Old Ways

The Ox Was so Crucial to Rural Life, But What is an Ox?

Until the late medieval era, the ox was preferred to the horse down on the farm.

Powerful and docile, they offered the perfect combination for a farmer but were eventually replaced by horses who were quicker and more agile.

For almost two thousand years, oxen were the primary workers and beasts of burden on a British farm. They disappeared from the rural scene as late as the early 1900s. Predating the development of photography, there is little pictorial evidence to document just how widespread their usage was, but written records bear testament to their essential working role.


What is an Ox?

An ox (plural, oxen) is a bovine trained and used as a draught animal rather than farmed for meat or dairy. Many beef breeds seen today were originally used for draught work and had different physical characteristics to their modern counterpart.

Hereford bull
Herefords where great draught animals

Oxen were castrated to avoid the problems associated with testosterone and behaviour, making them more tractable and easier to work with. They were called an ox after the age of four and are sometimes also referred to as bullocks.

The Job of an Ox

Oxen were commonly yoked in pairs and could pull carts and other vehicles or heavy tools used around the farm, including a plough and wagons for carting grain.

Read More: Farming Heroes: Britain’s War Horses

They were employed to clear land for cultivation, plough, and bring in the harvest. When their working life was over, an ox could provide beef for the table and leather for a variety of different uses, including saddlery, harnesses, boots, and clothing.

The image captures the use of oxen perfectly

Animals were not specifically bred for work but were selected based on their temperament and size and then broken to harness. Having often been driven to market after several weeks or months on the road.

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The young male bovines were lean, fit and sufficiently well-handled and exposed to humans to offer a good source of working animals. Animals were selected in pairs and matched for size and height.

Harness Up

Unlike a working horse with a padded collar and harness around the body, the ox wore a heavy wooden collar or yoke, which sat on the neck and in front of the shoulders.

And a wagon full of wattle hurdles, somewhere on the chalk downlands

The aptly named oxbow held the yoke in place, which curved around the animal’s neck. Oxen that worked in the yoke together became lifelong companions. Like horses later on, oxen were named, one with a single syllable name and one with a longer name, so that the driver could direct each ox individually.

Read More: Horses in Early Anglo-Saxon England

No Foot, No Ox!

Working horses are shod with metal shoes to protect their feet and to help provide traction in different ground conditions.

The old saying about horses is ‘No foot, no horse.’ However, oxen were also shod, but their feet were cloven, so wholly different from the horse’s hoof. The ox was fitted with two half-moon-shaped iron shoes, also known as ‘cues.’

White Park cow
White Park is a very old breed of beef cattle, kept in Britain for more than 2,000 years

Shoeing oxen was a different business from shoeing a horse. The animal was dropped to the ground, and then, whilst one person sat on its neck to prevent it from getting up, the oxman tied all four feet to a large wooden tripod. The feet were trimmed to remove overgrowth, and then the shoe was nailed in place, following which the ox was released. 

Read More: Chalk Horses – One is 3000 Years Old

The Move from Ox to Horse

In 1801, the Enclosures Act led to the end of the open-field approach to farming that had persisted since the late Middle Ages. It was this that heralded the decline in the use of oxen. Six or eight oxen harnessed in pairs, one behind the other, were too inflexible to plough and work these smaller fields compared to a couple of horses or three aside.

Ploughman with his horse plowing a field
The horse

Ox wagons remained a familiar sight on the roads until the arrival of the railways in 1830. Horse-drawn canal barges and horse and ox-drawn wagons and carts couldn’t compete with the capacity and speed of the new stream trains.

Read More: How Did Trackways Evolve into Turnpike Roads? 

In 1850, the head of working oxen in Britain was around 40,000, down about 20% from estimated levels in 1790, and by 1880, there were fewer than 3,000 working. In Cornwall, the last team was disbanded in 1887 and Devon in 1912.

The last team in regular work in Britain was at Cirencester Park, filmed by the great colour cinematographer Claude Frieze-Green, in the late 1920s. This team continued as a complete anomaly until 1964, when the head ox-man retired, ironically outliving the commercial steam plough.

The Power of Horsepower

Dedicated draught breeds with farm implements designed for horses and machines geared to run at higher speeds than oxen could achieve meant the ox could no longer compete with horsepower.

South Devon bull
Until the early part of the nineteenth century the South Devon was a triple-purpose animal, kept for its milk, for meat and for draught work

Other factors included the growth of the specialist beef breeding industry and a rising demand in more middle-class households for younger, leaner meat.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Younger oxen with more muscle achieved higher prices, so there was less incentive to work them. By the end of the 19th century, all the working, draught breeds of cattle and been reclassified as beef breeds.

