Training Adult Cattle (Oxen) From Scratch – Part 1: The “Why?”

I’m often asked about my training techniques when it comes to oxen, lots of people want a ‘how-to’ guide.  I did pen a book on the subject but it is currently off-sale and will be replaced with a better version soon, as I have more to add since then!  One thing that comes up is how to train older cattle.  This can be trickier than starting with babies and many, possibly rightly, shy away from it.  Certainly I would suggest beginners start with dairy steer calves, as these calves would be hand reared anyway, they are generally gentle and forgiving and it is easier for the un-confident to handle babies and grow together.

Yeah sure, in an ideal world newbies would start under the guidance of an experienced mentor with well trained cattle as you would with horses, and if that is an option in your country then definitely go for it, but in Britain our ox culture is all but lost and if we shy away from starting from scratch it will certainly be lost for good.  The up-side is that we still farm cattle, so you can learn about handling and care from that angle fairly easily.

So yeah, I started with calves too.  I learnt a lot, and my best ox and friend/partner/whatever you wish to term the relationship, was with Ted, a hand reared Jersey bullock:


(at Halifax show with Ted in a western themed stunt show)

Ted is responsible for the training techniques I developed which broke from the American style I had been following up until then.  He made me really start to listen to cattle and work with their mentality.  Jerseys are very sweet and gregarious cattle, but they demand respect and if it’s not given, they will just resist, resist and resist, which is where they get their bad reputation from in some circles!  As a result of stopping to think and allowing Ted to teach me a new way to work, we achieved so much more together and I fulfilled my ambition of riding an ox in a stunt show.  I had two ambitions when I started training, and Ted’s apprentice Rum (now living in Scotland with a film animal company) allowed me to realise the other – riding an ox on a beach:


(Yup that’s Rum the ox, leading a horse along in trot!  He loved it!)

So, oxen raised by me from babies have been more than adequate.  But.  Raising an animal right from day 1 with the hope of getting a finished riding animal is fraught with difficulty, and the basic fact is, it may not happen.  Your animal may die due to disease perhaps.  It may not grow well, or have poor conformation which could not be picked up on within hours of birth when you chose it.  It may have an unsuitable temperament.  All of these things have happened to me; the finished animals I have were the lucky few that made it through all of life’s tests and ended up with a natural affinity for the type of work I wanted them to do.  There were many others which did not make it, and then if they did, I perhaps didn’t think they would enjoy or adapt to a life of working so closely with humans.

Rook was one such animal.  Rook and Raven were orphaned within days of each other – born as part of my partner’s conservation grazing herd of Dexter cattle out on the marsh.  Their mothers unfortunately died a couple of days apart – unusual for hardy and long-lived dexters – but due to the remote location and logistics of catching two jumpy calves unused to human contact, when we saw that the rest of the herd had adopted them, we let them be.  By the time they were 3mo however, winter was coming on and we worried the cows would not have the bodily reserves needed to support extra calves so when the herd was rounded up we split them off, brought them home and began the process of convincing them it was good to drink out of a bottle instead!


(Some of the herd, out in ‘the wild’)

Raven was always chill and took to the bottle very well.  He also calmed right down and accepted petting.  Rook however was the opposite, it took a long time to get him to accept the bottle.  Getting him to accept touch took a long,  long time and it was always a lesson he was quick to forget!  He was the most nervous ox I have ever known or trained and after patiently working with him simply trying to get him to calm down, I came to the conclusion that although I would likely one day, after a lot of work, be able to work him in a yoke, he would never, ever be safe to work with the public.  More importantly, he would likely never enjoy it.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should!  I enjoy working with animals that enjoy working with me, forcing every animal to submit no matter what holds no appeal.  Subsequently, Rook fulfilled his destiny as a beef animal, leaving Raven without a partner.

Here is the problem with raising calves again – I spent four years of time and money on a pair, only to end up with a single.  My intention for these two, being Dexters and therefore historically appropriate for most periods up to the industrial revolution, was to work them in a very traditional manner – in a yoke.  A traditional neck yoke requires two animals!  If I could not find a partner for Raven, he faced losing his job too.  The only trouble was that Rook and Raven’s contemporaries had stayed out on the marsh, some for up to five years, with virtually no human contact beyond being moved to fresh pasture or housed in a barn for a couple of months a year.

Dexter cattle are notoriously naughty.  Like Jerseys, they demand respect from humans, but unlike Jerseys they know they don’t need you one little bit!  They are our smallest native cattle but they are strong, ambitious and tough and could likely survive an apocalypse, and they know it – that’s what makes them good for conservation grazing in tough environments.  Go to a cattle show and if someone is being dragged around a ring, it’s likely to be a Dexter doing the dragging!  If you can get them on-side, they will be phenomenally thrifty yet powerful and fast oxen…..if.  Many would therefore balk at training Dexters at all, and indeed up until Rook and Raven dropped into my lap, so had I.  Adding the fact that they had run feral well into adulthood and were now in their physical prime with massive horns it seemed crazy….but then, my training methods, thanks to Ted, do not rely on physical force, which renders their size irrelevant, so in theory it should work….

And this is how the people of the past overcame the trouble of the waste associated with training baby animals.  They started with older ones.  The cattle that arrived at markets after they were droved from the moors and mountains at the age of two or three had already been tested.  They had already survived birth and the delicate period after that, so we knew they were healthy.  They had already survived a trek, proving by their condition on arrival how their conformation and legs held up to hard work.  The the ox trainers were able to assess out of large numbers the animals which had the best temperament for training.


(Rye Cattle Market – 1937, after the days of oxen but likely a similar scene to the one centuries before – link)

This was the situation I was faced with – the large group of beef steers on the marsh had already survived calfhood and the challenges Mother Nature threw at them.  They foraged for their living, so if they looked good it meant they were good enough physically to traverse the marsh and gain enough nutrition and any conformation troubles had already long been noted by us as we watched them grow.  During round ups and droving them around the floodplain I had also had the chance to see their characters and judge how they reacted to people, each other, and stress.

And there was an obvious candidate to be Rook II:


Not only was he instantly recognisable due to being huge, with matching, beautifully symmetrical horns (a sign of good health), but I knew he reacted well to things.  Although he was ‘stubborn’ and dominant, he was also calm in a crisis.  I watched carefully as he let the other steers lose their heads, waste their energy when they felt stressed.  He would calmly assess the situation and only react if absolutely necessary.  He wasn’t overly concerned about our presence, his only concern was getting his way (yes, a lot of the time that meant NOT going in our pens, but that is logical!).  This made me suspect that he would be difficult to train in terms of carrying out my wishes, but that I could rely on him in a crisis, which for me on a film set is more important.  His natural inclination isn’t to panic, it’s to think, unlike the first Rook who would panic first and ask questions later.  Much safer.

So, Rook II was brought in to the barn from the marsh instead of going to the abattoir, along with Raven who had been out there also for a couple of years and I wasn’t sure how either would react to be honest – would Raven even remember me from when he was younger?

This has turned very rambly so we will save what happened next for part 2!  See you next time 🙂


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