At one of the state's oldest fairs this weekend, farmers and 4H-ers kept history alive in the fair’s annual working steer competition, where both teens and adults competed to navigate their oxen through a series of challenges.
For several hours at the Four Town Fair in Somers, Connecticut, teamsters guided their oxen through different obstacles and simulations of traditional farm work.
Woody Aborn, the competition’s superintendent, said the earliest versions of the steer competition in Somers can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when farmers would compete to see who had the best team of oxen.
— Four Town Fair (@FourTownFair) September 19, 2015
Oxen were eventually replaced by horses and tractors on farms. Aborn said that today, the role of oxen is often solely to compete in working steer competitions.
Aborn has been organizing the competition at the Four Town Fair for nearly two decades. His father was also a superintendent. “There’s always been an Aborn at the fair doing something,” he said. His son is a working steer judge at this year's Big E.
Eryk Thurber, 17, of Foster, Rhode Island, said the competition in Somers was one of eleven he was taking his oxen team to this year. Thurber is part of a 4-H group called the Connecticut Whiplash Teamsters, based out of eastern part of the state.
Watch part of the working steer competition at the Four Town Fair below.
Thurber said the training process begins when the oxen are about a month old. They first learn basic commands while on a halter, and can start competing as young as six to eight months old after the two oxen learn to work as a team.
With time, oxen are able to learn more advanced techniques such as “parallel parking” and “side-stepping,” Thurber said, where they walk sideways and pivot the cart on one wheel.
In the morning, the line of oxen teams waiting to compete stretched outside the gates of the ring, and teamsters and spectators watched from bleachers set up outside the fence.
Thurber said that many people come to the Four Town Fair working steer competition because the prizes are hefty compared to other fairs. The first place prize that day was $100.
For a list of upcoming agricultural fairs in Connecticut, visit the Association of Connecticut Fairs.
Stephanie Riefe and Zachary LaSala contributed to this report.