All four feet were off the ground as the thousand-pound steer leapt into the air. I didn’t think a steer could jump so high but Stash was definitely airborne just to avoid stepping on a stone boat lying still on the ground. Stash is a four-year-old Scottish Highlander steer I was training for his new job as an oxen.
Four years is old to start training a steer to work in a yoke. Usually, I start my teams at six months or younger. It is far easier to correct a two hundred pound critter than a full grown steer who has his own way of doing things. Young steers think of their trainer as an older, wiser cow and typically learn commands quickly. As they get older they start thinking for themselves and it can be hard to train them. You know the saying, “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
I started my first team on Miles Smith Farm at six months old. Topper and Flash were black, almost perfectly matched, Scottish Highlander steers. In the beginning I made mistakes, got the commands wrong and more than once they ran off on me. When I asked them to do something they didn’t understand or didn’t want to do, they would back up and stare at me as if to say, “Lady you are crazy. We’re not doing that.” At times like that I had to stop, re-evaluate my goals and try a different approach.
Over three years Topper, Flash and I worked together to be a team. I took them to several fairs where we sometimes got ribbons. I was happy for the ribbons but thrilled that they did not embarrass me in the ring in front of the other competitors, mostly highly skilled 4-Hers.
When he was three, Flash got difficult. While Topper walked up to me in the pasture, Flash would run off. When I tried to put a halter on Flash, he would swing his head. He would swing his head when I touched his ears and at other random times. With a four foot spread of horns, head swinging is dangerous. He had a different idea about how to behave which made him unsafe.
That’s when I started training Stash, formerly named “Oscar.” Stash is just a bit shorter with longer horns than Flash’s but he is black and a good match for Topper. My job was to train a four-year-old steer who had never been halter broken.
After a few days of training, Stash, halter on, was walking calmly behind me in the barnyard. The trouble started when I introduced him to the equipment he’d need to pull. He was afraid of the stone boat and chain. He jumped in the air to avoid stepping on the stone boat and would not walk over the chain even when it was lying still on the ground. He was afraid.
What to do? Topper to the rescue! Topper had been pulling for years and was used to the equipment. I led them both up to the stone boat. Topper stepped on and over it while Stash watched. Stash learned from Topper’s calmness and soon was walking over the stone boat just like Topper. Then I rattled the chain and put it on Topper’s back while Stash watched. I did this with each step of training and within weeks Stash, while still a bit shy, was not afraid of any of the equipment. Best of all he let me walk up to him in the pasture and never swung his head. In fact, if I was in the way and he wanted to turn his head, he would lift his horn over my head to avoid hitting me. He was a polite steer. A gentleman among oxen.
I had a safe working team. Because they were four years old, the team can now be called “Oxen,” and I’m their “teamster.” I took my newly matched team to the Hopkinton Fair in 2016 where we came in second out of six in the Best Trained Competition. They didn’t do as well in the pulling competition where we knocked over cones that were supposed stay standing.
All during Stash’s training I was never sure he would make it. Each day I gave us both a goal. If we were successful I ended the training and planned the lesson for the next day. Day by day we both made steady progress and now I have a willing, safe team ready to do what I ask. I’m looking forward to Spring when I can start working them again and I’m planning on taking them to the Hopkinton Fair. Maybe this year we’ll leave more of the cones standing!