An Ox Becomes a Fond Memory
The ever-patient Stash (left) with Topper and author, Carole, standing in front of the partially-built Learning Barn. When completed, the barn will be used to teach adults and children how to train farm animals like Stash.
The last time I saw Stash, he was standing at the gate, looking through the slats at me. I walked over, reached out, and popped an apple into his mouth. The next day he was dead.
We had just finished a training session. It would be the last in a long, long series in which he schooled me – in communication and psychology. How could an enormous, shaggy, 9-year-old Scottish Highlander ox become my teacher? It started five years ago.
Looking For An Ox
Back then, I needed to find a working-steer teammate for Topper, a 3-year-old, black Highlander. Working-steer teams are trained to wear a yoke attached to their necks secured with a U-shaped, wooden oxbow held in place with a pin. Topper's former partner, Flash, had become unruly and was retired from service. My search for a new ox led me to Stash.
A note of explanation: An ox is not a separate species; it's a vocation. It's an animal, usually a steer, trained to pull loads. A 'working steer' is an ox-in-training.
Then There Was Oscar
In 2012 a black calf named Oscar was born on the farm. When he was six months old, I sold him to another farmer who put him up for sale at age 3. That farmer sold Oscar back to me at a price related to his beef value. However, I saw him as a potential partner for Topper.
I renamed him Stash because that name was similar to Flash, the ox he replaced. Unlike Flash, Stash was gentle and kind. His black hair hung over his broad forehead. His horns curved down then up at the tips. If I stood close and he turned his head, he'd make sure his massive horns didn't hit me. When I walked up to him, he'd rest his head on my shoulder, like a dog, while I rubbed his neck. When I scratched his back, he'd hang his head and close his eyes. If he thought I had an apple, he would sniff my hands but would back off if asked.
Stash Was My Teacher
I thought I was training Stash, but as I grieve his death, I realize it was Stash who taught me. He taught me patience and how to listen. It started with the yoke and chain.
Most steers learn to wear a yoke when they are six months or younger. Topper and former partner Flash had been pulling a cart or hauling small logs with a yoke and chain at seven months. At three years old, Stash came to this game late in life and had a lot to learn. He'd never worn a halter, felt a yoke on his neck, heard a chain rattle beside him, or seen a "stone boat,"
At first, his training was promising. After one session, he allowed me to put a halter over his head, and after the next time, he walked behind as I led him around the barnyard. Then it was time to learn about equipment.
Imagine a terrified 800-pound black steer leaping two feet into the air, and you'll picture Stash avoiding the stone boat. How could I get this massive beast past his fear?
One mistake that I've made with my cattle and have seen others make with dogs is to use language to convince them not to be fearful. When a dog hides under a chair, afraid of strangers, we'll cuddle and pet him, saying, "That's OK, everything is alright. Nothing to fear here." Unfortunately, the dog only hears the honeyed tone of your voice and thinks he's being rewarded for his behavior. Dogs and steers are not people. We need to use non-human psychology to release their fear.
So how could I cure Stash's stone-boat phobia?
A Simple Solution
Animals learn by example. Perhaps I could wear a set of Highlander horns, cover myself with a cowhide, get on all fours and walk fearlessly over the sled. Maybe that would have scared him even more!
Sometimes the simpler solution is better; get a real steer to help.
Stash already knew and trusted Topper, the alpha steer in the herd. With Stash watching, I led Topper back and forth over the stone boat a few times. Then Stash followed him, stepping fearlessly over the sled. In another session, a bored Topper stood still while I rattled the chain and draped it over his back. Soon I could do the same to Stash. Next, I rested the heavy wooden yoke on Topper's back, and Stash let me do the same to him.
Stash Was My Teacher
You might say, "Wow, Carole, you were smart to figure that out," but it wasn't me at all. Stash told me he was afraid when he jumped in the air. Topper demonstrated there was nothing to fear; Stash was attentive and learned by example. I put the pieces together, and Stash "taught" me that I got it right. At that moment, we communicated, and learning happened.
That was six years and hundreds of training and practice sessions ago. Finding him, dead in the field, broke my heart. He had eaten something that caused bloat– deadly for a bovine. His digestive system could not deal with it, and death was quick.
He was my mirror and kept me on track. He'd swing his head impatiently if he didn't understand a command. He'd stop and look at me through his bangs when confused. He never tried to fake it; either he learned or hadn't. He'd walk away if I got frustrated or angry but was always willing to listen after I'd calmed down. He was my teacher. If you've lost a loved pet, you know how I feel.