by Judy Van Put
The rains held out until late afternoon and it was beautiful spring weather that greeted the many visitors who came to celebrate Spring Plow Day at Saunderskill Farms, Accord, NY, on Saturday April 28. Sponsored by the Hudson Valley Draft Horse Association, (HVDHA) visitors found that in addition to several pairs and teams of draft horses, about a half-dozen pair of oxen and a pair of mules added to the colorful lineup of draft animals that made their way around to plow the fields.
A large number of vendors with tables and booths of items for sale (and animals for the children to enjoy) were located in the grassy field just behind the parking area, along one side of the field to be plowed; the field was lined on other side by the many teams and pairs of draft animals, whose owners were busy getting them brushed and harnessed up and ready to work. We made our way down the line and were able to meet most of the participants.
Scott Brundage and Melanie Brundage were on hand with their two pair of seven-year-old Brown Swiss they had bought from Elite Dairy in Copake, NY. We were impressed at their large size and, being “horse people” we asked Scott how many hands high they were (a hand is 4 inches, measured from the ground up to the highest point of the withers.) Scott replied that he doesn’t use hands as measurement, he uses ‘Scotts’ and to all appearances, they were taller than he was. Melanie told us that these magnificent Brown Swiss were about 18 hands high and weighed about 2,500 pounds apiece! She added that they eat a small amount of grain, maybe a coffee can full twice a day, but each steer is given lots of hay — maybe one and one-half bales per steer — depending on the size and condition — and their hay weighs about 60 pounds per bale.
She stated that despite their size, “once we yoke them they’re ready to go!” The Brundages have been working with oxen for 12 to 15 years. Melanie was a former treasurer for the New England Ox Association — which is what brought the Brundages to the Spring Plow Day last year after talking with Robin Jurechko, current Secretary of the Hudson Valley Draft Horse Association. “We know all the teams in the New England Ox Association that have working steers — we travel in circles and are a very tight knit community.” They go to shows from their home in Douglas, MA, up to Martha’s Vineyard, to several in New Hampshire and out on Long Island; and they may also attend a show in Pennsylvania.
Scott explained that these are big working steers, not pulling steers. Pulling steers can pull more than their weight — a pound and a half times their weight, but all they are trained to do is pull. Working steers do as they are named — they work — everything from dragging firewood, moving wagons, skidding logs, hauling sap buckets to participating in obstacle courses at various shows where they earn points for accuracy. Scott said his steers are versatile, and have participated in barn raisings where they are required to pick the arch truss slowly and hold it in place. They try to do a great variety of things with their oxen to help promote their legacy and show members of the public how versatile they are. Recently they took their oxen to Sturbridge Village for demonstrations and plowing around the village.
When working with the oxen, they rely mainly on voice commands, as they are not fitted with a bridle (and reins) as horses are. Scott said it’s all about the tone of your voice that they listen and respond to — such as “easy, easy, come up, come up!” and if its desired to go a bit faster, “come on, come up, come up!” Gee and Haw are used to turn right and left; for a sharp left corner, “step haw, cut sharp! Come haw now!” — your inflections are important, and when you’re prepared to stop “Come up, come up, aaaaaand ….. Whoa!” The drawn-out “and” prepares them to stop.
In his spare time, Scott likes to make yokes and bows and had some on hand to show. He is one of only three people in New England that make the beautiful hickory wood items.
Also in line was Jim Weidner, with his four-year-old Shorthorn oxen named Chip and Dale. This was his first Plow Day here at Saunderskill Farms; he hails from New Hampshire to “do a little pulling” with his young pair, just having returned from some competitions at Sturbridge Village the week before. Chip and Dale weigh about 2,100 pounds apiece, and Jim said, will grow for another year until they’re about five.
Kaleigh Hamel, from Montpelier, VT, delighted the onlooking crowd with trick performances featuring her 6-year-old twin Holstein oxen, Simon & Oliver, standing barefoot on their backs holding only a long switch. Simon & Oliver seemed to enjoy working and performing with Kaleigh as much as she did! In addition to these large animals, she brought along her trick horse, Lady, a mini who stands just 23 inches at the withers and weighs all of 175 pounds. (Lady was a favorite with the children in attendance.) Kaleigh, who is 19 years of age, created and is the trainer of Braveheart Beasts in Montpelier, and works with oxen, horses and mules. She specializes in oxen, and offers both group clinics and one-on-one lessons with drafts.