by Jacob LeGrand Hammon of Hilldale, UT
Dear Small Farmers,
I thought I’d send you some pictures of my oxen to help with your oxen section of your magazine. About eight years ago I read in your magazine, an article about a man who wrote that he had a team of horses and a team of oxen. He said that one was not better than the other they were just different. In my life I was raised by a father who was born in 1905 in St. Anthony Idaho and his father being a teamster who hauled freight from town to town for a living, was raised among work horses, helping his father with them. One of the jobs Dad worked on as a youth was helping build some of the roads in Yellowstone Park with teams, driving the teams while others operated the scrapers and such. On a trip through Yellowstone Park when he was in his 80’s, he suddenly said “stop the car” and getting out started looking through the trees saying, “I helped build this road and if you don’t believe me I will show you, for I pounded some iron spikes into these trees to hang our harnesses on. Look around and let’s see if they are still here”. Soon we found a tree long since dead lying on the ground with a spike pounded in it.
Through our dad we learned to love good hard work and a deep admiration of good honest working horses, in our youth our entertainment was good hard work, weeding the garden with our mother and building the harnesses for the horses with dad. Dad used to say “I will raise my children as I was raised at the tune of a buggy whip” and he did. Funny that none of us ever resented him for it. We just knew if we stepped out of line what we could expect. We drank out of the watering trough, ate food we grew in the garden, wore hand-me down’s, and dad cut our hair so we wouldn’t look “shaggy.” Funny that none of us have ever been in jail or that us kids still like hard work, or that we still think good food is what comes out of our own gardens prepared by ourselves and presented to our families as mother would with the chief ingredient T L C “tender loving care.” She always said, “Food presented in a nice way always tastes better”. Anyway, I was raised with horses and other live- stock on a farm that had 300 head of range cattle 800 head of sheep and a small group of milk cows. I spent my summers herding cows and sheep, hauling hay out of the fields with our teams and using them to feed during the winter. We never used mules. Dad always said he was afraid someone would say, “Hey look at those three jackasses and it would be just him and his team”.
I spent my young married life training horses for other people, be they work horses or saddle horses, built my home, provided for my growing family training horses so I have had some experience. Well I read this article in the Small Farmer’s Journal and thinking I have trained dogs, horses, and milked cows by hand most of my life, surely if I tried I could figure out how to train a yoke of oxen. I have never seen another ox in my life or how to train one. So wanting a good traveling team and something that could handle the heat I bought a matched set of tall yearling registered Brahma bulls, right off the range wild and breechy as they come. Spent the first coupl’a days trying to make it to the fence before they did. Sometimes I did and sometimes they did. I found out real quick a Brahma doesn’t telegraph what he is going to do like other cattle, he just comes. One minute he may be walking away from you in a round pen and if he feels you are pushing him just a little too much he will react instantly and chase you out of the pen. And just that fast too. Well first I bought a cattle prod, some people call them a hot shot. And enter- ing the pen when they came for me I touched them on the nose with the end of the hot shot and it didn’t take long for them to learn not to chase me around. Then I roped each one and tied them to a post and let them get used to what a rope was. Then, being careful not to get kicked, I would walk around them talking quietly. Still couldn’t touch them. I ended up throwing them and putting a set of leg straps on each front foot and then setting up a flying W, or a running W, on each one and pounding a bull ring through their noses. I was ready. I then ran a small rope with a snap attached to the bull ring through the ring on the surcingle, around the back of the bull and then through the ring on the off side ring of the surcingle and to the other side of the bull ring. I had a disced field next to their pen and when we opened the gate, Oh what a sight! The bull ran out of the pen and when we were ready we pulled on the rope and it pulled his front feet up and he went down; now remember this wasn’t some gentle milk cow, but a 900 lb. wild Brahma bull. At the end I don’t know who was the most tired, us or the bull. First he wanted to run then he wanted to fight. Our purpose was to teach him to drive with lines and his purpose was to remind us he was a Brahma bull wild and free. Well after several hours of us untangling ourselves and then untangling him he was tired. Seeing him ready to stand, I went up to pet him and show him we weren’t trying to hurt him but control him. Quick as a flash he kicked me, spun around and knocked me down, then spent the next few minutes stomping me down a rat hole with everything he had. Well my friends finally got him off me. It took a few days to heal, and then we were back at it. Using a buggy whip meant nothing to them but that hot shot did, so teaching them to “Get up” with the hot shot and “whoa” with the “W” and using the bull ring to control them, in one months’ time driving them separately and combined I had a team. I was hauling dirt with a dump wagon at the time. I was careful not to overwork them but to work them till they were tired; they learned to do as I asked. In one months’ time I could drive them down the road and when asked they would readily go into a trot and when asked to gallop they would gallop until asked to trot or walk. I could drive them with one finger on a small rope attached to the rings in their noses while seated in my wagon. There is an old saying when training animals “Tie in a way that they cannot get away, then later you can lead them with a string”. So in teaching them to stand tied I put a chain around their horns that they could not break. And when teaching them to lead I tied them to the bumper on my truck. Today I can clip a small rope to their chain and lead them at a gallop with that rope through the open window of my car or truck. One day I drove them five miles away from home, spent the day using a walking plow to plow someone’s big garden and when finished, hooked them back to the wagon and saying, “Go home” put the line around the whip holder, never touched the line again and went all the way home. They stopped at a gate going onto the highway, I got off opened the gate, spoke to them. They walked through and waited until I got back on and continued till home. I personally have trained many fine good horses, taken them to the shows and won many first place ribbons and if it weren’t sacrilegious I would say I have never trained anything as smart as those two oxen. Since then I have raised and trained two teams of Holstein steers. And now at five plus years old those teams wear 10 inch yokes and tip the scales around 2000lbs. So they are big. They are not as fine a team as those big Brahmas who will weigh well over 3000lbs. They are slower and tire out sooner and when they get hot they are done. I work all three ox teams in my fields hauling rocks, hay, mowing hay, raking hay, disking and all. And have never had a runaway, I am gentle with them and they are gentle with me. They gee and haw, back and side pass with ease. In the morning when it’s cool, I use the Holsteins. And then, when it is hot and humid with everything looking for shade, then I hitch up my big team of Brahmas and really go to work, as they can sweat and with their big floppy ears and dewlaps which help them keep cool. And with those long legs they can really travel.
