Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Powering those wagons westward — mules or oxen, which were considered best wagon power?


Throughout the history of animal drawn transportation, the animal power of choice has usually been horses, mules, or oxen. Which were the best wagon power for hauling people or goods around the Old West?

The answer, of course, depended upon the type of wagon, the load being hauled, and the distance involved. In general, freight wagons or any wagons carrying much of a load for much distance of all, relied on either mules or oxen. Both animals were powerful and reliable. For heavier loads, such as some of the bigger pieces of mining equipment, and very long hauls, oxen generally won the day. They were slower than mules, but generally surer, and a big plus was that oxen could travel on grass alone while mules generally required grain feeds in addition to grass.

The biggest challenge for those driving oxen was keeping them shod. Unlike mules who took standard horse shoes, oxen had cloven hooves. Shoeing oxen was an art in itself, according to Foster-Harris, and might involve shoes made of rawhide instead of iron.

Stepping from the Old West back to “modern times” makes us wonder: Are we really better off with gas powered engines than with the good old grain/grass powered living “engines” of the prairie and plains freighters of old? In some ways, yes, in others, maybe not?