From the farm: To my oxen, I’m more than their boss

Scottish Highland oxen Topper and Stash in 2020.

Scottish Highland oxen Topper and Stash in 2020. Courtesy photo

Published: 06-30-2024 6:00 AM

Topper the steer galloped to the fence, his short legs pumping as he ran down the narrow cow path cut into the hillside. Finn, another shaggy, black Highland steer, lumbered along behind.

Topper stopped at the wire fence where he peered at me from beneath his black bangs.

“No treats today, old friend. We have work to do,” I said.

I opened the gate, and the 2,000-pound Topper walked through. When I called out “Halt,” he stopped and waited while I fastened the gate behind him.

Topper followed me to the truck, where I put a halter on him, tethered him to the truck bed, and collected his partner, Finn. Both stood quietly while I slid the wooden yoke over their shoulders, secured the bows under their necks, and slipped off their halters. It was time to drag some logs out of the woods.

Bovines have many interesting qualities, but to me, their willingness to obey is at the top of the list. Topper started learning obedience the day he was born in 2012. His mom, Maya, taught him that there are leaders and followers in the herd, and that, for now, she was his leader.

He learned to follow her. She’d protect and feed him; he knew he’d be safe if he stayed by her. At six months, after he was weaned, he sniffed my head when I leaned over, and he eventually ate grain from my hand. I had become his new “mom.”

That was 12 years ago when I didn’t know how to train cattle. I’d trained horses but knew nothing about training cattle. At the Hopkinton Fair, I watched 4H kids work their oxen using only voice commands as the oxen pulled “sleds” loaded with stones around an obstacle course.

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The 4H teamsters didn’t use a lead line to get their beasts to obey. They each used a stick and their voices to direct their oxen left, right, forward, and back. Amazing!

With patient help from various teamsters, some decades younger than me, I was able to get my first pair, Topper and Flash, to follow voice commands in the show ring and at home. But I still used the lead rope in parades and in public outside the show ring. It was my security blanket.

The lead rope gave me confidence; if my voice commands didn’t work, I had the rope in my hand to stop them if they tried to run off. But even then, I knew the lead rope was not the answer to control. My team wanted to be with me; they found me interesting and trusted me to protect them from perceived threats like a running child or a barking dog. That was my control, not the lead rope.

Today, Topper follows my voice commands and will come when called. His new partner, Finn, is just as obedient, and I no longer use a lead rope with them. It was hard for me to give it up.

Without a lead rope, it seems like pure magic that these enormous brutes happily accept me as their leader and want to be with me. That’s the kind of acceptance and empowerment we could all use.