Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies

I have just gotten word from Greenleaf Press that my little book, Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies is back in print. I wrote this in 1998 to support the Sam Brady Conferences. It is a practical look at the mechanics of scouting in hostile territory based largely on sources from the eighteenth century. I tried to use my experience running recon in Vietnam and other peace time military assignments to make the eighteenth century sources more understandable. I believe scouting is a timeless art. Moving silently, avoiding being seen, maintaining all around security and defending yourself in a tight situation miles from friendly support do not hinge on weaponry or technological improvements. Frankly, a soldier carrying sixty pounds of light weight, high tech equipment is less secure than a Stockbridge scout with next to nothing. So, this is eighty pages of lessons learned. I sincerely hope it helps someone.

The cover art is by David Wright who generously did the painting just for this book. I think he really captured essence of scouting in this painting.

It can be ordered from Amazon:

For retailers/resale or bulk sales contact Greenleaf Press at:, or by calling
(866) 725-0785.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Oxen Working in the Snow

The farm is beautiful under a layer so snow.  This is something we don't see very often in Southern Kentucky.  We had to move hay for the horses yesterday.  Maria took pictures of the process which I hope makes a little more sense of what we ask the critters to do.

Jake yoking George and James.  The boys are not tied.

The team of four going after the chains on the stone boat.  They are not tied together, they are following George the lead ox.  Even William has learned this fairly well.  (We have only had him since March.)

With everyone hitched, it is off to the round bales.  Jake  is riding the stoneboat.  I am getting ahead to open the gate.

A jumble of round bales.

Charles and William bring up the sledge.

We run a chain from George and James' yoke to a spike in the bale.  They roll the bale onto the sledge.

We do a quick tie with a rope to  keep the bale on the sledge.

The oxen, now back in their team of four, wait patiently for us to get done.

Then we are off to deliver the bale to the hungry horses.  That is a 1200 pound bale on the sledge.

The horses, of course, are waiting at their empty hay ring.

We untie the bale.

With the ring dropped back on the bale we are ready to go after another.

Much to the delight of a spectator.

So that's winter on the farm.  There is still some grazing in the south pasture but we'll need that in March so I don't want to touch it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Working Cattle

Moved hay yesterday. I am again struck by the efficiency of oxen. The biomass of our four oxen is more than that of the eight horses, yet the horses eat a quarter more hay in any given time period. The oxen are far more willing to come when called, even when they know it means work. There is no bickering within the team and they will learn a task in fewer tries. Wednesday I was moving some logs. We made two trips taking the logs from a field across the creek to the house, on the third trip I hooked them up and started them, then Jake and I followed behind to see what they would do without direction. They took the logs back to the house and stopped with the logs beside the first two loads.

Yesterday, we did have a problem. The horses had pretty much finished their round bale. There is still some grazing in the pasture though. I checked the oxen and they still had more than a day’s hay, so I decided to wait until today to move hay. We cannot afford to be wasteful this winter. I was working on firewood when I noticed that Pepper (a horse) had let himself out and was walking toward the orchard. I opened the gate to the paddock and put him in (with Pepper that is no problem, you can just tell him what to do most of the time). Next, I noticed the cattle in the horses’ pasture. I went down to see how they got through the gate. The horses had broken down the gate and were finishing up the oxen’s hay. Charlie was out and eating alongside the road. Being late in the day, I decided it would be best to get Maria’s help. The cattle were stirred up and did not come when called. The horses intimidate the cattle just for the fun of it. It took a little sorting out.

Once we got the boys yoked, everything went fairly well. We had a little bit of munching grass when they shouldn’t, but other than that, the cattle held perfectly on “whoas” and George and James were letter perfect rolling the round bales onto the sledge. Everyone was pulling evenly when we skidded the bales to the hay rings. There are no shirkers in this team.

