From time to time we have had people drop in to 1632 Tech and ask, “What about oxen?” It is a fair question and we’ve suggested that someone familiar with oxen write a facts article. So far we’ve had no takers and, as the defacto livestock expert*, it appears that I am the one to attempt to fill this gap. I have no personal experience with oxen and what I know is gleaned from research. If anyone with experience spots a misstatement please contact me and I will do my best to correct it.
This piece is intended only as a very basic guide for our writers. Anyone writing a story that includes more than a passing mention of oxen is encouraged to do further research. In the Bibliography and Sources I’ve included The Rural Heritage website where one can post specific questions that will be answered by people who know and use oxen every day.
The ox may have been mankind’s earliest draft animal. Written sources, paintings, and sculptures indicate their usage dates back a minimum of five thousand years. They are found in art and records from Egypt, Ur, and Babylon. Every farming civilization that has had access to some breed of bovine has used them for draft purposes.
An ox is defined as a neutered male bovine trained for and used as a draft animal. Steers are neutered male bovines that are not intended for use as draft animals. If a male calf is castrated before sexual maturity its growth patterns and personality are different than those of an unneutered male or a male neutered later. The changes, including longer legs and a more docile temperament, make the ox more suited for draft purposes than uncastrated stock or animals that are castrated after sexual maturity.
Not all bovines used for draft are oxen. I’ve found references to times and places where cows and the occasional bull have been used. At times and under some conditions any bovine might be used. If the only animals you have are a pair of cows, then your “ox” team will be a pair of cows.
Bovines are naturals for draft as both the horns and the neck area just in front of the shoulder blades lend themselves to the use of a simple wooden yoke. Yokes appear in three basic forms. The most familiar is the neck or bow yoke which consists of a shaped crosspiece (the yoke) that rests on the top of the ox’s neck, just in front of his shoulder blades, and a U-shaped piece (the bow) that goes under the neck with its ends going up through two holes in the yoke. This type of yoke can be a single or a double yoke.
The horn or head yoke is a shaped piece of wood that rests behind the ox’s horns and is strapped directly to the horns. The head yoke also comes in both single and double forms. The head yoke must be well fitted to the specific ox or oxen it is used with or it will quickly gall the sensitive areas at the base of the horns. Such a yoke cannot be used on polled (hornless) cattle.
The third form, the withers yoke, is a version of the neck yoke adapted for use with humped cattle such as the Zebu. Finding a Zebu in seventeenth century Europe is unlikely so such a yoke is unlikely to be either needed or known.
The earliest methods of harnessing onangers, donkeys, and horses to vehicles were derived from the ox yoke. Equine anatomy differs significantly from bovine so this was not a satisfactory method. The development of the horse collar can be traced back to man’s attempts to replicate the usefulness of the neck and head yokes. The horse collar serves the same function, in that it allows the draft animal to put its full body weight and muscle power to use.
For stories set in the 1632 universe, some additional research may be needed by writers since both the neck yoke and head yoke were used throughout Europe. One source indicated that the head yoke was preferred in the mountain areas but there is enough evidence to indicate that it was used within all regions. Basically, either neck yokes or head yokes could appear anywhere. A farmer is most likely to use whichever type his father and grandfather used.
By the seventeenth century the use of oxen in agriculture was declining. It had not and would not completely disappear. Those farmers who could afford to preferred to use horses. Using oxen for farming had, to some extent, begun to carry the social stigma of being “backward” or indicating that the ox team’s owner was too poor to afford horses. Heavy freighting still depended on ox teams and would do so in this timeline into the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
Despite the social stigma, oxen were the quickest and cheapest way to replace dead or stolen animals. In a pinch, cows could be used until their calves were old enough to work. In some areas of Bavaria farmers used cows for draft teams well into the twentieth century.
Oxen historically have always been cheaper than horses. As late as the mid-nineteenth century a pair or yoke of oxen cost half what a pair of horses or mules cost. This price ratio seems to have held true as far back as the 1100’s. Cattle were cheap to buy and raise.
An ox is generally considered fully grown and ready for heavy work by age two  and will work until between seven and ten years old, giving you a five- to eight-year work-life. At the end of their useful work-life they can be fattened up and turned into meat for the larder or sale.
