Eleodoro Morales – Oxen, A Living Tool - Chile - 1971

Since Bible times oxen have been of major usefulness to the farmer, a living and inseparable tool in all routine work from the plow to the harvest.  They are the faithful and loyal friends of the tillers of the soil, working with him under sun and rain, giving their help impartially and always willing to do the will of their master. Their pay is only their food and the consideration of their owner and with this, they are content.


THE MEANS OF UNITING OXEN IS THE YOKE.  The yoke is of wood and rests over the heads of the oxen, being tied with cords, made of the hide of a dead ox.  In general, the oxen like the smell of the cords and at times they even lick them, being conscious that it is something very familiar, of their own nature.  The cords are soft, so they won’t hurt the heads of the animal and are tied securely.  


When the cords become loose, it is necessary to tighten them up again, because while working, at times they stretch and the ox doesn’t have the same firmness to pull or control the load.  From the yoke, the load is shared, until finishing the day’s tasks.  The yoke keeps them separated a certain distance, which makes them esteem each other and cooperate mutually, thus mitigating the load.


OXEN KNOW THEIR MASTER. Because of the daily contact with their owner, the oxen recognize him by his voice and odour, and draw near with confidence.  On the other hand, they will look upon a stranger without the confidence and esteem their master receives.  The majority of oxen understand the language of their master.  If he asks them to put forth more effort, "Let’s go," they try to lengthen their step, or he asks them to slow down because of some danger in the way or when the work requires special care.


The owner directs them from behind. Generally he carries a goad-stick as a sign of authority over them, also to urge them into taking their place in each task or experience, with the purpose of completing a certain job.  When they have finished the will of their master, then he is satisfied and rewards them with a ration reserved for them.


SOWING AND HARVESTING.  In the time of sowing and in harvest, oxen are indispensable and as it says in Proverbs, "The granary is empty without oxen, but for the strength of the oxen, there is abundance of bread."  In the sowing time, the plow is the tool that transforms the common earth into cultivatable land, thanks to the force of the oxen.  The farmer puts his hand to the plow and the oxen follow the furrow traced out until the seed is sown in the soft earth, after it has been turned and all hardness taken out.


When harvest time comes, the same oxen are used in the threshing.  It is the time to take in the precious fruit which is the hope of the farmer.  The oxen participate with pleasure in this season of abundance and enjoy deserved delicacies of tender pasture or a handful of wheat here and there, which is its right according to what the Bible says, "Don’t muzzle the ox that treads out the corn." 

During the whole year, they don’t worry about their food, knowing that is in the hands of their master who makes provision for them, gotten with the help of their service.  Thus the barn will be full of food for the winter and the storehouse maintained with grain, all under the hands of their master.


FROM CALVES TO OXEN.  The simple practice of breaking in the young oxen has been passed from generation to generation.  It consists of putting a young one in the yoke with an adult whereby the young one learns the virtues of the older one, which the older one also passed through at one time.  In a couple of years the young one will be in condition to be used in any service whatever, having learned from its companion the qualities which make it capable of meeting with any type of work.


Certainly it will keep among its memories certain things that will help it when it has its turn of taking with him a new ox.  Along with all this will be the presence or control of the owner or responsible person who will mediate, and see that there is a balance between the ox and the calf.  


During this time the principle care will be on the side of the calf because of his youth and inferiority of strength and understanding.  His owner measures his strength and if the work is beyond his strength, then he will put the excess load on the ox, who will patiently resign himself to putting his shoulder to the load.  The calf at the same time will feel grateful and reflect upon it like son and father.  Many times in the first steps the calf is only a prop at his companion’s side.  This elementary technique could well be called a school—a school without tables or chairs where the teacher and student work elbow to elbow and there won’t be any material unlearned because of the practical experience in the earth.


EXPERIENCES UNDER THE YOKE.  The owner sees that both oxen pull together so there won’t be unnecessary struggle or "war," rather a sharing of the work. It is important to constantly change the oxen from one side to the other.  Each learns to pull on both sides of the yoke. There would be risks in taking on work or an experience that one is ignorant of, and not accomplish the results their master expects of them.  Some oxen have defects which many times are difficult to correct because this hasn’t been done earlier.


