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.)