Thoughts on Training Oxen: Part 1
Recorded at the 2016 MODA Gathering
by Abby Johnson of Rogers City, MI
photos by Judy Richmond of Leslie, MI
transcribed by Rob Collins of Centreville, MI
What I want to challenge people to think about is how you can train cattle using their natural behaviors, because that’s going to be your most powerful tool: If you can harness what they naturally want to do and use that to train them or to accomplish your task.
The first thing I want to point out is that cattle have a flight response: if you’re unfamiliar with cattle, that’s going to be the point where you walk into a pasture and the cattle turn and walk away from you. That’s kind of that area around them where they are going to move away from you. It’s often called the “flight zone.” With our oxen, our goal is to make that flight zone skintight; we want to be able to do anything to them. We want to be able to work around them and have them be calm, to be very comfortable with our presence. So what we do often to accomplish that is to spend time grooming, rubbing, brushing them. Those are all things you can do to make that flight zone smaller, to make them comfortable with us.
An additional point is that along with the flight zone is a point of balance. This usually is at the shoulders and is where the animal neither moves forward nor back. When training calves or people working with oxen, it is important to pay attention to where they are in relation to the point of balance. Too far forward and the calves will struggle to move forward; too far back and control is lost.
The other thing we can do is, when we introduce something to them, we are going to use it as a pleasurable item: we’re going to introduce it to them as “this is something that they are going to enjoy.” (Demonstrates) so we’re going to take their halter and we can rub them with it and scratch them with it. The goad: that’s an excellent back-scratcher. That way, they don’t view it as anything bad. Anything you introduce them to could be introduced in a calm manner to get that flight zone down and make it so they are very calm, very comfortable working with us.
Another thought I had with regard to that is: when you go into your cattle pasture to catch them for work, oftentimes we will walk in there, we’ve got our halters… We are going to “catch those cattle.” We’ve got this focused, determined look and we are going to go get them. And what do they do? They go the other direction!
So, you’ve got to have intention when you do things, but you also need to make it so they are “catching you.” They are coming up to you. Go out to the pasture other times. Take your halters out, but don’t put them on (the cattle). Do things so they don’t anticipate that you are going to be catching them every time. Be relaxed. Be open and approachable and your cattle will be coming up to you. When I walk out there to do stuff, or just bring a treat for them, or just to say, “Hi.” They are coming up to me then, and so when I go to catch them it’s no big deal. Sometimes I’ll put the halter on them and then take it back off again. Just to kind of keep them guessing.
The second thought I have for you to think about is: if you’ve observed cattle in their natural herd setting, they have a hierarchy. You have a dominant animal, and then you have the rest of the herd that is subservient to that cow. Our goal is to be the dominant animal. We want them to view us as the head of the herd. That’s not going to be accomplished by hitting or smacking them. That’s not how cattle obtain dominance; they’re not out picking up sticks and beating each other! In fact, your lead cow is not one that plows through the herd all the time. She does establish her dominance, but she’s also trusted. She’s there to lead the cattle, so we need to establish that trust with them.
A dominant cow is consistent with her behavior. The other cattle in the herd know what to expect from her. Consistency is the friend of cattle, they want to know what the rules are and they want the rules to stay the same. This is the difference between the herd matriarch and the adolescent heifer. No one knows what the heifer is going to do next, but a cow commands respect with consistent enforcement of the rules.
One of the things the lead cow does is she pushes the other cattle. She doesn’t hit them, she doesn’t smack them, and so that’s one exercise you can do with your steers: just pushing them backwards. The loser moves their feet. Even when approaching your oxen for working them have them back. An ox that doesn’t move backwards is not one that is submitting to you. If you are not able to back up your cattle, they are not in the frame of mind where they are going to be listening to you.
You could push them backwards. Push them to the side. Be able to move them around. And that starts when they are calves, but you could also do that with older cattle, and it’s something I try to do with my steers. This is something simple you can do, and even when you go out to the pasture and maybe they are showing a little bit of aggressiveness, they are testing you… The best thing to deal with that is to push them. Granted, you may have to use a little bit of “umph” to remind them. You can’t push a 2000 pound steer if they don’t want to move, but you can teach them to respond to pressure.
I use the term‚ “push‚” broadly here and do not mean physically moving a 2000lb steer or even a calf.