Rural Heritage Ox Paddock

Reshaping Crooked Horns in Oxen
by Drew Conroy

What do a horse with droopy ears, a sheep with a long tail, and an ox with crooked horns have in common? None will ever win a blue ribbon under a judge who places animals based on a type, form, and breed character. Should these traits be so important?

For a team of working oxen, most certainly not. But different ox teamsters use different criteria to determine the value of their animals. Some care only that their animals work well together. Others will sacrifice working ability for a team that is well matched. Some of these teamsters place great emphasis on the presentation of their cattle, including the shape of their horns.

Unlike the horse's droopy ears or the sheep's long tail,an ox's horns may be corrected without radical surgery. The idea isn't new, just something that many cattle fanciers no longer consider, since most cattle today are dehorned or naturally polled. I've seen many working teams with no horns at all. The only reason they need horns is to help them hold back a load when they wear a neck or withers yoke, or to provide a place for fastening a head yoke.

But horns contribute to an ox's style and mystique, and even mismatched horns add to an animal's character. Shaping the horns is a minor part of working oxen, yet sooner or later it becomes an issue for teamsters who seek perfection.

Just like braces on our teeth that reshape our mouth and jaw to make them more cosmetically appealing, the horns of cattle may be reshaped in their direction and orientation, adding a lot to a team's appearance. There's no trick or magic, just practice in using one of the following techniques:

Applying Pressure
Teamsters with long-horned cattle often wish an animal's horns didn't stick straight out, away from the head. The horns of such an ox may poke at his mate as he walks in the yoke, or poke his teamsters when he turns towards him.

An innovative friend of mine decided enough was enough. To pull his steers' horns together, he used the tough rubber from automobile inner tubes with hose clamps. In just a few months the horns were pulled forward and closer together, out of harm's way. The challenge with this technique is making sure the pressure tugging the horns inward is continuous and equal, so the horns of the two animals look similar.

Another pressure technique is to use a small rope or cord attached to a pulley and weight (or spring) near the ceiling above an animal's stanchion. This contraption applies a constant pressure, tugging the horn in an upward direction. When the pressure us taken away, the horn resumes its normal growth, but with a higher angle.

Applying pressure requires a secure way of attaching the rubber straps or cords, as well as regular monitoring of the animals so you don't overshoot your mark by moving a horn too far too fast. If your cattle are not confined, one of the other techniques may work better.

Horn Weights
My most successful experience with training horns has been using horn weights. A common cause of mismatched horns is one horn growing slightly higher than the other. A horn weight, left on for just a few weeks, can easily change the higher horn's angle of growth.

While this technique is easy to apply and control, it limits the direction you can move a horn. Due to the force of gravity, you can't move it forward or upward, just down. After the horn weight is removed, and barring unforeseen acts of nature, the horn usually continues in a normal growth pattern.

You can purchase horn weights from Nasco Agricultural Supply. Pairs of weights come in three sizes: 3/4 pound, 1 pound, and 1 1/2 pounds. The weights are tapered to fit the horn and attach securely without causing damage.

Smaller weights are for use on smaller horns or horns that need only minor adjustment. They work well on yearlings with healthy solid horns. Used on younger cattle, or animals with weak horns, a weight could cause the outer shell of the horn to come off. As a result, the animal's two horns will never match.

Larger weights are for use on larger horns or on cattle whose horns require drastic changes. To change the horn shape of a mature ox, you must leave the horn weight on for a long time. A more appropriate way to reshape such horns may be by shaving.

Shaving or Scraping
I have never tried this technique, but I know it works since I have seen many teams with horns that have been shaped this way. The procedure is quite simple: with a knife or other sharp instrument, shave or scrape the horn shell on the opposite side from the direction in which you wish the horn to grow.

If you wish to make a horn more upright, shave the back side. If you wish to widen the span, shave the insides of both horns. If you wish to narrow the span, shave the outsides. For a minor correction, one thinning may do the trick. For horns that are seriously imperfect, continue thinning until they shape up.

Remove about one-half of the shell's thickness, more or less, depending on how much you want to alter the direction of growth. If you shave too much, the horn will bleed, may become dangerously weak, and could possible break.

Since shaving does weaken the horn, shave only the part you wish to bend. If you weaken the entire shell, the horn will droop. Always leave the shaved horn perfectly smooth, then apply mineral oil to replace the natural protection you have removed.

Shaving works well, but doesn't allow the same control as using pressure or weights. With the latter, when the horn reaches the desired shape, you remove the pressure or weights. But after you have removed part of the animal's horn, you cannot replace it. So shave a little at a time and wait a few weeks to see what happens.

Since a young animal's horns change a lot over the first year, wait until your cattle are at least a year old before making any adjustments. Horn growth is especially dramatic in long-horned cattle, so don't be too quick to change the shape of your steer's horns.


Drew Conroy is author of Oxen—a Teamsters Guide and a regular contributor to Rural Heritage. This article appeared in the Summer 1996 issue.

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29 April 2012 last revision