How it Works: Driving Oxen

As the story goes, the legendary Craig Kingsbury once drove his team of oxen into Vineyard Haven and was involved in a traffic accident. Apparently there was drinking involved. Craig was put in the lockup and the oxen – well, that’s where things got interesting. The only person who could move the oxen was Craig. And the only way he was going to do it was if they let him go. Which they reluctantly did, or so the story goes.

Oxen were the original tractors on Martha’s Vineyard. They were called the “poor man’s horse” and the early settlers used them for pulling plows and logs, moving boulders to build stone walls, hauling in fishing nets, and more.

Often people think that oxen are a distinct breed but in fact they are just castrated bulls. The most common breeds of oxen on the Island are Milking Shorthorns (also known as Durhams) and Devons.

Bob Woodruff of West Tisbury has owned and worked with oxen over the years; you may have seen him and his team at the West Tisbury Ag Fair. Bob recommends starting to train oxen when they are still calves – the sooner the better. When they are smaller they’re easier to move around and they tend to be more submissive when they’re young.

“You begin by putting a halter on them,” explains Bob, “and lead them around with your hand close to their chin. Then you start to get them used to the commands: ‘Haw – good boy, Billie – haw, haw.’” Haw is the command for turning left and as you say it, you pull the ox’s head to the left and he’ll naturally follow. Bob gives the commands firmly, but there’s also affection in his voice. The idea is to work with the animal, not against it.

After a few days – each ox learns at its own pace – the animal becomes used to the halter or, as they say, “halter-broke.” If you have two oxen, this is a good time to put a yoke on them, not only to get them accustomed to the gear, but also to working with one another. You can start to get the oxen acclimated to whip commands as well.

The basic commands for driving oxen are: haw, gee (turn right, pronounced “jee”), back, come up (move forward), whoa, and stand (stay). The driver stands to the left of the animal and as the oral command is given, the whip (or a goad stick) is used for emphasis. As Bob puts it, “It’s used more as a guide than a punisher, but at times you may have to use some force.”

So if the command is “haw,” the driver taps the “off ox” – the one farthest away from him – on the right side of the chest, the face, or the neck so it will turn away from the tap and go left. By then tapping the “nigh ox,” the one nearest the driver, on the left rump, that ox will move left as well.

To move the team to the right, the process is reversed. The nigh ox is tapped on the left chest and the off ox is tapped on the right rump. To move forward or backward the oxen are tapped fully from behind or on the chest, depending on the command. Bob says it can take a couple of years to train an ox – to get him “handy” – so patience is a requisite. And while it’s possible that a team can be eventually controlled strictly with voice commands, that is indeed rare.

If you want to see some oxen-driving in person, check out the Ag Fair this summer. From down-Island, head out State Road and take a gee on Panhandle Road followed by a quick haw into one of the parking lots. You’re in for a treat.