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Newly learned skill: oxen driving

June 9, 2012

As mentioned in a previous post, I recently took advantage of a unique educational opportunity offered at the Farm And Ranch Museum — I now know just enough about driving oxen to be dangerous.

Bugman joked that I should borrow some steers and till our garden, and a couple of people have joked that I could drive a team pulling a museum vehicle in the Oregon Trail Days parade.

Yes, I did manage to get the oxen do what I asked of them, but I give all the credit to the members of the Brompton family who trained their oxen so well.

The Bromptons – mom, dad, and four daughters – use oxen to do some of the work on their eastern Colorado ranch. The family uses tractors, too, but, as one of the girls commented, “oxen are more fun.” (There was a story in there somewhere about a runaway on one of the girls’ first attempts at training calves to pull their little red wagon, with littlest sister on board!)

In addition to passing on knowledge about oxen driving, the Bromptons spoke about history and their Christian faith. They also engage their students in sing-alongs. (I was much better at the oxen-driving part!)

Holly, Heather, Jim, and Hazel Brompton, ready for song.

One of the first things I learned in this class is that there is no such species as “ox.” An ox is simply a steer (castrated bull) or bull or cow that has been trained to work as a draft animal. Steers are most commonly used. The ox can be of any cattle breed. The two teams the Bromptons brought that day were a Limousin-hereford team (named Hero and King) and a Holstein team (named Major and Russell).

Some quick safety notes about working around oxen: they are a grazing animal that responds to threats by fleeing or fighting. They can be scared by new objects or unexpected movements. They are especially sensitive to potential threats that are directly behind them, in their blind spot. No matter how well trained they are, oxen may suddenly decide to bolt or fight.

One way that cattle fight is by kicking. Here is a diagram of the kick danger zone:

I grabbed this screen shot from somewhere on the Intewebz, but now I can’t find the site to give credit.

How else do cattle fight? Think about what you have seen bulls doing out in the field, or in cartoons:

Headbutt! Photo credit goes to Bugman, who captured this image in South Africa.

For that reason, the Bromptons cautioned against touching oxen’s heads, even for a friendly scratch, since the animal might interpret the gesture as a challenge.

The next lesson we got was how to yoke a pair of oxen, and the names of some of the pieces of equipment.

Step 1: lay the wooden yoke across the oxes’ necks.

Actually, this is step 1.1. Step 1 is getting the oxen to stand next to each other. That’s me in the blue hat. Photo credit: Loren Pospisil

Step 2: slide a bow (the source of the term oxbow lake) underneath the neck of each ox and push the ends of the bow through holes in the yoke.

Photo credit: Loren Pospisil

Step 3: add spacers as needed so that when you secure the bow via a bowpin (stuck through a hole in the bow), the bow properly fits the ox.

Yoke with the tops of the bow through it, and two spacers with the metal bowpin above them.

The bow should be of the proper width and length to fit the ox and take advantage of the pulling power in its shoulders. The bow should be wide enough to allow you to run your hand between the bow and the ox’s neck.

This fit was pretty snug. The Holstein oxen were just about grown out of their bows and yoke.

To train up a proper pair of oxen, you need to invest in yokes and bow of various sizes, to fit the animals as they grow. An ox should not be asked to pull heavy loads until it is fully grown (at about 4 years old).

A single ox can be yoked, but more equipment is required.

Heather Brompton shows how a straight single yoke can tip. At her feet is the metal yoke her dad made, which won’t tip sideways as easily.

Single ox hitch

This vintage image, captioned “Jacob Ritz driving ox cart in Rockville, Nebr. – 1885” was among the resources the Bromptons used to developed their single-ox hitch.

After the hitching lesson, a little fun:

Hazel shows off some rope tricks while riding one of the Limousin-Hereford oxen bareback.

The Bromptons riding their oxen is not a complete lark. They said that when they go out on the range to check on their cattle, the cattle are less spooky when approached by a human astride an ox compared to one on horseback.

Major gets saddled up

I took Major for a spin (with Holly leading). Am I a true cowgirl now? In case you were wondering, the object that looks like a strainer over Major’s nose is a muzzle to keep him from stopping to graze when he should be working. Oxen are good eaters, which is one of the reasons they were chosen over horses for pulling emigrant wagons on the Oregon Trail. Photo credit: Lesley Gaunt

Back in the yoke for a quick demonstration of a sweep mill, used for grinding corn.

We learned more terminology. The ox next to the drover (the drover stands to the left of the animals) is the neigh ox and the other ox is the off ox. Many ox pairs are trained with each animal always taking the same position. The Bromptons have lost oxen they were training to injury or illness, so they now train their animals to be able to work as either the neigh or off ox.

We also learned commands to tell the oxen what we wanted them to do.

  • get up – move ahead / speed up
  • gee – turn right
  • haw – turn left
  • easy – slow down
  • whoa – stop
  • back – back up

A tap with a whip or stick can be used to help reinforce the verbal commands.

For turning right (gee), tapping the neigh ox on the hindquarters and the off ox on the head causes the former to speed up and the latter to slow down to accomplish the turn. To turn left (haw), tap the neigh ox on the head and the off ox on the rump.

Make sense? Good. Here’s a team. Drive them!

I didn’t do too badly for my first attempt at driving oxen. Didn’t run into any trees, farm equipment, or the other ox team, which I thought was quite an accomplishment, given that my Holstein team was as tall as I was and they blocked my view of where we were going when turning right. Photo credit: Lesley Gaunt

Again, I credit the Brompton’s incredibly well-trained animals for my success.

Major is a major sweetie of an ox.

The next challenge was to drive the oxen while they were hooked up to a wagon. In addition to watching where you’re going and monitoring the oxen to see that they go the way you want, you have to pay attention to your turn radius. If you turn the oxen too tightly, the wagon wheels will bang into the wagon bed.

The brown horizontal metal bar attached to the wagon bed (just behind the gray vertical strip of wood) is the rub plate, which helps to protect the wagon bed from damage during short turns.

Me, driving a team of oxen as they pull a wagon on ground Oregon Trail pioneers traveled, with Mitchell Pass at Scotts Bluff in the background. When I was playing the old-school Oregon Trail computer game in junior high, I never would have imagined that one day I would be driving actual oxen on the actual trail. Photo credit: Lesley Gaunt

While I got some historical insights about draft animals and equipment that may be useful in my museum career, I have to admit that my primary motivation for taking the class was my sense of adventure. I like to learn by trying new things!

It was neat to find out who my fellow classmates were and their reasons for taking the class.

As supervisor of Chimney Rock National Historic Site and a member of the Oregon-California Trails Association, Loren Pospisil had an interest in learning the finer points of oxen driving.

This gentleman, whose name I missed, works at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado and is responsible for driving cattle there. He wanted to compare notes and pick up new ideas.

These ladies, who came from Fort Collins for the class, were interested in someday using draft animals for farming.

Truly an educational experience!

UPDATE: Farm And Ranch Museum joined forces with the former North Platte Valley Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2012 by Katie Bradshaw, except photos as noted.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. suemommy permalink
    June 9, 2012 10:49 pm

    I totallly loved reading about your adventure. Way to go, Katie! Are you now ready to drive your oxen across the country for a visit?

  2. Diane Van Vorst permalink
    November 26, 2013 8:30 am

    I loved this have a dexter cow and if she has a bull calf I want to train it to drive.

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