During recent equine massage adventures I had the opportunity to work on an animal of a different kind: the historic FARM OXEN! Having gotten a ‘taste’ of Angus bull in May in Iowa, when Jim Masterson worked on a young bull and the Masterson Method(TM) students of that class got a chance to explore the bull’s anatomy through the reassuring bars of a chute, I was interested in getting a closer feel of these wonderful, big-eyed animals.

Releasing Tension in an Oxen Shoulder
Releasing Tension in an Oxen Shoulder

This opportunity came along when I went to Old World Wisconsin, the wonderfully reconstructed historic site in Eagle, WI, for a second time to work on historic farm draft horses Nelly and Lady. Historic farmer Bryan Zaeske thought that farm oxen team Teddy and Bear could benefit from some bodywork as well. So after working on the two very well behaved senior mares and going for a hearty lunch (with second thoughts about the burger I was eating in view of the upcoming ox massage), we headed for the historic farm that is home to Teddy and Bear.

Bryan and two young helpers, clad in historically correct pants with suspenders and very interesting hats, helped get Teddy and Bear out of their pasture and into the barn yard, where I started working on Teddy. Not knowing what to expect, I was soon fascinated by these gentle horned animals. Besides several obvious differences in anatomy, there are a few key differences between an ox and a horse, from the bodyworker perspective:

a) When a horse doesn’t want to pick up his foot, he can be convinced. When an ox does not want to pick up his foot, he does not want to pick up his foot.

b) An ox SMELLS very different from a horse!

c) A horse’s hair grows from front to back, an ox’s hair grows from top down. This might not sound important, but when using massage strokes it gives you something to think about. After all you’d like to go with the hair.

d) An Ox has a bumpy, odd looking musculature around the base of his tail. Both oxen loooved to have these bumpy muscles massaged.

e) Performing bodywork on an oxen leaves your hands oily and moisturized. I was unable to wash the oily substance off with water alone. My hands were instantly rejuvenated by at least 10 years. Lanolin?

Very Cooperative Oxen!
Very Cooperative Oxen!

Oxen clearly let you know whether they enjoy something or not and can be quite the comedians. Stretching out their necks, closing their eyes, quivering with their very soft, velvety noses, these are all very clear signs of enjoyment.  Their noses are always moist and their muzzles velvety and soft. Teddy and Bear have very different personalities. Teddy is a bit more stoic, he is the ‘muscle’ of the team. When he lost interest in what I was doing, he simply bulldozered over to the next good looking patch of grass and had to be led back to our spot. Bear was a much more social animal. He really interacted with me, checked me out, sniffed on my quite a bit and showed more interest. He had a greater range of facial expression and was very responsive. Bear is the ‘brain’ of the team and the one who interacts with the handler and takes the commands, while Teddy just follows Bear along. According to historic farmer Bryan Zaeske, the determination who will be the ‘brain’ and who the ‘muscle’ of a team is made according to the animals personality when they are only a few days old and then they receive the respective training from that day on.

I am very much looking forward to my next trip to Old World Wisconsin and to working with Nelly and Lady and hopefully the oxen team again. Bryan gave me some encouraging feedback about my work on draft horses Nelly and Lady: “You really did something to those horses. [After the first bodywork]… they moved as they had not done in 5 or 6 years. … They thought it was the Kentucky Derby!”

I learned a lot that day from Teddy and Bear and cannot wait to work on my next oxen, bull or dairy cow. I have cut down a lot on eating red meat. It just doesn’t look the same to me now…

The Old World Wisconsin Oxen Team
The Old World Wisconsin Oxen Team
Stefanie with Bryan, Lady, Nelly
Stefanie with Bryan, Lady, Nelly

Nelly (27)  and Lady (28) are a senior draft horse team – Morgan/Percheron crosses and full sisters – that have been working the farms at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, WI, for the past 17 years. Owner, care taker and historic farmer Bryan Zaeske calls them ‘the best team I ever worked with’. Nelly is the the slightly smaller, but also livelier of the two. According to Bryan, Nelly gets her kicks, if she is allowed to really step out and be a little frisky. Lady is a bit more reserved and the calmer one during team work. Their lives resemble the lives of a typical farm horse only a little more over 100 years ago. They are used to plough, thresh grain, make hay, pull a carriage and for logging. Nelly and Lady – the two senior draft horse girls – are Old World Wisconsin’s best logging team.

Nelly, a flexible old gal
Nelly, a flexible old gal

A few years ago Lady dislocated her hip. The hip sprang back into place but Lady has been having a bit of difficulty ever since. Bryan thought it would be a good idea to have Stefanie come out and give Nelly and Lady a massage and do some Masterson Method (TM) bodywork with them. Nelly was accepting and happy to comply immediately. Lady had to be convinced that the strange lady asking her to do weird things with her limbs was really to be trusted. But soon she also enjoyed her bodywork session and showed good releases. Due to the gentle nature of the Masterson Method (TM) both horses were able to release a lot of tension without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

Both horses, especially Lady, will benefit from more bodywork and I will return to work on them and the Old World Wisconsin oxen team when I return to Eagle next month.

I am looking forward to my next visit to OWW and to taking and posting more pictures of the wonderful animals that help make this historic site so special and authentic.