Smart as an Ox


Bovine behemoths boast brains and brawn. Oxman Darin Tschopp describes these beasts of burden.

Learn more: Historic Area Oxen


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Before tractors, trailers, and bulldozers, there were oxen. Here with me now is oxman Darin Tscopp to tell us more about these intelligent and affectionate animals who bear the title "beast of burden."

Lloyd: Compare milk cows, or cattle, with oxen in size, so that people get an idea just how really big we’re talking about.

Darin: The size will vary on the cattle breed. For my guys, most of my guys are Milking Shorthorn cattle. Within the breed, the males can top our around 2,500 pounds apiece. A Shorthorn cow can average between 12 or 1,400 apiece.

Lloyd: So it's 1,000 pounds plus more. One thousand pounds is at least 10 people. Maybe 12. That's a big animal.

Darin: Yeah, you can end up with some good-sized teams, depending on the breed of cattle.

Lloyd: I was watching yoked oxen pull a wagon down the street. I said to the guy who was walking with them, "How do you get them to turn?" He said, "You lean into them." Is that sort of more or less true?

Darin: It varies. There's no set standard for driving a team. Different people have different styles. For your turns, you're generally using voice commands. For a left turn you're using "haw" and for a right turn you use "gee." Depending on how long you're with a team, sometimes you don't have to say a word. If you take a turn, the team will just follow right with you. Where you're positioning yourself to them is actually saying what you want them to do. You can drive them without ever saying a single word. Different people have different styles.

Lloyd: Do the different oxen respond to you differently? So you might get one who's reluctant to go to the right, or you might get one reluctant to go to the left.

Darin: Yeah, they are cattle. They have their own mind to themselves. Sometimes they don't want to do what you want them to do. Within my teams, Red and Rusty is a good pair. They'll follow me pretty good. Red's independent, he's been the boss of everybody when they're together in pasture. He'll try to get away with stuff, more so than Rusty will. Rusty just goes along with the crowd, basically. One of my newer pairs, Tuck and Timer, Timer is kind of the boss of everybody. When they're out on the streets, they have their own pace. They'll go at a pretty quick step, where some of my other guys will go at a slower step.

Lloyd: How do you train something that big? How long does it take? I mean, you don't scream, "Here boy," and 2,300 pounds comes galloping across the pasture.

Darin: You're generally not starting when they're that size. You're generally starting them when they're calves, the sooner the better. You kind of like having them imprint on you rather than on their mom. So when they're small, you're able to push them around. When they get big, they're not so easy to push around anymore.

Lloyd: Well you're not exactly a small man, yourself. You could push more around than most, you could certainly push more around than me.

Darin: I'm good sized. But when it comes to my guys … 

Lloyd: You're not big enough, huh?

Darin: I don't think anybody's big enough to shove my guys around, or other cattle. Even I've had, working at other museums, I've had 1-year-old heifer calves throw me around. As you say, I'm not a small person. That's generally why you're dealing when they're young calves. You're teaching them the commands at that point, and they're imprinting more so on you, so they're getting used to you. They're not as likely to try to shove you around.

Lloyd: You said a minute ago that something like, Red is a boss or was a boss? How does an ox boss?

Darin: Basically they square off head to head, and whoever backs down loses, and who ever does the backing of the other guy is the winner. Red has, as I say, had been the boss. Then we had him over at Great Hopes Plantation, because they had been doing the field work there. When we brought in Tuck and Timer, Tuck and Timer met Emmet and Gage and my other guys, and Tuck and Timer took the dominant lead. Then when Red and Timer finally met, Timer came out on top. But they just go head to head, horn to horn, and one person wins. Or one of them wins or one of them loses.

They'll just lean into each other, go head to head, then see who can out-shove who. One of them's going to back down. Whoever that one is ends up being the loser.
Lloyd: Does anybody get hurt in this? I mean, that's a lot of weight getting thrown around.

Darin: Usually before any of them gets hurt too badly, the one backs down and gives up. I mean, I'll come in some mornings and find nicks and scratches on them. Nothing major serious-wise has happened. One, as I say, usually backs down before any major injury occurs.

Lloyd: You are there with these very large animals. Have you ever been hurt?

Darin: Yeah, I've been horned, I've been kicked, I've been thrown, I've been stepped on, I've been walked over. As I tell the visitors, there's two things cattle haven't done to me yet: kill me, and break a bone. One of those two things I'm not exactly aiming for. But I've been fortunate in it. They're big. We always see them as slow moving. They're a lot quicker than what we give them credit for. They can be dangerous, especially since they have their horns on them. Fortunately, nothing serious has happened to me yet.