Once I was over in a western wagon train in Utah where I was the only yoke of oxen. When I pulled up to the gathering grounds, tied to the fence were about ten head of mules waiting to hitch. When I started to lead those big oxen, they weighed about 1800lbs at the time, out of my gooseneck those mules pulled the whole fence down and ran off down the road with their teamsters screaming at me. Well so much for mules. I had one ox who had lost a shoe. I have been a professional Ferrier for years and when it came to figuring out how to shoe an ox who would be walking on paved roads I decided to cut out of the side wall of a truck tire for a rubber pad. I use tin snips for the job, then throw the ox with a rope. Then with the ox on his side, trim his foot, put some gorilla glue on the bottom of his foot, place the rubber pad on the glue, and then using some steel washers with small holes in them insert the shoeing nail through the hole and nail it all in place. Works real well. Every one of the people in the train were afraid of these oxen at first, with their big sweeping horns and the look in their eye, until I put him on his side using just a rope and started explaining how I put his shoes on him and they watched him just lying there. When everyone was hitched and ready the wagon master, who just happens to have owned one of the mule teams that went running down the road, came over and said we all know you can handle your team but every one of these mules is scared to death of those oxen so I want you at the back of the train behind the stagecoach. Well I waited for them all to get going, and when the stagecoach went by and was down the road some, I started my oxen, those long legged brahmas soon caught up to the stage pulled by a big team of Belgians. Soon the teamster was shouting for me to get way back as his team was smelling those brahmas and starting to dance. So I would pull off the trail wait until they were about 1/4 mile down the road, then start going till I caught up to them again and then repeat over and over. The trip was a 90 mile trip and lasted three days. At the end was a big parade which we were in. So, when the parade started I threw my young sons on those Brahmas and they rode behind their humps in the parade. In the parade were some nice entries, some floats, bands, some beautiful Friesian Horses and such, but everyone told me what stole the show were those oxen. Reporters and tourists mobbed us and those brahmas took it all in stride. Some policemen finally came and escorted us out of the crowd. I probably won’t ever do that again. Those Brahmas aren’t afraid of anything.
Once when I was first training them, as I was driving them on foot, a man on a horse with his dog came riding toward us. The dog, which was a big German Shepherd, came running toward us thinking to chase some cows. Well those oxen lowered their heads and didn’t miss a step, the dog seeing he couldn’t scare them came trotting around between me and the back of those oxen. When the dog got just right behind them, one ox kicked that dog so hard he flew right past me. We never had trouble with that dog again.
Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time. I never wave my arms or make sudden moves or act excited in any way. After all this time with those Brahmas they still do not like to be petted and shaking their big horns tell me, “I will work for you all day in the heat, and watch over you in the fields where you have that big range bull, but if you think to pat me or crawl under me to reach the other end of that surcingle I will try to kill you either by getting you with my horns or by kicking you.” With my big Brahmas every time I hitch them up I take my life in my hands. One sweep of their heads and those big horns could easily kill me, but you know when I am yoking and hitching them they won’t move at all, waiting patiently for me. If I need them to step up one step they do, or back the same. And believe me they know exactly how long their horns are and how powerful each ox is. Sometimes I think they are just humoring me because they continue to teach me how they like to be treated and when I treat them that way we get along nicely and accomplish a great deal.
On several occasions I have taken those Brahmas over to work with my Amish friends at their farms in Missouri. Their response has been ‘we like to see you drive them but don’t ask us to start driving oxen, we like our horses!’ One good friend told me, “I have thought about using oxen but I can’t find it in my DNA to want to use them.” So to each their own. I had used a small Dexter, a Zebu bull or a family milk cow hitched to a cart to help in the garden or berry patch or hitched as I do to my Planet Junior in the garden. They can be lead to work and back, called to move forward with the cart and wait patiently until called to move again. A single cow can provide milk, her calf meat, an income, a laborer alongside yourself in the field, a source of manure, and most of all a friend, standing at the gate to be milked, to go to work, or simply to remind you to love and to be loved.
Just some rambling thoughts from an old cowboy, raised by a man from the old school, where hard work, Faith in God and his fellow man, where good food, good stock and seeing that those people down the road were taken care of, was what he taught us kids was the right thing to do.
Sincerely yours with Love, Jacob LeGrand Hammon