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Lines or Goad? Horses versus Oxen
by Brandt Ainsworth

Every time I set out to do some work, I have to make a decision few people are lucky enough to be bothered with: Do I feel like holding lines or a goad stick?

I might as well flip a coin, because one works about as well as the other for me. I enjoy driving horses and oxen equally well, but no matter which one I choose, at some point during the day I wish I had the other.

When I got the idea to start with oxen, I thought they would be a fun hobby and that I'd still use my horses to get work done. I soon discovered the best way to teach oxen is to work them. They are the same as any other work animal—the more work they do the quicker they learn. So I took every opportunity to do real work with my Limousin-Holstein calves.

When Timber and Jack were three months old I discovered they could do all kinds of work, whether we were skidding small pieces of wood, fixing fence, or doing yard work. Every task taught them a little more and I soon saw their working future.

As the calves grew I began to see a lot of similarities between working oxen and working horses. Either way, the driver is as big a component as the animals. A teamster with common sense who knows the limitations and capabilities of his draft animals is bound to be successful with any form of draft power. Take any pair of horses or yoke of oxen, then add a good driver, and you have a team. As the word suggests, a team works together, not against each other, as is too often the case.

Another similarity is that getting started should be done in essentially the same way—find a good mentor to show you the ropes. Breaking draft animals is not so much an exercise in doing the right thing as in not doing the wrong things. This is where a good teacher comes in. Most books, and common sense, will tell you what to do right, but only an experienced teacher will help you avoid costly mistakes.

Choose a mentor with caution—those who know the least usually know it the loudest. Experience is sometimes a good start, but is not always a sure sign of a good teamster. Some teamsters have 20 years of experience. Others have one year of experience with 19 years of repetition. In any case, a student must be careful not to think he knows more than his teacher.

I got lucky with teachers. My father Earl Ainsworth started to teach me the draft horse business when I was seven years old and is still teaching me. Howard VanOrd from Russell, Pennsylvania, started teaching me the art of ox droving a few years ago and is still teaching me. I am lucky in both cases to have good teachers who understand animals and are willing to teach what they know to a newcomer. A mentor who possesses both qualities is rare.

When Howard and Earl are in the same room together, I have access to 120 years of experience in the fields of logging and farming with horses and oxen. Between Howard, Earl, and myself we can usually figure out an answer to most teams' problems. What we don't know, we make up as we go along. When a teamster stops trying to learn something new every day; he will no longer be a success.

Another similarity between horses and oxen is the need to start with good stock. Good conformation is key to both forms of power. I see no sense in wasting countless hours on a team that doesn't have the physical potential to work.

Even the best team needs conditioning. An out-of-shape animal takes time to build up endurance enough to work. Having good fitting equipment is important, too. Just as a teamster can't work up to his full potential in ill-fitting shoes, neither can a horse or ox work in uncomfortable equipment.

Another similarity is that both horses and oxen should be started on light loads and gradually work their way up. If one animal is weaker, give it the advantage by sliding the hitch point on your yoke or eveners until you distribute the load according to the animals' relative strengths.

One big similarity between horses and oxen is whoa. I can't say enough about the importance of a good whoa on any draft animal. No matter how poorly trained a team is, if they understand whoa, there's still hope.

Although I've found a lot of similarities while logging and working on the farm with oxen and horses, I've also discovered differences. Some differences are obvious, some are more subtle. One of the first things I noticed is the constant battle to keep excess weight off oxen, compared to the constant battle to keep weight on horses. In either situation, an alert teamster should not be seriously challenged.

Another difference is the simplicity of the ox yoke compared to the intricate and expensive horse harness. Yokes, however, are not as easy to find as horse harness and collars.

I find it much harder to switch around teammates with oxen than with horses. A horse seems to go along with almost anything you hook beside it. Oxen have to be matched in size so they fit in the same size yoke, and most oxen don't like to switch from the side they normally work on.

Oxen are not as slow as their reputation suggests, although they are considerably slower than horses. When I first got oxen I expected them to be so slow you had to take a sighting over a fencepost to detect motion. I was pleasantly surprised to find they are not slow to a fault. In many cases they can get as much done as a team of horses, despite their slower pace. They seem to make up for it with consistency, sort of like the tortoise and the hare. Besides, I find it rather nice to ride behind a slower team going across a rocky field on a steel-wheeled cultivator.

Sometimes, however, it's nice to have the faster horses, such as when I need 600 more feet of logs on the landing to fill a truck that's coming in a few hours. It's also nice to have the faster horses taking me home when a rainstorm looms on the horizon.

Being an experienced horseman, I found it strange at first not to have a set of lines in my hands while driving. After a few months of ox droving, I became as comfortable with a goad in my hand as I am with a pair of lines. I use the oxen some days and the horses other days, and savor my luck at having the choice.


Brandt Ainsworth runs a professional logging operation in New York and is the host of the videotape Logging with Horses, Oxen and Mules. This article appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Rural Heritage.

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29 April 2012 last revision