And then there were None

It was the Industrial Revolution that, within a century, began the end of the horse as an animal working the land. Horses couldn’t compete with the work output of a steam combustion engine, which offered the farmer the power of a dozen horses and twice that number of oxen.

Steam thrashing machine
Steam thrashing machine at the Great Dorset Steam Fair

Ox wagons had virtually disappeared from Britain on roads and farms, and stage coaches drawn by horses quickly followed suit.However, horses remained in agriculture through the early years of the 20th century and saved the day during the fuel rationing of the Second World War.

Ox vs. Horse

An ox was considered to be around half as strong as a good horse, so one horse was equated to two oxen. However, oxen did have advantages over the horses that eventually replaced them. Oxen are more robust than horses, the latter being far more prone to injury and requiring a more carefully managed diet.

Heavy horse being shod at the village forge
The village blacksmith was an indispensable figure in traditional English villages.

In hard times, oxen could survive on mouldy hay and straw, which you could never feed a horse without ill effects. However, oxen require large volumes of bulky food eaten in one meal, which takes a long time to digest, so they need time to rest after eating. Compare this to horses who can eat and digest within an hour.

Another advantage of the ox was that it provided food for the table at the end of their working life and was commonly fattened for a few months after stopping work before providing a source of mature beef and hide.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Fit for the Table

Horses require a diet with higher levels of nutrition than oxen and cost more to feed. However, horses can increase their food consumption and convert higher energy foods to work harder, whereas oxen tend to lose weight and condition and tire more easily.

A horse’s digestive system differs entirely from an ox; it has a small stomach and long hind gut designed to consume and metabolize small volumes of high-energy feed quickly.

Depending on the land and type of work, oxen were nutritionally more efficient than horses when performing light work tasks. However, in hard work, oxen could not sustain energy for long periods and needed more rest.

Plus, if they were to be converted to beef at the end of their work lives, they would need a period of fattening so feed, rest, and no work to produce meat for the table.

The horse was a lot easier to deal with when in a harness

Using specialist draught breeds like the Shire, Clydesdale, and Suffolk Punch made it hard for the ox to compete. These horses were bred to haul and were much larger than oxen, some standing at 18 hands high and many at least 17 hands.


Horses also had a much longer working life of around twelve to fifteen years. Compare this with oxen who typically left the plough for fattening at five to six years old.

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In Norfolk, the practice was to retire working oxen at the end of their second or third working summer to be fattened, finished, and sold later in the year at the markets in Norwich or London.

The consensus amongst experts who have studied the differences between horses and oxen is that the latter was cheaper overall for ploughing in terms of their maintenance costs with the prospect of a good return for beef at the end of their working lives.

However, horses scored more highly for all-round farm work, being able to tackle jobs more quickly when compared to oxen and with a higher working output overall. But the story of the working ox is not over yet.

Since 1990, there has been a revival in the use of the ox in Cuba. In central Africa, the massive cost of machinery and the incessantly hard labour of hand cultivating clay soils has led to the use of ox power. Worldwide, the story of the ox is still playing out.

Oxen at a Glance

1. Ancient and Medieval Period:

  • Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, oxen were the primary draught animals in England. The heavy clay soils of many parts of England were well-suited for oxen, which had the strength to pull heavy ploughs.
  • Medieval farming often relied on an eight-oxen plough team. Such a team could efficiently till the land, making the cultivation of larger areas feasible.

2. Economic Importance:

  • Oxen were not only valuable for their labor but also as a form of movable wealth. They could be traded, sold, or even given as gifts or tributes.
  • Ox-hide was used for various purposes, including producing leather.

3. Decline in Usage:

  • With the evolution of farming techniques and the introduction of horse-drawn ploughs in the late medieval period, the reliance on oxen began to diminish. Horses were faster and, with the invention of the horse collar, could pull heavier loads than before.
  • The Enclosure Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries further transformed agriculture in England. Smaller strips of communal fields were consolidated into larger individual holdings, facilitating more efficient farming practices and making horse-drawn ploughs more feasible in many regions.

4. Cultural Significance:

  • The image of oxen has been deeply rooted in English culture. They are frequently mentioned in historical texts, literature, and folk songs.
  • Yokes, tools designed to harness oxen, became symbols of labor and oppression in cultural and religious contexts.

5. Modern Times:

  • The advent of steam-powered machinery in the 19th century, followed by combustion-engine tractors in the 20th century, made draught animals largely obsolete in England.
  • However, there has been a resurgence in the use of oxen in some niche areas. They’re seen in historical re-enactments, and some sustainable or organic farms have reintroduced them as an environmentally friendly alternative to machinery.

Throughout history, oxen have been integral to the development and sustenance of England’s agricultural landscape. Though they have mostly faded from modern farming practices, their legacy remains a testament to their importance in shaping the country’s agrarian past.