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Harness and Collars or Yokes? Written by Amanda LaRocque.

(Note from Gloria: Although some longtime ox drovers would never use harness or bits, and would consider the need to use them as a sign of lack of training, yet the method Amanda writes about is at least worth thinking about.)

I was getting more calves and although I’ve trained several single oxen, I was excited about training a team. So, of course, the question came up – should I use harness or yokes? I use harness on Mack, my single ox, who doubles as our family tractor because I’d had harness available, it’s adaptable for growing animals AND I didn’t have a clue how to make yokes. Plus with one ox you need to use britching, etc. anyway because a yoke alone doesn’t work efficiently on a single animal therefore I bypassed the yoke issue and just used harness - it was simpler in a way and much lighter.

So, I was debating between harnessing/yoking options for a team. I started to sound like Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof – “On the other hand, on the other hand, on the other hand.” I came up with…..

After watching the new oxen video from Rural Heritage, while containing wonderful information, I decided that yokes held the oxen’s heads down in an unnatural position. Common sense tells me that when an animal works, the harness should fit with their natural movement and be comfortable. I read through the notes I made while researching harnessing and yoking and did some serious thinking.

Then I found a wonderful article on the UN Food and Agriculture site UN FAO website about harness, which explained about pulling surface and why it is important to have as many sq. cm. as possible. The pulling surface on a yoke is about 200 sq. cm. The pulling surface with harness is about 1200 sq. cm. total - 600 sq. cm. PER shoulder - six times that of a yoke – much better. The increased pulling surface is much more comfortable for the animals as well as utilizing their power more efficiently, since oxen pull naturally from their shoulders. A study was done in France (1920), and showed that 1 ox, harnessed, can pull/do as much work as two oxen yoked. As well, two donkeys in harness, because of the increased pulling surface and comfort, can do the same work as two yoked oxen. Knowing this and from what I could see watching my ox work, I decided, that I had to go with harness. Instead of it being the 2nd choice, as I had thought, it is actually my 1st choice. I had used harness because of difficulty getting yokes, now I’m starting to think it was divine intervention, (thanks Lord). I would never have tried it if there had been yokes available or if I had known the “right” way to work oxen. Harness definitely adds up to the best choice for oxen. How could I not want to get the most power from my animals or go the route that gives them the most comfort?

*(1st choice)*
The Sweat Pad Ox Collar

Neil Dimmock of Wagon Masters came up with this incredibly practical solution when he was making Mack’s beautiful new harness. It is two sweat pads layered, in place of a horse collar, giving ample protection and padding. Teamsters use sweat pads under horse collars to prevent rubbing and for absorbing sweat. The pads attach to the hames with built in clamps that were used to hook on to the collar. You offset the top pad behind the bottom one - just enough for the clamp on the bottom pad to lock over the edge of the top one. The sweat pads breathe, are sturdy, easily available, reasonably priced ($20 - $30 Cdn. each) and you can use the same sweat pads for several collar sizes - so you would need relatively few sweat pad/hames combo’s to fit your ox from calf to maturity. The sweat pads fit the oxen’s neck very well and the pad bottom is open so you don’t have the problem of the collar restricting their breathing. The pads come in sizes 16 – 36 inches, in two inch increments. Measure your ox - a couple of inches in front of the shoulders to the bottom of the neck (but not to the dewlap or the collar will be too big) just like you would for a horse collar. This measurement is the size of the collar you will need: 18 inches = a size 18. (See figure 1)

For more information on measuring and sizing a collar read pg. 108 of “Husbandry” by Nathan Griffith (an excellent book on sustainable living). However, remember that the sweat pads will work for 3 – 4 collar sizes. The Sweat Pad Collar is a wonderful solution for growing calves also, since it’s so adjustable and cost effective.

*I used to use horse collars on Mack but they are more expensive, not as comfortable and you need more of them to get your cattle to maturity.


Cattle need straighter hames than horses because of the different shape of their necks. The line of draft is different for cattle as well so you might need to move the traces down the hames a bit. Horses need the traces in the middle of their shoulders for the correct line of draft. Cattle need the traces in the lower third of their shoulder. You can make your own hames, if you wish, with some research. Hames pull the load and take the strain so they have to be made out of sturdy wood (what pitch fork and ax handles are made of in your area). To measure the length and shape of the hames take a piece of wire and bend it to fit the animal’s neck. Then trace the shape onto the wood and cut it out and sand it. For more in-depth info check out the UN FAO site. In the three pad collar article it tells/shows how to make hames. You can also bend pipe to fit and drill holes to attach the proper hardware (Contact Neil Dimmock for more info. on this. See contact information on bottom of page). Hames are measured from the bottom point to the curve at the top. Hames are adjustable and usually fit 3-4 different sized collars. (See figure 2)

Homemade Harness

The cheapest way to go for calves is second-hand harness or harness you cobbled together yourself. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. The sweat pad collar is the best collar option, or you could also use the three pad collar or even a horse collar. But the rest of the harness can be made from used tack, etc. until your calf/calves get big enough that it is worth getting a harness made especially for him/them. *Aside from the collar, hames and line of draft, ox harness is almost identical to horse harness.