A pair of oxen is known as a span or a yoke. Building a span starts with selecting a pair of male calves, either still nursing or just weaned. Training starts when the calves are small and a child as young as eight or nine can manage it, freeing adults for other labor.  Both members of a future ox team should be the same age and close to the same size and shape. Other things such as breed and color are a matter of personal choice. A nice matched pair with nearly identical markings paints a pretty picture. It does not make plowing any easier.
Ox teams can consist of a single span or multiple spans. Spans would be hitched together into teams sized to suit the work. For our time period, the most common ox team used in plowing was four spans or eight oxen. This number appears across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. I’ve found links to Roman writings on agriculture that may explain its widespread usage as the Romans were still considered “The Authorities” on agriculture.
For denser soils or those with a high clay content, eight oxen might well have been needed to drag the heavy wooden plow then in use. Custom and the authority of the ancient Roman writers might explain why people working lighter soils still felt that eight oxen were required. Custom also could explain why when horses replaced oxen we see the teams consisting of eight horses. Do not, however, assume that eight oxen or horses were always used. Customs aside, practicality and local conditions often would require the use of more or less animals. For those circumstances where eight oxen were needed to efficiently work the land, fewer could do the job but they did it more slowly and ran a higher risk of injury. “Work worn” is a term for animals that were overworked to the point of no longer being able to do any but the lightest work.
An ox span or team has one man with a prod or stick who walks beside the lead animals and directs them. For plowing with the heavy wooden plow two additional men were required to keep the plow upright and steer it. With the newly introduced iron walking plow only one man will be needed to handle the plow and one to direct the oxen. For large teams of oxen pulling freight wagons and carts there may be additional drovers who walk beside the ox team, directing them. Freighters often preferred oxen over horses because when faced with deep mud the oxen would keep pulling where horses would usually give up. The fact that the oxen might get the wagon out of the mud without additional help did have to be balanced against them continuing to pull until one or more dropped dead from the exertion.
So why were horses replacing oxen on the farms? Speed is one answer. A horse team moves faster than an ox team. Mixed teams, horses and oxen, were not uncommon during the transition and some sources feel that while mixing the teams slowed the horses down, at the same time it forced the oxen to move a bit faster. Another factor was that horses could work longer than oxen, especially on hot days. The horse is slower maturing, not being fully grown until four or five years old. However, horses generally have a longer work-life of twelve to fourteen years. On the down side for horses is their greater cost and that, except in famine situations, they were not used as food animals at the end of their lives.
When one of a span is injured or falls ill there is a problem with oxen. The surviving ox will refuse to work alongside any animal other than the one he was raised and trained with. This means that if one of a span cannot work both oxen must be replaced in the team. I first ran across this problem in a book on military logistics of the Revolutionary War. The author complained about it being difficult enough to find sufficient oxen and getting replacement pairs was impossible.
This is another area in which horses and mules differ from oxen. Some horses do have strong preferences for a certain position in the team. Others may object to specific horses being hitched beside them or in front or back of them. The teamster might have to shuffle the placement of the horses within the hitch but he doesn’t have to replace two animals when one goes down. A harness-trained horse is willing to work next to strange horses. The new horse may require a bit of time to settle in, but he won’t refuse to work.
*Expert is variously defined as “someone more than ten miles from home” and “Ex as in a has-been and ‘spurt’ as in a drip under pressure.”
 Some sources disagree about oxen being mature enough for heavy work at two, stating that four is the earliest that they should be put to heavy work. I’ve elected to go with the majority of sources, including a number of those currently using oxen to farm or log. This age difference may also reflect newer breeds of cattle that take longer to reach maturity.
 In the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada it is common for the younger 4-H members to select and train a span of oxen. For older teamsters, ox pulling contests are very popular.
Bibliography and Sources
Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide
Storey Publishing. North Adams, MA
The Horse in the Middle Ages
Sutton Publishing Limited
Horses, Oxen and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066-1500
John Langdon and Lyndal Roper
Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (July 4, 2002)
The Draft Horse Primer
Draft Horse Journal, Inc
On the Internet:
Rural Heritage Ox Paddock