Lloyd: So, you've got this huge thing standing there. A fly comes up and lands on his face and he doesn't like it. If they're like cattle, and I presume they are, they'll shake their head. Well if they shake their head and they've still got their horns, if you're standing next to it, you could be quite sorry.

Darin: You can be. People want to pet my guys, and we've shied away from that. It partly is, especially in the summertime with the flies and the bugs, their head is part of that fly swatting system. Even though they're in a yoke, they can still swing their head around.

As I always tell people, if I'm standing up right next to them and a bug or a fly bothers one of them, and he swings his head around, his horns are coming right about my ribcage. Even at a short distance, I could end up with broken or cracked ribs quite easily. Everybody always considers the tail as a fly swatting system. Nobody really thinks about the head as being part of it.

Lloyd: You said when visitors want to pet or play with your, these great big gentle things, how close can they get? Considering the things that could go wrong quite easily, where do you keep them?

Darin: People stand with them for photos. A lot of people want to stand right between their heads when they're in yoke for a photo. That's off-limits, right there. But I mean, you can get near to them. I know my guys pretty well. I know what mood they're in. I know when they're going to move their head. You can stand alongside the yoke or a little bit to the back of the yoke. My guys are pretty good about it. I use bug spray during the summer, which hopefully gets rid of a lot of the swinging of the head and everything in that area. But you can get close for a photo. We just ask people not to pet, because they're not pets. They're work animals. They're not exactly coming to a petting zoo. That's why we discourage the petting part.

Lloyd: OK, you said you know your guys and what they're gonna do, when they're gonna do it, generally speaking. How long did it take you to learn that?

Darin: Sometimes I'm always learning. They vary. I'll work with the teams, especially if we get a new team, in pasture first. I get to know them; they get to know me. Most of our teams are 4-H kid's teams out in New England. They've been to fairs, they've been around trucks and everything. So they're used to pretty much everything they're going to face when they come to us here. It's relatively quick to get used to them, just a matter of time. Even after five or six years with the team, something will still pop up that I'm like, "When did that start bothering you? You never reacted like that before." You just learn their tendencies relatively quickly.

You're always aware of your surroundings, especially in the Historic Area. I've got children, I've got people coming from all directions, I've got vehicles, sometimes a fire truck or ambulance popping up. Red and Rusty still, after being here seven years, do not like the Fife and Drum Corps. The Fife and Drum march, Red and Rusty just don't want to have anything to do with them. Where Emmet and Gage, I've had them out when cannons have been fired off, and they just stand there. You learn quickly what they will tolerate, what they don't like. A lot of my guys still don't like the manhole covers.

Lloyd: OK, you've got yoked oxen and you're going down Duke of Gloucester Street and you're pulling a wagon of something. Do you use a whip or a cane or a something in your hand to control them?

Darin: What I use is a whip. With an oxen, we refer to it as a goad. A lot of people, I've always used the whip. When I first learned back in '91 to drive oxen, that's what I learned with. A lot of individuals use a stick. With my guys, I don't necessarily have to use it a lot. I use it if they're not going to pay attention to me. For the most part, with all my teams, I can just tell them what to do and they'll do it. Or if I just start walking, they'll come with. If I stop, they stop. I don't really have to rely on it as much.

Lloyd: I guess it would be part of the costume, though. People want to know how you control the oxen and you can just hold the whip up and say, "goad, with the goad."

Lloyd: Part of your, I don't know whether it's part or all of your teams, are the rare breeds program, aren't they?

Darin: I've got Milking Shorthorns, I had pair of Randalls, which we lost one of them, so I have a single in that. Our newest pair at Great Hopes is a Devon Lineback cross team. They're all rare breeds. One of the advantages of having them is, people hopefully will get interested in that breed. Hopefully even 4-H kids who come here and decide, "Maybe I'll go back and for my 4-H project, do oxen."

Lloyd: A minute ago you said we had a team of Randalls and we lost one. How do you get a new partner for that ox to work together with somebody who's not his team?

Darin: Hit and miss, basically. Partly the hard part is their age. If you lose an older guy, you're going to have a hard time matching him up because there's not too many steers out there that say are maybe 8, 9 years of age that you can match up. In our case, we lost one of the two Randalls and I decided to put him in with one of my shorthorns from my older team. They've actually been working good together. The advantage is, they've hung out in pasture together, so I'm not bringing somebody new in from the outside to try to match him up with. I'm using one of my own internal guys and so far, it's working out pretty well for me.

Part of it is also whether they want to work together or not. Once I get them in yoke, they'll work fine. The problem is getting to the yoke and getting it on them before they decide they're not going to cooperate and try to go off in separate directions. They've got personalities. So, depends on how their personality is. But they're all different. That's the fun part about them.

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