HILLS AND SLOPES. Oxen are not always pulling the load on flat terrain. There are ups and downs, mountains and valleys in the way.  Going uphill the weight seems to increase two or three times.  The master helps in the hardest part near the top when the load is heaviest and would pull them back.  


When they are tired, he will try to give them a breather, putting a log or a stone behind the wheels so the oxen can rest and gain strength to continue to the top.  When the load is greater, the struggle will be greater also, and he goes before them, even pulling them by the yoke and encouraging them with shouts and exclamations, besides waving the goad-stick over them.


Some oxen give up in this stretch of road and let themselves be pulled back.  When the wheels run out of control, going ahead or backward, it causes problems and could damage their lives or their load.  Going downhill the master will go before them to brake them, with the goad-stick in his hand. If they start to go too fast, he will give them some little knocks on the forehead so they won’t run downhill.  When they have learned this, the master will guide them from the cart advising them over their shoulders, avoiding dangers and setbacks.


RIVERS AND BRIDGES.  Not all the rivers along the way have bridges so it’s necessary to ford the streams.  If the river is swift, there will be more against because they have to pull the load against the current.  Oxen prefer to drink where the water is still; they won’t drink turbid, dirty, agitated or warm water.  


Crossing by a bridge is easier, but sometimes this makes the oxen nervous.  They don’t trust each other, fighting and pushing one against another and the going is disagreeable, though the guide tries to conduct them straight ahead.  Almost always that kind of contention, lack of cooperation and confidence leaves a bad taste, as much in the oxen as in the guide.  From that comes the saying, "It’s easier to break an animal than to get rid of bad habits."


FAST AND SLOW OXEN.  Not all oxen have the same gait.  Some are faster and may arrive first at the goal, but they don’t always have the same patience in the work that requires waiting and perseverance as those that are slower.  Oxen who are slower in their movements are more apt for work that requires endurance and precision, even though they might not accomplish as much in open field work.


When the two have an unequal step—one slow and the other fast—they aren’t such a good pair.  That’s when the saying fits, "The slow ox drinks turbid (muddy) water."  On the other hand, if there is equality, even the chewing of the cud is sweeter.


CHEWING THE CUD.  Oxen show their contentment by chewing the cud.  They will do it when the work is light or in free times, many times lying down in the shade and other times in the yoke.  When the owner has things to attend to along the way, it is usual to see one ox standing and the other lying down, always taking advantage of the time to chew the cud in order to digest the food they have gathered in the pasture.


RESENTMENT OR HARD FEELINGS.  They speak of oxen with hard feelings; this occurs when the weaker ox feels the weight of an excessive load.  The struggle results in loss of heart and the will to cooperate in the kind of work that demanded such rigor.  In order to overcome this crisis, the ox is changed from the work that caused the resentment or he is left free for a time until he forgets that experience and regains confidence in himself to continue in the yoke.


If the owner doesn’t have mercy for them, there will always be someone who sees them and will tell their master to let the oxen rest.  That master will not have a good name.  At the end of winter, the oxen have less strength; and the warm spring sun causes them to feel "done in" and their master needs to take this into account.


IMPULSIVE OR RASH OXEN.  This quality brings disadvantages in the work and unfavorable results at times.  One who is quick in his movements disorganizes the load and if he is trying to pull out a log, he will fall or turn toward the side of the slower ox.  Then one or both suffer blows that leave marks on the body, something difficult to hide from the master.  The owner, knowing these details, will be very attentive or vigilant to avoid any gripes.  Oxen are not competitive in speed, "A step that lasts is better than a trot that tires."


SICKNESS OF THE OXEN.  In spite of how the oxen are missed, at times a sickness can hinder them and then the work suffers an inevitable setback.  The person who knows about the sicknesses of the oxen is a veterinarian who knows the proper remedy for each illness.  If they have a fever (hoof and mouth disease), he will give vaccinations and isolate them from the other animals so as to not pass it on.  Oxen have hard hoofs and prefer to travel where it is soft when they can.


Rocks or pavement wear down their hoofs and they become sensitive and their request is "slowly for the stones."  Little stones are always working into their hoofs or thorns can prick them, which makes them lame.  Their owner will look after them, trying to relieve them as soon as possible.  It is said that in some parts they put irons on like horseshoes.  Oxen are characterized by being longsuffering and patient.