For the back pad - a padded cinch works beautifully, a cinch also works for the bellyband. For britching (the part of the harness that goes around the butt and is used for stopping and backing up) - a breast collar with a dog leash for the britching’ seat (the part that goes around under the tail) is effective. Back straps are dog leashes as well as the quarter straps. Hame straps are great for pole straps. (For definitions see figure 3).

OK, where to begin? Well from the collar attach the traces to the trace pins then put the back pad (padded cinch) on the calf’s back and attach it to the bellyband (another cinch). Run two of the dog leashes from the two little rings on your hames, through the D-ring on the back pad and clip to the d-ring on the top of the hip-drop on the britching’. Run one leash around the rump under the tail and attach both ends to the rings on either side. The traces hook on to the back pad with clips/snaps (STRONG ones). The last two leashes are hooked on the d-rings on the end of the breast collar you’re using for britching, so they can be clipped on to the poles of the vehicle the calves are hooked to, (these are the brakes). If you are driving your calf/calves with lines you’ll need a 3rd ring on the hames for the lines to go through. This concoction will do the job for calves and young oxen.

This all sounds confusing but you only need:

Make SURE that whatever you use will be strong enough for the pull and will not break! If it does it can cause serious injury to your animals, yourself and bystanders!! It is your responsibility to have your animals safely harnessed. With this in mind, homemade harness can be an effective, easy and cheap way to harness growing calves with very little fuss. Just keep adjusting as they grow - dog collars/hames straps as extensions work marvelously. This way you don’t have to buy many expensive, different sized harnesses.

*When your calves get older, it’s time to afford an actual harness for them, as they’ll be pulling more weight and so safety is an issue.

Bridles and Bits

If you plan on driving your ox/oxen from behind, start getting them used to a bit early on. One gentle method for getting calves used to it is to put the bit in their mouth while you are out at chores. If you feed them grain put the bit in while they eat, if not give them a treat when you put the bit in so it’s associated with something good, and take it off when you go in. This way they should look forward to it and when you want to start them driving you don’t have them fighting with the bit. It is VERY hard or actually impossible to stop cattle from behind with just a halter if they aren’t obeying you. Using a bit, gives you enough control to be able to stop them when a problem happens. Unless you work your oxen everyday, you should have the extra control a bit gives (especially if you have them out in public). I swallowed my pride and used a bit, and the other day doing so prevented a runaway before it started. Even though I’d rather not use it yet better safe than sorry. You can use two hames straps and attach the bit directly to the halter and not even bother with a bridle. Hook the straps to the rings on the cheeks though, not on the noseband, for the right angle and more security.

(2nd choice)
The 3–Pad Collar

Another collar alternative is the Swiss three-pad collar. It was designed specifically for oxen, so it fits the ox’s shoulders better than a horse collar as well as being cheap and easy to make. This looks like a good design, the plans are straight forward and simple, even a novice could make one. You can find it on the UN FAO website (see above) or contact Rural Heritage by clicking on: Resources Available. The collar is designed to be easily made in third world countries, so is quite reasonable price wise. This would be a feasible option for growing calves, also. This was the type of collar that I was going to make my ox but when Neil Dimmock and I were putting it together the third pad (on the back of the neck) was getting in the way more than helping. In the end, Neil came up with the Sweat Pad Collar, an even better solution, I think.

* * *

Making your own harness for your calves is much cheaper than buying new. Make sure that the harness will be strong enough for what you are pulling and not break - this can cause injury to you, your animals or both! I don’t want to scare you but you do have a responsibility to have safe equipment. It can be both fun and rewarding making harness since sometimes you have to be quite creative. It can also be a challenge figuring out what’s best to use, and who doesn’t love a challenge? You just adjust and change what you need so it works best for you. Don’t get stuck because something isn’t made to be harness – dog collars and tack works very well. Be creative, innovative and unconventional! It’s a lot of fun working out the harness for your calves. We’re like pioneers forging a new way of thinking in a world that loves technology and instant gratification. Training calves gets you back to basics and more in touch with nature. Sometimes having limited financial resources is a good thing. It can get you on the path to a better way of life that has long been forgotten. There will be times when things don’t go well and you get really frustrated and feel like screaming or crying. Nobody’s perfect and sometimes you do lose it (it’s better to cry by the way than losing your temper). Stop, step back, calm down and remember why you’re doing this, remember this too will pass. Remember, it’s a lot of fun and it will be very rewarding in a few years when you’ve got an ox/team that loves and trusts you and will do what you ask of him/them. Have fun!!

If you have any questions about harness you can e-mail me, I’ll be happy to talk! you can reach me by clicking on: Contact Me


Also Neil Dimmock of Hitch Masters makes ox harness.
Contact him by:
Neil Dimmock
Hitch Masters Percherons
Phone: 1-780-764-2099
Mundare, Alberta, Canada
T0B 3H0

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