Training Bright & Lion
training draft animals as a metaphor for life
Nearly a year ago, I purchased two Durham bull calves and began the process of training them to become working partners on the Sterling College Farm. Following a long tradition of ox teamsters before me, I named them Bright and Lion. It has been my intention to include students enrolled in the draft animal program at Sterling College in every step of the raising and training process so they could experience, first hand, the reality of: selecting appropriate animals, purchasing said animals, developing a feeding protocol, monitoring for strong growth, veterinary care, addressing housing needs, learning how to fit the yoke, and implementing a training protocol. Along with the hands-on component, classroom lecture topics include the natural history of the genus Bos, domestication, and the important role that working cattle have played in the rise of agriculture and continue to play in modern global agriculture. I am continually impressed with the connections students have made with Bright and Lion, especially those who came into the program focused on horses and didn’t think oxen were the draft animal of choice for them.
It is clear to me now that learning how to work cattle has direct and transferable skills to enhance a student’s ability to drive horses.
As Bright and Lion have grown, students are modifying the training regime to include more difficult tasks. Our daily training protocol has evolved to include three broad categories of tasks: aerobic conditioning, mental training, and strength training. Before each workout, we set a few goals for each category and discuss how to create a routine that will provide authentic assessment. We assign quality parameters to each task; for example, if we are working on “whoa” we first determine what cues the teamster will send to the team and practice those away from the animals– I call this “shadow driving”– until each student has mastered them and can consistently perform the command structure. Next we decide what a quality “whoa” should be– is it one step after the command, two steps, no steps? And, prior to implementing the command, we discuss and work through what the “next best action” is if the command is not followed. Finally, I ask the teamsters to “think in pictures” before they enter the team’s working space, and visualize, in perfect form, the team moving effortlessly and fluidly through the maneuver. At the end of each training session, students complete an after-action review and rate their performance as a teamster as well as the team’s progress and, most importantly, identify the key component and specific areas for improvement for both the teamster and the team to be continued in the next workout session.
Some years back, I took a few students to attend the Logging with Draft Animals workshop. As we sat around the supper table at Sanborn Mills Farms in Loudon, New Hampshire, I listened to men who know oxen and horses– Tim Huppe, Les Barden, Carl Russell and others– speak about the process of working with animals.
Les brought up two points that have stuck with me and, in essence, have become the basis for my work: first, that training an animal begins with his loss of liberty, and second, that as such, it is our duty to treat each animal in our care with dignity.
In Les’s book Training the Teamster, he states:
“Whatever you have for a steer … place him under your control to be sure he will do what you want him to do, when you want him to do it. He is afforded no choices. You are going to command him to do something then you are going to cause him to do it. There is no magic … you cannot sweet talk him into doing it … and you cannot flail it into him with prod, stick, or whip.”
I feel it is my duty to require students to understand the message Les brought to each of us as stewards of the draft animal culture. Dignity in all we do is a lesson applied beyond the barnyard, and once again, learning how to work draft animals has led me to a metaphor for living a quality life.