Anyone who’s ever owned draft animals knows that there’s
one big drawback to keeping horses, mules, oxen, etc.:
namely, the beasts tie up a considerable quantity of
valuable land, while producing only a modest amount of
power and manure. Now, on a 100-acre farm where a great
deal of draft power is required, this expenditure may be
justified … but on a tiny farmstead where every square
foot of land is needed, it’s just not practical to devote
precious acreage to the upkeep of draft animals.
There is an “easy way out” of this dilemma, of course: buy
a tractor (and add to the world’s problems by fueling it
with petroleum products). That’s not a very satisfactory
solution, however, economically OR ecologically.
Another very real alternative — although seldom
thought of by most people — does exist, however, and
to introduce it I’d like to step back to the mid-1960’s and
recount a bit of personal history.
A decade ago, I made my living as a small milk producer in
the hills and dales of North Yorkshire, England. My
“spread” totaled 35 acres, most of them steep and craggy.
Since I’ve never personally liked tractors (I despise them,
in fact), all the everyday work around that farm was done
with the aid of Peggy, my Clydesdale mare … whose main
duty was to haul 30 gallons of milk to market every day
across three-quarters of a mile of steep, rough road. (All
heavier farmwork — baling and such — was left
to local contractors.)
One early Christmas morning, as the frosty sky was
beginning to brighten in the east, I set off with Peggy up
the steep road to town with two churns (each containing 15
gallons of milk) secured to my flatcart. The last steep
stretch of the country road I traveled twisted between high
banks and hedges before joining a paved thoroughfare into
the village. We were halfway up this hazardous section in
the morning’s dim light before I realized that —
ahead of us — water had run out from the side ditch
and frozen across our path. Rather than try to back down
the hill as I should have, though, I decided to risk going
the rest of the way up.
What a mistake that was! Peggy missed her footing
on the ice and fell, breaking one of the cart’s shafts.
Luckily, I managed to free the horse from the wreckage and
carry the milk cans — one at a time — up the
last few yards of the track on my back. My beloved mare,
however, was now lame … and I was faced with the prospect
of having to pack 100-pound cans all the way to town on my
back every morning in order to get the milk to market.
At this point, I didn’t know what I was going to do. It so
happened, though, that I’d recently read a farming textbook
of the early 1830’s which contained a treatise on draft
animals. In this treatise, oxen were given equal billing
with horses, and the author of the piece even went so far
as to point out the usefulness of dairy cattle (if
they’re well on in their lactation) as work animals.
Moreover, the author maintained that unless a cow was
already giving a great deal of milk, the exercise obtained
from light work was likely to increase — not decrease
— her production.
Well, no sooner had I recalled this treatise than I hit
upon-and set out to implement-the idea of harnessing one of
my own cows to do the work that Peggy had been doing.
I selected Miranda-a middle-aged Ayrshire-as the most
suitable subject for my experiment since, in addition to
being quiet and halter-broken, she was neither giving a
great deal of milk nor was she too heavily in calf.
“Poor Miranda,” I thought. “This is going to be difficult
for both of us.” (I didn’t expect breaking a cow to harness
to be easy … probably because I’d been brainwashed into
believing that horses are draft animals, while cattle are
for milk and meat, and only backward people work oxen
I couldn’t have been more wrong! Compared to breaking a
horse — and I’ve trained several for draft work in my
time — harnessing Miranda was a cinch. And she has
since proven no exception to the rule: All my subsequent
experience has only confirmed my belief that if a cow has
been thoroughly halter-broken, leads well, and is quiet and
friendly … she should take to draft work like a pig to
Training a Cow for Draft Work
Here’s how I went about training that first cow to work: I
began by haltering Miranda and slipping an open-necked
horse collar down onto her neck. (If you don’t have an
open-necked collar, you can slit a closed one open at the
top … the hames will hold it together.) An open collar is
necessary because even if she doesn’t have horns, a cow’s
head is too broad to fit through a regular horse collar.
I put the collar on upside down (that is, in what would be
an upside-down position for a horse) for the simple reason
that a cow’s neck, looked at from a horseman’s point
view, is upside down: thick at the top and thin at the
bottom. It’s true that with the collar inverted, the trace
hooks are at a much higher position than they would be on a
horse, but this is all right. The point of draft on a cow
should be higher than for a horse.
