there. As so many people are finding these days, communities that are rich in experience and historical perspective are dwindling. Along with that, is the disappearance of people who know the skills and techniques that were developed through ages of people working the land with animals. For me the head-yoke was a vessel that carried me into the midst of people whom I never would have met, who helped me to see the depth and breadth of innovation and craft that is contained in the work of working with animals.