At one point, I couldn’t get the spike out of the frozen bale. I hooked a rope to it and had the oxen pull it out. Once they know a job, they are perfection. Just quiet efficiency, no wasted motion. Rearranging bales and getting a bale on a sledge can be tricky, and the load heavy. The bales are around 1200#. On a sledge, that is a bit. Yesterday it was on dry, frozen ground. They just do it. Oxen are a joy to work with.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cattle Language

I guess languages have always fascinated me. Working with cattle, and being a reasonably observant person, I noticed cattle communicating with each other. We want to think of them as stupid beasts. We eat them. We break up their families, keep them in feedlots knee deep in manure for months, and kill them in front of their friends. We want to think they don’t know what’s happening. Cattle have been domesticated for about 10,000 years. If we don’t understand them, it is because we don’t want to.

I knew cattle made noises and had body language. I learned to tell if they were happy, distressed, angry, and the other things that affected my working them. My epiphany came one day when we had driven a team of my oxen to a neighbor’s with a load of stone. As we were working, the oxen were grazing next to the pasture fence. The neighbor’s steers came up and greeted my oxen. They all arched their backs, raising their heads high as they greeted. My oxen were an easy six feet at the shoulder and weighed near 2,500 pounds each. These little steers weighed under a thousand each. I knew the basic greeting sniffs so this was something different. I also knew that my oxen would sometimes make similar gestures toward me. Watching the rest of the body language, I realized I was seeing a submission signal. This was the foot in the door.

In the years that followed, I stayed alert to examples of communication between the animals and on occasion with me. I noticed begging sounds. We figured out there were “words” reserved for good friends and others for strangers. We found them trying to tell us things. And, we learned to use their language.

Because they found we were paying attention, they have become more comfortable telling us what they want. This has been a big help in working them. Just to give one example, other teamsters are always surprised when we are working and I will stop the team, turn them loose to get a drink and when they are done, they will come right back to their places on the load. What happens is that George (usually) will give the begging moan (a low moo that I think could be translated as “please”) and suck in his third stomach. He is thirsty. I believe him. He is the spokesman. As soon as I can, I turn them loose for a drink. Because they know they will be listened to, they get their drink and come back.

What makes cattle hard to understand is that they use contractions extensively.  A full-blown submission signal is reserved for strangers. In the herd, among friends, a simple bob of the head suffices. When I realized this, a vast amount of communications that I had been missing was suddenly revealed. We now know thirty-two words and postures that we can identify and use. I am not sure how much of their language this is, I suspect we are nearing the end of the dictionary.

When you watch cattle, in life, or a video of some sort, you can see them trying to communicate, sometimes poignantly. I just saw a clip of a rodeo. Just before the turnout men tightened the flank strap, the bull begged them not to do it. He knew what was coming. He had been ridden before. That strap hurts and he didn’t want it. And he said so. Same film, different clip, a bull in a ring in Spain fell down as the picadors were teasing him. He lay there giving the submission signal repeatedly. When you know what they are, you can’t miss them.

In a future posting, I will list the “words” we have found. I would really like feedback.  I am not that sure that I have it all right. The only way we are going to get this straight and on paper is with help.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Phases of the Four Great Awakenings

Fogel, The Phases of the Four Great Awakenings

Do you agree?

The Farm

It might be wise to explain our farm. This is, and always will be an experiment. We have 63 acres (about 25 hectares) stretched along Delk Branch, a tiny creek that dries up in the summer droughts that we have here in Kentucky. We have a small house tucked in a clearing, a barn and a number of outbuildings. We have the farm because we work horses and oxen and need a place to keep them. A large chunk of our income is from the team of four oxen. They do our farm work here and I hire them out for various purposes, logs, events, wagon rides, reenactments, etc. I try to keep the boys working.

We also have a fine pair of grey horses that will do everything, ride drive and pack. They get less use than the oxen, but they are well trained and give us another transportation option. We also take in animals for training. We have three horses here now learning to drive and ride.

I love large animals. They treat me well and we get a lot of work out of them. I do have an ax to grind. I believe animals are sentient beings. Respecting them, being considerate of their welfare and feelings gives me a better working animal. We gain their willing cooperation. I want people to see what can be done with draft animals (oxen are my real passion) humanely.

Maria’s two passions are textiles and green living. She processes fibers (wool and flax), spins and weaves. She just had a recreated textile, an Assumption sash bought by the Dousman Museum in Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin.

