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Monday, April 13, 2015

Handling oxen, colonial style

A team of ten pairs of oxen in Australia (Wikipedia)
 When developing the setting and details for The Highwayman, I had to decide whether my hero and his cousin made their trips up and down the Great Wagon Road with horses or oxen. Horses would have been an easy choice, since I practically grew up on horseback ... but silly me, I decided I wanted the challenge of researching oxen.

My standby research source, a Yahoo discussion group for all things 18th century, turned up some unexpected and delightful resources. Who remembers Almanzo, from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, training his pair of calves to be good oxen when they grew up? I was surprised to find that my memories of the process, gleaned years ago from that story, were fairly accurate.

What are oxen, you might ask? They are, by mere definition, working bovines. Not even any special breed, and either bulls or cows can be used, although bulls are usually castrated to make them easier to handle. Training begins early, with teams chosen as calves, handled and gentled so they grow into the calm, dependable, but powerful sources of energy.

Karel Dujardin, 1622–1678: A Smith Shoeing an Ox (Wiki)
It’s been fun over the years to meet various people who dedicate themselves to practicing various ancient life-skills, either for living history demonstrations or just for the personal satisfaction of keeping some dying knowledge alive a little longer. I knew many who work with teams of horses and wagons, but didn't realize so many focus on handling yoked oxen.

I'm indebted to several on the 18cLife Yahoo group who took the time to answer questions and point me to various online sources, but especially one gentleman, Bob Sherman of Charleston, SC, a historic interpreter at Middleton Place who works with many aspects of colonial agriculture and technical skills. He shared the following resources online: - a video on the basics of training oxen, from Rural Heritage - scroll down for a photo of oxen in harness and yoke - various photos from Colonial Williamsburg

I also found this charming set of videos featuring working oxen in Ross, Nova Scotia: ... scroll wayyy down past the personal farming stuff, which is also interesting. Especially check out "ox on road," featuring several yoked oxen taking a stroll, with their drovers, down a modern highway:

Prairie Ox Drovers is another site I happened upon that might provide a good primer on working oxen.

Zebu oxen in Mumbai, India (Wikipedia)
Though treated as a quaint oddity in our country, oxen are still very much in use in many parts of the world. I'm so glad I took the time to research this fascinating method of colonial travel and freight hauling. I'd have missed learning some of the quirks and charms of working cattle--how they are less temperamental than horses, but still very attuned to the emotional state of their handlers. How they are such creatures of habit, some teams have been known to head for the barn a certain time of day with or without their handler, and pairs often insist on sharing a stall or at least being stabled next to each other.

Makes me almost want to go out and find my own pair to train and work!


  1. I can see you now Carrie, showing up with your oxen pulling your carriage!

    1. Ha! It was more likely a humble cart or wagon. :-D Although I've seen some modern folk saddle a cow and ride it!

  2. Replies
    1. You're welcome, and thank you so much for stopping by!

  3. I think oxen are fascinating. As much as I'm a horsewoman at heart, there are benefits to working oxen. If I was younger ... I might try raising a pair just for the fun of it. :)

    1. Exactly my thoughts, Pegg! :-D They're interesting critters, even though horses are my first love.


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