When most of us think of an ox yoke, we tend to envision the long, gracefully bowed piece of wood resting on the necks of a pair of oxen. This traditional neck or bow yoke certainly has had an important place in American history, but it is not the only option for aspiring teamsters today. In fact, it may not even be the best yoke in some situations.
There are actually three types of ox yoke:
- Neck yoke.
- Head yoke.
- Withers yoke.
There is also an ox collar. At first glance, it appears somewhat similar to the collar typically seen on draft horses, but there are substantial differences, as we shall see.
The neck yoke, as you probably know, consists of a wooden beam placed across the necks of a pair of oxen and attached with ox bows. The bows can be made of either metal or a durable wood like hickory. However, there are two variations on this design:
- Stationary—the kind you probably think of when you think of an ox yoke.
- Sliding—provided with a pivot in the center of the yoke to allow each bow to move independently.
The design of a well-built and well-fitted neck yoke distributes the load across the neck, shoulders, and chest of the animal. Oxen adapt to this type of yoke easily.
Both neck yokes are readily available and simple to use. The teamster can yoke the oxen and be ready for work in short order. The oxen technically do not have to have horns for attaching the yoke, but working with horned cattle in this case is much safer and more useful because the horns will keep the yoke from coming off when the team is backing up or moving downhill.
Both designs (but particularly the sliding yoke) also offer a good range of head motion, helping the oxen work more comfortably. Improved comfort for the ox generally translates to an efficient working day.
The stationary yoke keeps the team close together, allowing for better coordination between the oxen. This close connection, however, can cause difficulties on broken ground. The stationary yoke can make it difficult for each ox to find its own footing, and one may resort to leaning on the other to keep its balance, reducing the power of the team and creating the possibility of a serious accident. Using a sliding yoke will avoid this problem.
Be aware, however, that the range of motion that allows for comfort and safety for the ox team can also invite poor behavior, such as fighting or pulling in two different directions. Good training can prevent some of these problems.
Note that both types of neck yoke must be fitted carefully to avoid bruising or galling. A different yoke size may be necessary if the oxen in the team gain or lose weight.
If you are interested in making your own yokes, you may find this design somewhat challenging (though not impossible) to make. The beam piece is easy to build, as long as care is taken to avoid cracks and imperfections that will gall the oxen. The bows, however, are the main difficulty. They are made of hard wood, such as hickory, and must be steamed and bent into shape.
A common use of the stationary neck yoke is in pulling contests, as this type of yoke lends itself well to hauling extremely heavy loads for relatively short distances. The sliding variety is excellent for a wide range of small-scale farming activities, from plowing to hauling logs. It is also suitable for pulling carts, as it can help the team navigate turns with good balance.
The head yoke comes in two variations:
- Yokes that distribute the load across the forehead of the ox.
- Yokes that rest on the back of the head and attach directly to the horns of the ox.
The yoke is usually made of wood and attached to the oxen with leather straps.
Pushing into a head yoke is a natural movement for oxen, since they frequently shove with their heads when displaying dominance over other cattle. Furthermore, an ox wearing a head yoke can make his own adjustments in the hitching angle by moving his head up or down, giving him an element of control over his load, particularly useful for braking on a grade.
One concern about the head yoke is the way the weight of the load is distributed. With a neck yoke, the soft tissues of the neck and shoulders can provide some padding. With a head yoke, particularly one that attaches to the horns, the weight of the load is pulled by the spine, which is tiring to the animal. Oxen wearing head yokes must be conditioned for peak strength, or they will wear out quickly and possibly become injured. Also, the yoke rests on some of the more tender parts of the skin, so it is essential that it fit properly. Remember—every shock will be absorbed by the head and neck of the ox.
Coordinating the movements of the team can be another challenge. Head yokes keep the oxen closely connected with minimal side-to-side head motion. For best results, the oxen must be similar in size and trained with skill. Also note that they cannot protect themselves from flies when yoked.
Finally, remember that a head yoke can only be used on oxen with horns strong enough to pull a load. A head yoke on an ox with weak horns is a recipe for disaster. The yoke must be re-carved to fit as the horns grow, and it must be strapped on with care to avoid slipping. A well-made head yoke generally fits one team so well that it is useless to any other team.
Because of the strain that this type of yoke can place on the necks of the oxen, it is generally not recommended for everyday farm work. However, it is probably safe to use with light carts on a smooth, level surface. If properly used, it can even be advantageous to a team pulling a heavy load for a short distance, thanks to the extra control it provides.