OXEN IN ACCIDENTS.  Oxen are not free from suffering mishaps.  Some are known to have turned over because of inexperience, being haughty, untamed, or due to demands too great for them.  Pulling with the head too far down can result in somersaulting over the yoke in the wink of the eye.  The master has to be ready to loosen all the ties, even cutting the cords so that there won’t be any great loss.


Usually this results in one or both oxen being wounded or defective.  For example, they might wound each other with their horns or break their neck, which would be fatal.  The horns are hard, but in such a case they can break and that would be no remedy; that ox would remain with a defect.


OXEN IN THE PASTURE.  The oxen have their designated pasture, with a fence around it which they respect.  Oxen aren’t "fence-jumpers" as some animals, but if they discover an opening, they could easily be tempted to go out and try other pastures.  Their owner will look after them.  Oxen don’t eat just any kind of pasture, they judge it.  If it is dirty or trodden down they won’t eat it.  Grain is delicious to them.  


Sometimes it is swampy or marshy where they have to walk and the dirty mark remains as if they were wearing black stockings; they can’t tolerate that.  They alone cannot wash themselves, but crossing a stream, the water will clean their feet.  When they have a diligent master, he will try to keep their hair clean.  He will give them a brushing now and then.  


It is never prudent to provoke oxen because, even though they are gentle, they could break their good conduct record and feeling vexed, could kick into the air.  The saying comes to hand, "The meekest ox will kick the hardest."  The one who provokes won’t be without punishment.


NAMES OF OXEN.  Each ox will have its name from its owner.  Oxen understand their name even though it isn’t in them to spell it out.  When their owner speaks to them, they will try to respond according to the tone of voice, moving at least their tail or ear.  Almost always the names are optimistic or flattering, such as "Pretty," "Brilliant," "Carnation," "Butterfly;" others are more representative like "I have," "Hope," "Treasure," "Mirror," "Fortune."  There are also austere names like "Lucifer," "Valiant," and "Noble."


OXEN WITH MARKS.  Each ox carries the mark of his owner with its initials engraved in the skin on the hip.  These initials could be read like "You are mine," and the owner has every right to be the lord over his oxen.  This consists of an iron with the letters that correspond to the owner, which is put in the fire until it is burning red, then stamped on the poor animal.  They try to evade this but they are already marked.  It is an experience they won’t forget but it is what identifies them as the property of their master.  This makes them known everywhere and also gives them rights and the consideration they deserve.


COMPANIONSHIP.  Oxen are accustomed to each other and the two together are called a "yoke of oxen."  Because of working together and sharing the experiences, both agreeable and disagreeable, they come to understand each other perfectly and love each other affectionately.  With the yoke or without it, they live near each other and at times can be seen licking each other in a sign of harmony and fraternal life.


COLORING AND MARKINGS.  Oxen are varied in color, some with better markings than others, but that doesn’t hinder their work.  Even though a yoke of the same marking and temperament is preferred, this isn’t easy to acquire.  At times a white ox is put in the yoke with a dark one and there is no difference in the yoke.  Like all animals, oxen shed their hair in the spring, showing off a new coat.


At times some oxen have their hair somewhat burned and not as brilliant as others, which shows that the work has been harder than usual and they need the consideration of their master in order to renew their strength.  He will take them to where there is abundant pasture and after a time they will be in better condition to work for their owner.  When the oxen are fat, it encourages the owner to put them into the yoke, and even their odour is agreeable.  Then it is probable that some friend will have praise for his neighbor’s oxen.  In my home part, there was a man called "The friend of fat oxen."


OXEN WHEN THE WAY GETS LONG.  The patience and resignation of the oxen is worthy of admiration; they never murmur about the sun, rain or the ruggedness or blows of the way.  It all falls over their head, which is constantly shaken by the yoke which is tied to their horns.  In summer, at times for lack of water they are seen submerged in dust and they continue without murmuring, pulling the load entrusted to them.  In the darkest night they don’t lose the way. Even though the master can’t see to guide them, they continue until they reach home, almost always their step getting longer as they near home.


