Horses-Mules-Oxen

compiled by Stephenie Flora
copyright 2007

 

Once the type of wagon was chosen it was time to choose the type of animal that would pull it.  There were pros and cons to all the choices.  

Horses were thought to be faster but required additional grain to keep them fit for the arduous journey.  That meant that valuable space in the wagon had to be used to store their provisions.  The stamina of the horse was not equal to the mule or the oxen and they were more likely to stray or be stolen by marauding Indians.  Many an emigrant mourned the loss of their horses or had to lay over while they went in search of them.

Mules tended to have more stamina than the horses.  Mules could travel about 20 miles a day. They also were more surefooted in treacherous climbs due to the fact that, unlike a horse, they are able to see where they are placing their hind feet..  Although known as "easy keepers" they still required a certain amount of grain to keep them fit when working under severe conditions.  Randolph B. Marcy, Captain, US Army stated in his guide book, Prairie Traveler: 

    "Upon good firm roads, in a populated country, where grain can be procured, I should unquestionably give the preference to mules, as they travel faster, and endure the heat of summer much better than oxen; and if the journey be not over 1000 miles, and the grass abundant, even without grain, I think mules would be preferable.  But  when the march is to extend 1500 or 2000 miles, or over a rough sandy or muddy road, I believe young oxen will endure better than mules."

A mule's reputation as being stubborn comes from the fact that a mule will stop and look over a questionable situation before proceeding.  A mule will refuse to proceed if it determines that it is dangerous.  It took a special type of person to deal with the mules and many a teamster rued the day he became involved with them.   Also, the cost of a team of six mules was around $600 making the oxen a much more economical choice.

Oxen became the choice of a majority of the emigrants.  Almost without exception, the guide books recommended oxen. They were a little slower, traveling only 15 miles per day on average. However, oxen were dependable, less likely to run off, less likely to be stolen by the Indians, better able to withstand the fatigue of the journey and were more likely to survive on available vegetation.  If they strayed they could be pursued and overtaken by horsemen.  Not only were they the least expensive to purchase but they were more valuable on arrival, especially to farmers.  In 1846 a yoke of oxen cost around $25.  During the gold rush years prices peaked at around $40-$60 in the late spring.  

And one final issue that entered into the decision was the difference in time to harness oxen as compared to a horse or mule.  Suze Hammond, while reading "March of the Mounted Riflemen to Oregon in 1849" by Major Osbourne Cross noticed reference to this point and brought it to my attention.  As one who has had to harness horse teams, Suze made this observation -

"An ox requires the hoop under the yoke be slid up, the yoke attached to the wagon tongue and a lead string put through its nose ring, and that's about it! (The second ox is a little harder to hook up because you have to get the first one to stand still too, as they are to be solidly attached to one another.) The equine has a cinch under its belly, a bridle with a bit, traces to attach to the singletrees, lines to arrange so they will not tangle, a cross-lines arrangement so that the teamster ends up with only one set of lines and not one for each animal, a horsecollar closed, and all straps lying flat so as not to abrade its skin over the day's pull.  The amount of time difference would be significant when preparing to leave each morning."  For an additional look at harnesses go to HARNESSES.

 

 

Care of the Animals

Whatever animal was chosen, the success of the journey depended on the care that the animals received.  The greatest error of the inexperienced traveler was to overwork the animals at the beginning of the journey.  To avoid problems it was best to start out with short and easy drives until the teams were broken in and became used to the routine of the day.

Grass and water were normally abundant in the eastern portions of the route.  To the west were long stretches where grass and water were scarce, and it required animals in good condition to endure the fatigues and hard labor associated with the passage of these deserts.  Drivers were encouraged to not abuse their animals or force them out of a walk.  The teamster who made the least use of the whip usually kept their animals in the best condition.

In traveling with ox teams in the summer, the best mileage could be made by starting at dawn and making a "nooning" near grass and water during the heat of the day, as oxen suffer greatly from the heat of the sun in midsummer. When it cooled they could be hitched to the wagons again and the journey continued in the afternoon.  Sixteen or eighteen miles a day could be made this way without injury to the animals.

Additional Information:

The Prairie Ox Drovers: located in Western Canada are dedicated to sharing their knowledge of the oxen.  A wonderful site.

Centennial Farm of Orange County:  This 5-acre farm includes an oxen team that is used during the tours to help educate the public to their use and value.


My name is Stephenie Flora. Thanks for stopping by
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