CHARDON, Ohio – A pair of oxen trudge through the woods, pulling a sled of logs over rough ground. A drover walks beside the animals, guiding them through the thick foliage.
It’s a scene that takes most people back to the 19th century, but for Mark and Vicki Solomon of Chardon, it takes them only as far as their backyard.
The Solomons’ farm, Evergreen Farm, is home to two teams, or yokes, of oxen: Mo and Rob, 5-year-old Milking Shorthorns, and Paul and Silas, 6-year-old Dexters. The Solomons also own a team of Dutch Belted oxen, Dutch and Dale.
While Mo and Rob have been at the farm only about one year, Paul and Silas have been there since they were 3 months old.
Earning their keep. At Evergreen Farm, oxen are part of the daily routine. Their chores include clearing a nearby woods, plowing potatoes and leveling fields. They also haul maple syrup, pumpkins, logs, manure, hay and straw.
“You can get an awful lot of work out of oxen without any fuel except hay and water,” Vicki said.
The Solomons also do educational demonstrations, such as re-enacting century-old sugaring techniques, with their oxen.
Oxen are any breed of cattle trained to work in a yoke. Typically, only cattle older than 4 years are called oxen. Younger animals are known as working steers or working cattle.
Training. For cattle destined to become oxen, training begins within a few days of birth. In colonial times, children often raised and trained the calves.
Oxen are led or driven by a person called a drover, who normally walks alongside the left of the team. To tell the oxen what to do, the drover uses a small, slender stick called a goad to tap the animals, plus body language and verbal commands like “gee” (right turn) and “haw” (left turn).
Vicki said the relationship between drover and oxen is one of mutual respect. The drover is not connected to the oxen with any ropes, bits or bridles, so control is accomplished solely through training and trust.
Oxen are docile and less likely to spook than horses, she added. If they do get spooked, oxen will run, but they generally don’t run very far. Also, if an ox gets stuck or trapped, it will wait for help instead of thrashing about and potentially injuring rescuers.
The weight of a full-grown ox steer depends on its breed. Dexters, like Paul and Silas, usually weigh about 1,000 pounds. Milking Shorthorns, like Mo and Rob, weigh 1,800-2,000 pounds. The largest oxen, Chianinas, can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
The ox nearest the driver is called the nigh ox and the ox on the opposite side is called the off ox. The oxen rarely switch sides because they become accustomed to the movements necessary to make right and left turns.
Oxen are also trained to back up, a motion that is completely unnatural for cattle. Again, it becomes important to have a relationship of trust and respect.
“You’re asking them to do things that are contrary to their instincts,” said Vicki, a member of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association.
According to the Solomons, oxen are a good investment for anyone with small acreage because they make working simple chores enjoyable.
“I don’t think most people understand how practical and useful a good team of oxen can be,” Vicki said.
Regular routine. When it’s time for the oxen to do their job, Vicki starts by grooming the animals. The Solomons’ oxen enjoy being brushed, so even when the animals would rather lay in the pasture than work, the grooming nudges their motivation.
“That way, getting put in the yoke is a pleasant thing,” Mark said.
Yokes are carefully designed and fitted so the oxen don’t get hurt while working. To pull a load, the ox pushes up and forward against the yoke with its neck, while the bow sits on its shoulders between the neck and shoulder points.
Just like children need larger clothes as they grow, young working cattle must also be fitted with larger yokes as they get bigger.
Oxen have long horns that are necessary in order for them to do their work. Without horns, the yoke would slip over the oxen’s head.
Paul and Silas sport brass knobs -which are traditional decorations – on the tips of their horns.
According to the Solomons, pioneers took great pride in the appearance of their team and placed a great value on the animals, the same way modern Americans value their vehicles.
“Oxen were the pickup truck of the day,” Vicki said.
Weight watching. And just like a vehicle, oxen must be kept in good working condition.
“The important thing is you shouldn’t let oxen get too fat,” Vicki said.
Overweight oxen tend to stress their feet, which leaves them unable to walk or pull heavy loads.
Historically, oxen were chosen for farm work because even after they were no longer useful in the fields, they could be slaughtered for food.”
Even when they couldn’t work anymore, they still contributed to the farm,” Vicki said.
Although Vicki never saw a cow until after she graduated from college, it was love at first sight when she came face to face with a bovine.
“Since 1978 all I ever wanted to do was get out somewhere and raise cattle,” she said.
In 1998, Vicki took the oxen basics class at Tillers International, an institute in Michigan that teaches early draft animal practices, and she was hooked.
“I loved the whole historical aspect of it,” she said.
Before long, Vicki was ready for her own oxen, but she wasn’t sure how to find suitable bull calves.
Team No. 1. In 2000, an ad in Farm and Dairy led her to two Dexter calves in Windsor, eight miles east of Chardon. She named the calves Paul and Silas and raised them as bottle babies.
Unfortunately, training the calves didn’t come easily.
“At first, it was like a foreign language. They didn’t understand what we wanted them to do,” Mark said.
But as time progressed, so did Paul and Silas. Vicki took advice and cues from more experienced drovers and now the team makes regular appearances in demonstrations, reenactments and competitions.
But for Vicki, there’s more to it than giving performances and winning ribbons.
“When I work with oxen,” Vicki said, “I definitely feel like I’m connecting to the heart and soul of our nation, which was built by ox power.”
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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