I found out about Andy at Spring Meadow Farm’s oxen workshops and lessons through a post on draftanimalpower.org, and thought that would be a good place to add practical training to my reading on the subject. Despite having a well paying desk job, I believed that it would be better for my health and my sanity to start a small farm. In my research on small farming, I discovered that animal power was likely to have significantly lower overhead costs than tractors and have a better per-acre return on small acreage. Having more experience at animal training than engine repair, I thought this would be a good fit for me and my 17 acres.
I scheduled four days of lessons from Andy over two weeks. We had extensive email correspondence in advance about my farm plans, my experience, and things I needed to learn, so when I arrived at the farm we went straight to my first lesson. I mainly worked with a pair of two year old steers, a team in training. They were high energy and a little rough around the edges, but they certainly did not let me get away with making too many mistakes. We practiced catching, yoking and unyoking, the basic commands, hitching and unhitching, and did some target practice and practical work trying to remove stones from the garden area. Andy patiently followed us around and gave me suggestions when I was having difficulty or developing a bad habit. Given my prior experience with training pets, we spent a lot of time discussing the differences between the species’ motivations and body language, and which behavioral theories are universal to all. I also had several sessions with a young pair of beef calves. The calves had been handled extensively and were bucket fed, but had little experience being led or driven. Although entirely untrained, the little calves were very easy to keep up with, I just had to be very patient with them and use all the correct physical signals since the command words had no meaning for them yet.
During my last lesson, my unhealthy desk job body couldn’t quite keep up with the lesson plan, so Andy got out his mature team and did a plowing demo. I’ve seen plenty of cattle at the county and state fairs, but I’ve never seen such a massive pair moving with such precision and control. Andy caught the team, tied their halters together, and drove them calmly across the busy street to yoke up. They knew not only the basic commands, but also four magnitudes of turn (including turning within their own space), and worked almost entirely by voice command, with very little additional direction from physical cues. After getting safely back across the road with the plow, Andy even perched on the forecart and drove from behind out to the field. It was a great display of what a master teamster can achieve and what all teamsters might aspire to.
Denise, New York
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