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Training New Oxen

January 5, 2015

oxen and wagonIf you’ve visited our 1850 Farm at the museum, you’ve likely encountered our oxen – Beau and Luke. But, what is an ox? Is it a special breed or species? Nope! An ox is just a cow – one that has been trained to work as a draft animal.

So what makes an ox an ox?

Oxen are usually male cattle. They go through extensive training starting when they are very young to teach them how to pull heavy loads and listen to their human handlers – called drovers or teamsters. They don’t actually earn the title of “ox” until they have been through four years of this training! Until then, the calves are often called “working steers”.

calves in halterTraining starts when they are only a few weeks old, as they learn to be comfortable around people. The first step in an ox’s training doesn’t involve any work at all, but there is still a lot for the young calves to learn. They are taught to wear a halter and how to walk calmly on a lead rope. They learn that humans bring yummy food and soothing brushes and petting. Soon they look forward to seeing their teamsters because of the good things those people bring and do for them. farmer kelly with the calves

When they are a few months old, the calves are taught to wear their first yoke. The yoke is the piece of wood that goes across their necks and is traditionally held on with bent pieces of wood called bows. The first yoke is very small, and a team may go through a dozen or more incrementally larger yokes until they are full grown.


Besides walking alongside their teamster and wearing a yoke, the calves must learn some commands. The calves are taught words that tell them to go forward, turn left and right, stop, and back up. Here are those words, and their meanings:

oxen in yoke“Step Up” – go forward

“Gee” – turn right

“Haw” – turn left

“Whoa” – stop

“Back” – back up

Take a look at our youngest “working steers” learning the ropes! These young steers were born at the 1850 Pioneer Farm during the summer of 2014 and are just beginning their ox training!

calves wearing yoke

Read more posts on the LHF Kids Blog


Animals on the Farm


  • Raymond Rizzo says:

    What would happen if, after the pair was trained, another not-similarly trained (or even untrained) ox was substituted for one of the pair? Does the yoke keep them going in the same direction or will the substitute disrupt the entire process? By the way, the ox is a more beautiful animal than I had previously thought. Thank you.

    • Kate Meyer says:

      An untrained ox would disrupt the process and would need to be trained to work in a pair. The yoke would not be enough to keep them going.

  • Neal Meseck says:

    I am purchasing a pair of yak calves. They are already 5 or 6 months old. I would like to train them to pull as a yoke. They are both steers. I have no experience and would welcome the chance to learn anything that you could teach me. I will read anything you suggest but would really like the chance to learn hands-on if that were possible.

  • Lbenton says:

    Thank you for sharing this information! My question is, what would happen if one of the paired oxen were stronger than the other?

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