We are trying to convert to subsistence farming, raising most of what we need here. We are careful with energy use, electricity and gasoline (diesel). We minimize trips into town and have engineered the house to be as efficient as possible. I read an article last summer about passive solar. We were already doing everything on their list. Coming changes are a solar oven and if possible a magnetic generator.

The other thing that goes on here is writing. I have just finished a two-part article and am working on the illustrations that will probably end up in the Journal of the Early Americas. There should be a piece on tracking in the coming issue (Jan-Feb, 2011) of Muzzleloader. My little book, Some Thoughts on Scouts and Spies is being published by Greenleaf Press.  My goal is to have twelve articles and short stories in print next year.

We do not make much money, but we are free to live in the style we want.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

National Debt

There are times I could just scream. People enraged about taxes and the national debt (in the same breath) are the same ones creating the problem. Yes, George W. Bush got us into two expensive, poorly thought out wars. Then, in the closing act of his comedy, we got TARP (signed into law Oct. 3, 2008 by President Bush). President Obama was inaugurated to the tune of a traumatized banking system, a stock market disaster and industrial collapse. The stimulus package, health care bill and assorted other economic corks have added to the problems, but none of these address the root of our dilemma. We are spoiled children.
We got in this mess by wanting everything, now. We went in debt. We removed laws that kept the financial institutions from making bad loans on real estate. We have a love affair with credit cards. And, we buy Chinese goods at Wal-Mart because they are cheap and we want it, regardless of the consequences.

Look at the reality. Our personal debts are out of control, and this reflects in the national economy. That compounds the problems of the national debt. Take a single issue: Trade imbalance. We have more money going out of this country than we have coming in. If this was your house, you would know that you were headed for financial disaster. However, conservative economists tell us this is healthy. They, and the politicians and pundits that espouse their philosophy tell us, that being in debt is good for the economy. After all, Bush said after 9-11 that we should go out and spend for the good of the country. That’s what we all need when we are depressed, a good trip to the mall.

The fact is, that a bad balance of trade means less jobs. If you are out of work and buying at Wal-Mart you have done it to yourself. That means fewer tax payers. It means more people on unemployment or another way of saying it is, a bigger drain on the working tax payers. Businesses, such as the big box stores, are making bigger profits. Under Eisenhower these businesses paid as much as 91% taxes. Today they pay 30% and cry like a rat eating onions about it. Reagan was blind about the trickle down economy. Profits never trickle down, debt does. Worse, that national trade deficit carries over into national debt. The debt is in dollar instruments. Countries like China use these to buy the U. S. debt in the form of bonds. As our money weakens, they defend themselves by playing with the exchange rate. Our debt grows.

Big business wants it to stay this way. The guiding philosophy of our financial and industrial institutions is short term profits at the expense of long term growth. One is fast, one is slow, that is American. They back the Tea Party movement to the hilt (with lots of money, both overt and covert). This is not conservative nor liberal, this is stupidity. Big money buys our elections. Big money does not care about our long term survival, they are in it for short term profits. They know they will survive. And the masses follow blindly. Buy Wal-Mart, vote Tea Party, it is good for China.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reaction to the 2010 Election

