Even though it’s six weeks away, now is the time to prepare for the Hopkinton Fair. Tonight I put a yoke on my favorite ox team, Topper and Stash, and using a chain to connect the yoke to a metal sled called a stone boat, had them pull the empty sled around the yard. Typically used to haul stones, tonight the 50-pound sled was empty. When loaded with rocks it can weigh 200 or 300 pounds.
Together Topper and Stash weigh 3,000 pounds and should be able to pull at least 60 percent of their weight or 1,800 pounds. You’d think 300 pounds of rocks would be an easy load to pull for these beefy boys. Unfortunately, my oxen are out of shape.
They might look muscular, but they are just plain fat with very little muscle. It is going to take at least six weeks of work to keep them from embarrassing themselves (and me) at the Hopkinton Fair. Fortunately, we don’t compete in the weight-pulling classes where concrete blocks are added in each round.
The oxen that compete in the pulling classes are the Olympians of oxen and train hours each day to build muscle and learn to synchronize their actions to get the most leverage. If they don’t work together, it’s like a four-cylinder car with only two cylinders working. The team that pulls in unison has the best chance to win.
The best teams can pull “their own weight,” which means a two-ox team that weighs 3,000 pounds can pull a sled with 3,000 pounds of blocks on it. That’s a lot of pull.
With my team, I’m lucky if they agree to haul 300 pounds. If they don’t want to work, they’ll stop, look at me, and sometimes even walk backward, while their eyes say, “Sorry Carole, we think you are asking too much of us. We’re just gonna take a little break, thank you.”
And yet when the load is right, they enjoy their work. My off-ox (the ox on the right), Stash, will put his head down, lean into the yoke, and match the stride of Topper, my near-ox, as they pull a sled loaded, not with stones, but four or five youngsters, balancing and giggling, as the sled bumps along.
I have three teams that compete in “Best Pair,” which evaluates how well they are matched; “Best Working,” where the team must navigate around obstacles without knocking them down; and my favorite, “Best Fat,” where they have to be the fattest team in the ring. My fatsos sometimes even take Grand Champion in that event. If I were to ask which class they like best, I’m sure my boys would choose Best Fat, as they ask for more hay, please – the better to impress the judge.
For the next six weeks, in the cool of the evening, I’ll be working Topper and Stash and two new teams to prepare for the fair on Labor Day weekend. There, I’ll chat with other teamsters, maybe win a few ribbons, and eat too many “blooming onions.” Stop by the barn to see us – and don’t worry about my oxen’s feelings. There’s no fat-shaming them; they take pride in their beefiness.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (www.milessmithfarm.com), where she raises and sells pastured pork, lamb, eggs and grassfed beef. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.