A pair of trace chains and a backband completed Miranda’s
At this stage, I led the old gal around the yard to let her
become accustomed to the collar and to the swinging of the
chains against her sides. She seemed completely unbothered
by her new outfit.
Next, I brought out an old iron bed and fastened a length
of heavy cord to it. I made sure the rope was long, so that
when I walked beside Miranda and she dragged the bed behind
her, it wouldn’t catch her heels. The purpose of this
exercise was to see if Miranda would be frightened when a
strange object began following her around. She wasn’t. (Nor
was she upset when I turned her about, and caused the cord
to tighten against her hind legs.)
Now there was only one question left to answer: Would
Miranda pull a load? To find out, I took from the cart
house a lightweight sled I’d made the winter before,
attached a small singletree to it, brought Miranda around,
hooked her traces to the singletree just as if she were an
experienced workhorse … and urged her forward. The chains
tightened, and lo! the sled began to move. Good ole Miranda
stepped out as though she’d been working all her life!
The next morning, I yoked my new “draft” animal to the sled
once again, drew up at the dairy door long enough to load
up and tie down the usual two cans of milk, and drove off.
When I gave Miranda her head, she not only laid into the
collar on steep hills without urging, but picked her way
around icy spots in the road without a slip.
I need hardly say that the village was agog when I drew up
at the milkstand that day. As far as I know, there were-at
the time-no other working cattle in the whole of the
British Isles, apart from a single team of Herefords in the
south. To many of the farmers on hand, my appearance with a
cowdrawn sled brought back memories from 50 years or more
before, when cattle were more widely worked. I was treated
to tales about the day the bull dragged a cartload of
turnips through a hedge, and told about how donkeys and
bullocks could once be seen working side by side.
Working in Snowy Weather
Later, when snowy weather arrived, I was faced with the
problem of how to keep my chain-drawn sled from running
into Miranda’s heels as we went downhill. I learned of
several possible ways to do this. One is to sling a skid
chain around the sled’s runners to increase its gliding
friction. Another method — which I used at first
— is to walk behind the load and hold the light sled
back with a rope. (This was a less-than-ideal procedure, as
I could easily have lost my footing and let go of the
The best technique — and the one I eventually settled
on — involved putting a pair of shafts on the sled.
As luck would have it, I had a pair of small shafts from a
pony lorry which I was able to fit to the sled in such a
way that the bars could swing up at any angle. Leaving her
inverted collar on, I outfitted Miranda with a light float
harness that fit her reasonably well, and then hitched the
sled’s new shafts to the harness. With this rig — and
with the aid of breeching (a leather strap around her
hindquarters )– Miranda was in complete control of
the sled even on the steepest downgrade. (The constriction
of the shafts bothered her no more than had the sled on the
Eventually, I broke other members of the herd with almost
equal ease, and — to lighten the beasts’ workload
— I even began to yoke my cows in tandem (one behind
the other). The rearmost animal would be in between the
shafts to steady the load when we went downhill, while the
front cow — whose traces were hooked onto loops at
the tips of the shafts — gave extra pulling power on
I’ve never harnessed two cows abreast, as I would two
horses, for the simple reason that the animals might
— especially if they have horns — injure each
other. Naturally, though, the way to overcome this problem
would be to use a yoke, but that’s a piece of equipment I
have no experience with. (I’ve always had sufficient horse
gear around and found that it served my purposes
Ever since learning how to harness a cow, I’ve never (if I
could avoid it) used a heavy horse to pull a load in icy or
snowy conditions. For Miranda — and others after her
— taught me that a cow is, in many ways, much more
nimble and safe than a farm horse (or even most ponies).
Left to themselves, cattle will pick their own way over a
treacherous stretch of road with ease … and, if they
should fall, they don’t come crashing down with the
momentum of a 2,000-pound shire horse.
From a single animal, then, it’s possible to have not only
milk, and a calf to raise for meat (if you’re so inclined)
… but draft power for various jobs around the farm: light
plowing, harrowing, carting, sledding, log skidding, etc.
Most of the equipment you’ll need for hitching up your cow
— including some of the harness — can be
homemade (mine was), and you can train the beast yourself.
So, before you rush out and spend a couple thousand dollars
for a team of oxen — or worse, a tractor-at least
give a passing thought to the triple-purpose cow. Treat her
well, don’t ask her to pull more than she can handle …
and she’ll serve you faithfully with milk, meat,
and a helping hoof.