We are, sadly, an extremely dysfunctional people. I am a believer in both capitalism and democracy. I am passionate in my belief in and devotion to freedom. And, as a Christian, I dislike the discrimination against Christianity and the apparent promotion and protection of almost all other beliefs in the name of political correctness. But, without responsibility, all of these are destructive.
It was our belief in unregulated capitalism that brought on our present economic crisis. Conservatism that simply protects the plutocrats that created this disaster will not save us. Look at the profits made by our good capitalists from the bail-outs, TARP and stimuli of the past two years. Possibly more destructive, our lack of regulation with accompanying lack of responsibility has exported our manufacturing and agricultural assets, essentially ensuring the destruction of this country. A welfare state is every bit as destructive. Years ago, I was the executive director of a fairly large museum. There was a lady there in a community service program who was a wonderful worker. A position came open and her supervisor came to me and asked me to hire her for the position. We found that this would cost her health care and benefits that our pay and benefits could not replace. There is something wrong with a system that makes it more economically feasible to be unemployed than productive.
Our problem is that this conservative spasm is not going to help us any more than the flop into liberalism did. If we do not redesign ourselves, we are doomed to become the next third world country. I am still amazed at the idiocy of a Greenspan advocating spending not saving, parroted by George W. Bush in telling us to go out and spend for the good of the country. I would like to see economic freedom, but the figures on the growing disparity of our distribution of wealth leads me to believe that we are out of control.
I agree that the Tea Party has a right to be angry. I am angry. We have outsourced our own jobs. This was not Democrats, this was us: Buy Wal-Mart it keeps the Chinese employed. NAFTA, another big problem, was begun under George Bush (Sr.) and ratified under Clinton. We are facing repeated energy crises, our money is inflating at a disastrous rate, and we have a terrifying national debt. Hell yes, there is reason to be angry, but I am not sure that there is any rationale to the target of the Tea Party anger. The people I know who are the most rabid Tea Partiers have been consistent conspiracy theorists and negative about whoever has been in power. Willing to ignore facts to cling to vicious lies. How will that help?
Furthermore, it is nonsensical, or disingenuous, to say that the Tea Party is not racist. Anyone who saw even parts of the Nashville Tea Party convention heard racist statements repeatedly draw applause. There was no opposing voice. And, when a Tea Partier proclaims that they are going to win America back for Americans, who do they think is in government that is not American? This is lightly veiled racism. I live in Kentucky, it is not lightly veiled here.
We need this country back together. We have real problems facing us, and the political trend of the twenty-first century is simply speeding our descent. We have an economic crisis, but there are also crises of energy, overpopulation, water, and climate that we cannot address without all our mental resources. We need every American working together. Instead, we are falling apart. History is going to look at us as ignoramuses; or worse.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I am asked constantly, how do I get the oxen trained. Here is a brief outline of our process:

First, we select animals that want to be trained. If at all possible, pick critters that are not afraid of humans; who like our touch and are curious. I get them as young as possible, but this is not always possible. William was four years old when he came to us and did not seem to have much training. But he had some work, and a good personality. Charles and James were yearlings and had not been handled.

Next, I use the fact that cattle are the most herd driven animal I know. I separate my animals if I can. When they are alone, I am their source of food, water and friendship. A couple days of this and they want to see me, and they want to please me. Also, you have a window of opportunity after a change. When an animal is new to a place he is more receptive until he becomes accustomed to the new surroundings. I try to start as soon as an animal arrives at our place.

When I think the animal has decided that I am the boss, I begin training. I work in a round pen or enclosed area if I can. Cattle are afraid of our hands so I use my hands to move them. I do not use a rope or goad in the beginning. I put my hand behind the animal and he goes forward. I command “Up”. When he runs up against the wall of the round pen and has to stop, I say “Whoa”. I may put my hand in front to stop him. I give a lot of praise and scratching for anything that even resembles good performance. Here is where they learn the word “Good”. I say “Up” and “Whoa” sharply. I croon out the word “Good” and accompany it with petting or scratching, some friendly physical contact. That’s all we do in the beginning, what I call “Goes and Whoas”. I may need a second person at this stage if I cannot keep the animal from running from me. The animal has to be reliable on these two commands (“Up” and “Whoa”) before I go on to the next step.
The second stage is teaching the turns. If I put my hand next to the animal’s face when I am standing in the normal position at the animal’s left shoulder, he turns away from me and I get a right turn. I say “Gee”. If I put my hand next to his flank or hip bone (and this sometimes takes a push) he turns left and I say “Haw”. I now start driving, with lots of mistakes, of course. We stay at it in the round pen until I feel the critter knows the commands. Again, I reinforce liberally with praise, “Good” and scratching for every correct move. I introduce the ugly sound along the way. This is a machine gun staccato of “A-A-A-A-A!” When I do it it rhymes with the “A” in “rather”. This is for mistakes. We also use “Bad!” for deliberate misbehavior. I do not use “No!’ because it can be confused with “Whoa” by the cattle.