Another important detail is to observe when their master works with them doing certain tasks in raising wood or logs from the earth.  He teaches them to put their head down until their nose almost touches the earth in order to raise up whatever it is that is on the ground.  Their master pushes them down by the nose until they learn the lesson, by submission, that makes them most apt in every kind of work.


Oxen are provided with firm horns, but they rarely use them for goading, more for getting the respect of other animals.  There are "creole" oxen (natives of the country) that pass the winter in the open air of the wild.  Some are so practiced in seeking food that they use their horns to incline the bushes so they can eat the delicate leaves as pasture is scarce in the winter.


HARD MASTERS—BITTER TREATMENT.  Unfortunately it has been heard that there are masters who are hard on the oxen.  They lack in compassion and understanding.  A goad stick doesn’t last them long. Those oxen are seen with wounds on their bodies.  Such people rarely can turn out good oxen which can be recommended because they are always provoked without pity by their owner.


Because of that, it is easy for those oxen to acquire bad habits, like kicking, lurching with the head, and even running headlong.  Such oxen don’t enjoy the work or the yoke and, when irritated, may use the horn even on their companion in the yoke.  An owner will rarely rent his oxen to anyone unless he has great confidence in them.  Oxen in strange hands don’t receive the kind and compassionate treatment that their master gives.


DOUBLE WORK.  Sometimes there is work that requires greater strength.  When one yoke of oxen is not capable of moving the load, such as houses, motors, machines, etc., then one gets more yoke of oxen. They are put one behind the other and all pull together like one strong chain.  This makes a line of oxen pulling together and, in that way, that large heavy object is moved from one place to another.


One can well say, "Unity makes strength." In the south, there are still places where they join ten or fifteen yoke of oxen to accomplish a certain job in a couple of days, exchanging working days.  This occurs when a neighbor has an urgent job and needs the help of others.  On such occasions, there will be a spirit of festivity with the work and the time is more pleasant for all.


NAPPING OFTEN.  When the sun is hottest during the day, generally from twelve to four, then their master will let them eat and rest.  The majority of those who work with oxen know how to consider them in this sense because if they didn’t their oxen could become very tired in the work or along the road.  So much so, that sometimes being worn out with the heat, their tongue hangs out, panting.  The master must give them rest or he won’t have a good name.


SACRIFICED OXEN.  Since olden times, oxen and calves were an acceptable offering to Jehovah.  God accepted them as an offering of a pleasing savor.  We read that Elisha, plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, as Elijah passed by, took one yoke of oxen and sacrificed them using the plow to cook the meat to give it to the people to eat.  Then he followed Elijah.  Oxen give all in life and in death give their meat and substance to feed people; this gives life and stimulates the living man.  When an ox dies, he is replaced by another.


TEARS IN THE WAY.  At times it is observed that tears have fallen from the eyes of oxen and with the dust there remains a mark that reveals some pain or inexpressible sentiment.  His owner will understand it’s from the roughness of the work or from some blow received.  Whatever it may be, the oxen forget the distasteful experience in the way or some wrong committed in the work and continue serving their master with docility.  


For some reason the master has seen the necessity of separating companions. Some are more sensitive than others and emotions are produced; it wouldn’t be rare to see tears appear as well as some lowing, feeling the absence of the ox that was at their side.  With the passing of time, they will forget, with their new yoke companion, engaging themselves in the work their master assigns them.


TYPES OF YOKES. There are three types of yokes of different dimensions:  a short yoke of one and one-half meters is used in fallowing to plow the earth.  The oxen will walk so near to each other that the chain of the plow will barely separate them.  The long yoke of two meters is used in open field, especially for work with wood, logs, and stumps.  That yoke is more inclined to break with greater force. The standard is 1.75 meters and with this, one can travel any public road and a cart is used that coincides to the same width.


REMEMBERING OXEN. It would be pleasant for the master to remember his oxen, their good qualities and virtues, and he couldn’t help but speak of them to his friends.  The life of his oxen remains engraved in his memory and when he receives praise of them, he will receive it for both, because it was the two who bore the yoke and helped him in his yoke.  In conclusion, one could add the words and prayer of the Psalmist, "That our oxen would be strong to work, that there be no breaking in or going out; that there be no complaining in our streets." Psalms 144:14