You Big Ox!
Oxen played an important part in building the American West (and East), but we seldom pay much attention to them now. What exactly is an ox? It's a fully grown trained bovine, usually a steer. Why are they larger than a normal steer? Because most steers are butchered at two or three years of age, but it takes a minimum of four or five years before a steer reaches full growth.
A bull calf is castrated shortly after birth. The older the calf, the more likely castration can cause illness and the recovery time is much longer. Halter training can start after a week or two. In the first six months, the calf needs lots of attention so he's comfortable with his handler, and more importantly, so he doesn't mind hooftrimming and shoeing. During these months, he can learn the four basic commands:
- Whoa (stop)
- Giddyup (go)
- Gee (right)
- Haw (left)
- Back (back up)
Most ox trainers use a stick called a goad to tap the animal as he gives the voice command. After a month or so, depending on the animal, he'll respond to voice commands only.
When he's a yearling, he can begin yoke training with a lightweight yoke, but he's not strong enough yet for the real deal, nor should he be pulling a load yet. This sort of training continues until he's fully grown (4 or 5 years old) and muscled up. By then, he's ready to pull.
Everything above should actually be in plural because it's best to have two calves the same age. Since size and breed make for a balanced pair, it's even better if the calves come from the same bull. There are differing opinions on whether you should teach an ox to switch and take either the nigh (left side) or off (right side) position, or whether they should always be positioned the same. Oxen also need to be trained not to graze when they're yoked.
Oxen Team in Training
Oxen need horns because as PrairieOxDrovers.com explains: "When people choose an animal for an ox, they choose one with horns. The horns keep the yoke on their heads when they back up. Oxen's horns grow as their bodies grow, and so they have big horns, although not all breeds have the same size of horns."
Jimmy Choo, Anyone?
Yes, oxen need to be shod and it's quite a lot more complicated than shoeing a horse. First of all, oxen have cloven hooves so require eight shoes instead of four. Also, an ox can't stand on three legs as can a horse, so they require an ox sling. This is a contraption made of heavy timbers (today, usually metal) with a series of leather straps to bind and suspend the animal. It's vital to secure him as tightly as possible because if he struggles, he could very well hurt himself. A good resource for hoof care and shoeing is Ox Health at The Prairie Ox Drovers, where you can also see a photo of an ox sling, which they call a shoeing stock.
Oxen have been used as draft animals since before recorded history, and they're still used today in lower tech areas or where people want to use greener resources. But we're talking about the American West here. Oxen were cheaper to buy and cheaper to feed than horses or mules, and while slower, they could also pull a hefty load. They were used for everything that needed some power--farm work, freighting, towing, or to push the wheel for grinding or pumping water. Or logging:
At least half the wagons that traveled the Oregon Trail and all the other trails to the west were pulled by oxen. Some immigrants even used their milk cows as draft animals, which gave the added benefit of fresh milk on the trail. (This sounds like they were asking for a case of mastitis, to me!) Oxen took longer to make the trip than mule teams, but most farmers already had oxen or could buy them for a fourth the price of a mule. Oxen generally were even-tempered unlike the often poorly bred mules, and didn't require as much food. Plus, when times were tough, they could be butchered. An added bonus was that the Indians preferred mule meat to oxen meat, so were more likely to steal mules.
Building the New West
Most of the heavy-duty freighting was done by oxen. How did those heavy steam pumps get to the mines? Oxen. Timbers, coal, cast iron pipes? Oxen. They weren't glamorous or showy, so don't play well on B-Westerns, but oxen power built a good part of our country, east and west.
Men (and a few women) who drove ox teams were called bullwhackers. There's no seat on an ox freight wagon so the bullwhackers walked. They were renowned for their creative and frequent use of swear words, and most were accomplished with the whip and bowie knife. Bullwhackers were tough--they had to deal with the animals, wagon repair, bad roads (or no roads), freezing weather, blistering hot weather, predators, and road agents. Most had no place to stow luggage, so they wore the same clothes the entire trip. Let's just say they'd be pretty ripe by the time they got to town. But while not always a well-respected job, we owe a big thanks for the building of our infrastructure to bullwhackers and their teams.
Oxen in Owyhee
Arthur Hart, an Idaho historian, wrote this in the Idaho Statesman:
"The transcontinental railroad was under construction in September 1868 when the [Idaho Tri-weekly] Statesman wrote: “Passed Through. A large body of men passed through this city a few days ago from Idaho City with ox teams destined for Owyhee, where they intend working upon the new road leading to the railroad. They were under the supervision of Mr. W.R. Underwood, of Idaho City, and will do good work, as they are all hard working miners.” Washington R. “Wash” Underwood was a 36-year-old miner from Vermont who would become well-known in Boise as well as in Boise Basin."Read more and see photos here:
Idaho History: Oxen helped open the West and delivered the goods
by Arthur Hart
Ox team pulling a tank to Queen of the Hills mine
Wagon train with a woman bullwhacker
Men with oxen-pulled water team
Hearts of Owyhee
What do oxen have to do with the Hearts of Owyhee series? Not one thing. Not a single ox can be found in the first three books. They might horn in on the fourth book, Much Ado About Miners, though.
See you next month!
♥ Hearts of Owyhee ♥ series
#1 Much Ado About Marshals (RttA Winner)
#2 Much Ado About Madams
#3 Much Ado About Mavericks
A short story: Willow, Wish For Me (Merlin’s Destiny #1)
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