If I am training a yoke (two cattle) or a team (two or more yokes), I do not put them together until both have a working knowledge of the commands. Then we still give some individual training each session before training as a yoke. I stay next to my “on side“ beast and give my commands with voice and hand the same as I did when we were doing individual training.

If I have a trained lead ox, I will put the new guy with him in the beginning. George is wonderful at this. He is calm and forceful. He also has in his repertoire the “George glare”. He just turns his head and stares at the offending animal. It is hard to misbehave when you are attached to a one ton ox.

After this I introduce the other commands I need. To teach “Back” I wave my hands in front of their faces and give the command. I use “Rump in” and “Rump out” (which usually take two people to teach), “Step up”, Step back”, “Pivot gee”, “Pivot haw”, “Over gee” and “Over haw”. I praise lots and give lots of scratching. I try to always end on a high note. I do not reward with food. I generally train after they have eaten. I will feed them again after a really rough work session, some spectacular performance or high stress incident.

We expect the animals to come when they are called, know their places for feeding, not crowd the human and get together to be yoked. We practice loading and unloading the trailer. They will let us sit on them when they are laying down (and seem to like it) and we can ride them giving voice commands. As soon as possible, I touch every part of their body. I cannot have a fight out of an animal when I am freeing him from wire or thorns. I also pick up their feet.

If we are going off the farm, we give refresher training, usually for about three days before the move. Usually, however we have enough to do with the animals here that we don’t need much training. They are just in use every day or so. I am careful not to let too many days go by without using them. And none at all when they are not fully trained.

I think what surprises people most when they see us working the animals here at home is how low key all of this is. There is little or no yelling. I almost never pick up a whip or stick. We have nose rings on the animals, and do not pull on them. But the result is, the animals come looking for us. They are willing workers and good friends.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Getting it done

Oxen are such amazing creatures. It is not just the personalities, it is their ability to make decisions that constantly surprises us. Sunday afternoon we had to move two round bales. This is not a normal pattern for us. Most ox work is done in the mornings. I called them and they dutifully trooped in to the paddock by the barn to be hooked up. Now, they know that when they are called in it means work. There is no question, however, that they will come in when they are called. We yoked them and hitched to the stone boat and went to the other end of the farm for the round bales. Since this was the first time we had done this job since last spring, there was a little confusion, but their work was perfect. The thing that surprised Maria and I most was that once the oxen, and George, the lead ox in particular, had a picture of the work that was to be done, they simply, quietly and determinedly set out for the goal. For example, we stood a hay ring on end in preparation for delivering the hay bale. While Maria stood balancing the ring, I went back to the team and started them moving. George immediately headed for the ring with the sledge and bale. I laughed and let him go, stopping them when the bale was even with the ring. They do this logging, farming or pulling the wagon, with no lines or reins and never touched by whips. They just get the job done with clean efficiency.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Meet the oxen: George

First of the meet the oxen videos. Gerry talks about his lead ox, George, while George tells him to get him some food.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

waiting for truck

The first post is mine! Largely because everyone else is being truly productive. The truck needed a new transmission and the mechanic said he'd try to get to it as early as possible. We should be on the road and folks are getting antsy. The big question is how to get everything up there. We're scheduled to have both the oxen and the horses at the event, oxen for hauling and horses for horse rides, and we're supposed to be set up and ready for the school day tomorrow. At this point it's a 5-6 hour drive up there and one trailer. So we have to go up with one set, come back, and then go up with the other set.

Maria is arguing that we keep the oxen and their wagon together as the most necessary component and if the horses are not there on Friday, so be it. It's just a big logistical mess and there is not much we can do about it right now other than sit and wait.

But one way or another we'll be around Hartford City, Indiana this weekend and with luck Gerry will be beating oxen and Maria will be mistreating horses. (In case you have never been around our group, all our animals are on voice commands and we never hit them. I'll see if I can get Gerry to write more on gentle animal training techniques. I bet that won't be difficult. He loves talking about his animals.)