An ox is a trained bovine, usually male, versus a steer, which is an untrained, castrated male bovine. A bull is an uncastrated male bovine. Castration removes much of the testosterone from the animal’s body, resulting in a much less aggressive demeanor than is common in bulls. While still muscular in body, an ox or steer’s (castrated as a calf) face somewhat resembles that of a cow, making him easy to distinguish from a bull. In some rare occasions, cows (females) may be used as oxen, although not as strong. It is also somewhat common for bulls to be used as oxen in African and Asian countries where the indigenous Zebu breeds are much smaller, and the dual-purpose of breeding is valuable.

The nigh (or near) ox is the ox that walks closest to the drover on the left of the yoke. The off ox walks furthest from the drover on the right side of the yoke. Tillers’ teams are typically named such that the nigh ox’s name is said first, followed by the off ox. For example, Marco (nigh) and Polo (off).

Depending on the breed, an ox can weigh anywhere from about 500 to 3,000 pounds. The oxen that Tillers works with in Uganda, for example, are Shorthorn Zebu, which start around 500 pounds. Tillers’ Milking Shorthorns (and many Western breeds) typically weigh in around 2,000 pounds when full grown.

People have farmed for centuries using oxen and draft horses for traction and power. Farms functioned in a cyclical rhythm with energy from the sun and human and animal labor applied to the land, which in turn nourished its laborers. With the advent of fossil fuel energy, however, that cycle is no longer the driving force of life in the Western world. Fossil fuel energy has offset this energy cycle and separated consumers from producers and producers from their own earth.

The rising energy crisis provokes us to reevaluate our relationship with energy. The farming community has witnessed a rise in interest in draft animal small-scale farming, which promotes a more closed energy and input cycle than do modern industrial agricultural techniques.
Tillers, along with living history museums around the world, preserves historical draft animal farming skills. While Tillers, the Amish, and horse enthusiasts worldwide keep alive the spirit and modern efficiencies of farming with horses, Tillers also works to preserve and advance the rarer skills of working cattle. Oxen play a central if often unsung role in agricultural history worldwide.
Internationally, oxen are often more economical and readily available than horses. Tillers leads international projects (mainly in Africa and Central America) to promote and refine the use of oxen for farming and transportation. We teach training techniques that are low-stress for the animals and result in more responsive teams. We also work to improve the design and local production of neck yokes and farming implements. Tillers uses traditional American farming techniques and implements as learning examples, re-inventing history for modern implementation, production, efficiency, and adaptation to local environments and needs. Whether your needs and interests be practical, historical, or international, Tillers is your resource.

Tillers teaches low-stress training techniques. We start our oxen in training at about six months old to gradually accustom them to handling and teach them the basic set of training commands, a process which involves a lot of pleasant scratching and relationship building. We work to build trust between animals and handlers. The whip/stick/quirt is used primarily as a communication tool, reinforcing the verbal command given by the driver. If the team is well-trained and well-behaved, the driver may not need to actually touch the animal with the whip. If the team doesn’t respond to initial gentle commands, the command signal is repeated with the whip firmly but not painfully. Only if the team continues to ignore its driver or misbehave is pain used to reinforce a command. A misbehaved team is a dangerous team.

Horses and oxen work very differently, each is well-suited to different conditions. Horses tend to move faster than oxen, and because they are driven with lines from behind, the driver often has the benefit of sitting on a riding implement. While oxen can be trained to drive from behind, the driver has maximum control while walking by the shoulder of the nigh ox (on the left of the team). Horses use momentum to pull heavy or difficult loads, thrusting with their chest against the harness. Oxen use their weight and muscle to pull, leaning into a load with their shoulders. Horses are significantly more skittish than oxen, more prone to flight, making the ox’s more even temperament a good choice for public events. Horses also typically require higher quality feed than oxen, making them higher maintenance. In many developing countries, horses are not readily available or affordable, and may not be well-suited to environmental conditions like native breeds of cattle. Horse harness is also more difficult to make and maintain than ox yokes. In the U.S. oxen were often used historically to clear and break difficult ground. After the land was opened up and could be plowed more easily and more advanced riding farm tools were developed, horses frequently replaced the oxen. Oxen were also popular for freight and wagon trains west because they could be grazed along the road. It wasn’t necessary to carry additional feed for them.

It can’t be said that one is better than the other. It depends entirely on situation, personal preference, and the work to be done.