Rural Heritage Ox Paddock

Conformational Defects of Oxen
by Drew Conroy

The hooves of most newborn calves are similar in size and shape, but the conformation of the animal's legs will quickly influence how the hooves grow and develop.

As oxen get larger, the weight on the heel can be substantial and will lead to undue pressure on the pasterns. This weight on the heel and pastern puts too much stress on the tendons of the lower limb and causes the heel horn to crack, often leading to infection and premature culling in big oxen. Hoof problems are the number one reason for culling among heavy oxen.

When selecting calves to train as oxen, the main conformational defects to watch out for pertain to the legs.

Rear Legs

Defects relating to conformation of the rear legs:

  • As viewed from the side—
    • post legged
    • sickle hocked (weak pasterns or sloping pasterns are usually seen with or are a cause of sickle hocks).
  • As viewed from the back—
    • cow hocked (legs too close together)
    • bow legged (rare).

Front Legs

The main defect relating to the conformation of the front legs is toeing out. Calves should have all four hooves pointing straight forward, not toed out.


The primary defect related to the feet is low hoof angle—having a low heel and a long toe.

The hoof should be high in the heel, that is the hairline on the back of the hoof should be up off the ground. The higher the better. A hairline that is near the ground on a calf usually indicates that the animal is weak in the pasterns and will be prone to sickle hocks.

The good foot should be short in the toe, not long like slippers. The combination of a short toe and a long heel puts a minimum of the animal's weight on the heel and most of the weight on the toe. The toe has more hoof horn and is much harder than the hoof horn on the heel, making the toe the strongest and most desirable place for an ox to bear its weight.

If you think of a person wearing high heels, the shoe places more weight on the toe than on the heel. In a bovine this weight on the toe helps keep the toe worn down. An animal with a low hoof angle requires more frequent hoof trimming. An animal with perfect hoof conformation may never need to have its hooves trimmed.


Drew Conroy is the author of Oxen—a Teamsters Guide and regularly writes about oxmanship in Rural Heritage.

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01 January 2005
23 October 2011 last revision