Stash looked at me through his fringe of shaggy hair as I shouted, “Walk on!” He just stood staring at me with a puzzled look on his face. I was standing about 6 feet in front of him and using the voice commands I thought he'd learned. But he was not cooperating.
Stash is one of a pair of 6-year-old, black Scottish Highlander oxen. An ox is not a particular species or breed, it's a professional designation - like a plumber or air-traffic controller. For a steer, it sure beats the alternative career path (meat).
Stash's partner, Topper, is the same age as Stash, but I've been working with Topper since he was 6 months old. I trained Topper and his original partner, Flash, to work in a yoke. With a chain hooked to the yoke, they would pull logs, a cart, or a sled weighted down with rocks.
For their first three years, teams are called “working steers.” At age 4, trained teams are called “oxen.” The person who works them is called a “teamster.” (Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters drive trucks now, but in 1903, when the union was founded, they were driving draft animals.)
For two years I took Topper and Flash to county fairs where we sometimes won ribbons in the best-trained competition. Most people are familiar with competitions that determine which team can pull the heaviest load. Those don't interest me. We competed in obstacle courses and competitions that tested how well the team responds to the teamster's commands.
Because Topper was the more obedient of the two, I choose him to be my “near-ox.” When working with a team, the teamster stands to the left of the oxen. The closest ox to the teamster is called the near-ox. The other ox is called the “off-ox.”
The teamster has to determine which position works best for each ox, but once they are trained to either the near or off position, it is virtually impossible to change positions. I once accidentally yoked my team in the wrong positions and it totally bewildered them.
Not only do they learn to work as a team but each ox has to learn his name so he can be directed to move forward, back, or to the side independent of the other.
Unfortunately, at age 3, Flash became unruly. He'd swing his horns when I approached and would run off when I tried to catch him. He was acting more like a wild bull than a well-trained working steer, and I had to make a hard decision. I decided that, with horns out to here, he was too dangerous for ox duty. I had to retire him and find a new partner for Topper.
Fortunately, I had a likely match – an untrained black steer with a calm, gentle disposition. Stash (short for Moo-Stash) began his training as a 3-year-old. At first, Stash was terrified of everything – the chain, the yoke, the cart, even the goad-stick. (It's a small stick that reinforces the voice commands, functioning more like a band leader's baton than a whip). But Stash was smart, and by watching well-trained Topper he gradually overcame his fear and, while he isn't as proficient as Topper, he usually stays calm and does what I expect.
On Labor Day weekend I plan to bring Topper and Stash to the Hopkinton Fair, so I'm tuning them up and teaching them new commands. It's best to work each ox individually, which is what I was doing that day with Stash. With a little coaxing, he eventually walked toward me and stopped when I shouted, “Whoa!” He'll be OK.
Together, Topper and Stash weigh more than 2,800 pounds, and both have wide, intimidating horns, so it's essential they obey the “Whoa” command every time. I'll be working them twice a day until the Hopkinton Fair and looking forward to them showing their stuff in the ring. I'm proud of my boys and get a rush when, even though I'm relatively tiny, they obey my commands – especially “Whoa!”