Working with Oxen
by Bill Speiden of Somerset, VA
1) Gain their confidence
Brush — groom
Praise — as in “good boy” — tone of voice is more important than what is said
Trainer must be top of pecking order
Build respect, not fear
3) Starting — the younger the oxen the better
Pick up feet
Do not lead – drive from start – start with halter on
Get them used to being handled
Groom them and touch them all over
Name — off ox 1st name, nigh ox 2nd name
4) 1-2 months
yoke, or figure-eight rope, work horse halter around body — tied together
start with lead lines on both (eliminate on off ox shortly)
drive — do not lead or pull
work from the side
use their names
“get up” or “walk up” — move
“whoa” — stop
“gee” — turn right — walk in front of them
“haw” — turn left — step back on their left side so that they can go around you
“back” — reverse
“easy” or “slow” — slow
“no” — for disciplinary use
6) Secondary commands
“put in” — move rear end to center
“put out” — move rear end to outside
“step-up” and “step-down” — start with a 4” pallet, increase height, good for tricks or stepping up into trailer later
At 5-6 weeks you can start driving from the rear using baler string for reins and using the same commands in conjunction with pull on reins if driving with reins is a goal — not necessary nor is it historically correct.
7) Use voice, body language and whip (goad) to touch and direct, not hurt
Be consistent with voice commands and body language
8) After working them just in a yoke/rope/halter rig:
a) pull stick
b) pull metal / plastic bucket, snow dish etc.
c) pull metal bucket with rocks in it
d) expose to different situations — go over bridges, through narrow places between barns, through streams, parking lots (to get them used to painted lines on roads), manhole covers, railroad tracks — i.e., make them as bomb-proof as possible
9) 4-6 months — increase loads
10) Do’s and Don’ts
DO: work regularly
a) 1st five months – at least five days a week
b) be consistent in voice commands and body language
c) be patient
d) discipline sparingly, and with clear direction to train the ox
e) end all training sessions with a positive experience (e.g., asking them to do something they are already familiar with)
f) praise, praise, praise
a) overwork at first, 20 minutes at a time is enough — can be am, pm, or 2x/day
b) confuse oxen by constantly talking to them
c) become frustrated and yell at them
d) let the oxen train you
e) let oxen get away with mischief while in yoke
11) After five months, or when all of the above has been learned, the frequency of working becomes less important. The oxen retain training well, but should be worked once or twice a week to keep their purpose in life in mind.
12) If after training, the team is used only occasionally (like my teams), they will not be in good physical condition, and shouldn’t be expected to do heavy work for long.
13) After a year old, a seven hundred pound (each) steer pair can be worked slowly up to an eight hundred pound stone boat load. Remember, if you want them to pull heavy loads, or work long hours, they must be slowly brought up to speed. You are training an athlete and must work up to the heavier loads, and always start out a training session with a lighter load and “warm-up” your athlete. No runner in high school ever started out running the four-minute mile, it takes years to work up to their maximum performance.
14) Other training aids and/or events (ox driving schools, etc.)
video: Basic Training of Oxen, with Drew Conroy
book: Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide, by Drew Conroy
(available from Tiller’s International and Rural Heritage)
Rural Heritage Magazine: www.ruralheritage.com
MODA (Midwest Ox Drovers Association): www.midwestoxdrovers.com
Bill has been a dairy farmer for 40 years, a history teacher for 10 years, and has worked and trained oxen for 45 years.
Dear Small Farmer’s Journal,
We visited Bill on his farm a couple of times. He gave us a wonderfully instructive demonstration of his talented and well-trained oxen. And showed us his hoof trimming holding chute. We read about Bill in Drew Conroy’s book about oxen. And discovered he lived not far away at all. In fact, just one county away! That was several years ago already. We submit this as a “thank you” to Bill for taking time for us “greenhorns;” and as a tribute to his years as a Drover.
– Family M. Hund
This material is reprinted by Bill’s permission.