In Loving Memory of Duke

On September 30, 2010, I finally made a decision which has haunted my summer. I know I held off because I lost Lew and Savannah and my little dog Chaco, and could hardly face another loss. But I also held off because I wanted this to be a decision that Duke made for himself, his last. On the 30th, Duke told me it was time, and I helped him onward...

Duke came to me a little shrouded in mystery. People lie all the time when they want to convince me to take a horse, and I’m sure I didn’t get all the story on him. Here’s what I was told by the man who, with his surly young son, brought Duke to The Golden Carrot. Duke belonged, he thought for a couple of years, to a woman they knew in Vista who couldn’t afford to feed him, who gave Duke to them saying "just feed him up for a couple of months and he’ll be fine".
"Believe me" the man said, "he looked much worse than this when we got him." Hard to believe when he looked like this when he arrived.






This family never had a vet look at him, and guessed his age to be "32" (where’d they get that number?) They threw Duke into a pen with other horses and threw a couple of flakes extra into the pen every day for two months. AND THEN RODE HIM. The man said "And he stumbled, we can’t use him." No kidding. Look at that leg! Who would ride a horse this thin, even if he wasn’t obviously crippled? The man promised to send support "when we can" (never), have their friends donate (not to my knowledge), and promised to bring a work party to help with stall repairs (never happened). They couldn’t leave fast enough - Junior was whining. Neither of them so much as patted Duke or looked back as they hauled away.... Another human in Duke’s life who used him, and threw him out when he couldn’t "perform", with no consideration of his age and infirmities.

And that was all I knew that day. Over the next 2 years and 2 months, I learned more. Duke had the brand of the infamous Hart ranch on his shoulder. I’ve heard some good, and a lot of bad about this outfit. Apparently, this is a broker who gets horses cheap, breaks them the hard way, rents them out to summer camps and riding strings, and when they break down .... well, one could say that Duke was lucky he went to a woman who couldn’t afford to feed him. There’s no doubt in my mind that Duke would have willingly stepped onto the slaughter truck, and walked down that chute to his death. He was that kind of guy.

So we know that Duke had many many years and many many miles on him. Hard years of having one inexperienced rider after another on his back for hours on end, pulling on his face to stop him, kicking his sides to make him go; standing saddled in the summer sun, without a drink of water or a bite to eat until the long day’s work was done; fed a flake of hay night and morning, often in a herd setting where he competed for food; handled roughly and indifferently as though he were an ATV or a bicycle.

And Duke endured. He worked hard - Hart won’t keep horses who don’t. When he finally broke down, almost certainly due to that bad leg, he was tossed away. Perhaps that woman wasn’t the first to get him after his working career was over, and perhaps her intentions were good. But Duke suffered more now than ever - still tired, still competing for feed that was much too scarce, he held on. Duke was very elderly when he came here, so he was vulnerable in the years before at his age, in the hands of the ignorant and indifferent.

A couple more months at the previous owners was more of the same for him. So hungry all the time, still Duke loves being with other horses. Years of being a working horse limited his interaction with other horses, but I think they were his only friends. So he endured.
His teeth showed he was long past his 20s when he came in, but it’s hard to age a horse without more information. He made a great recovery in his first few months here, gaining weight and shine to his coat.  This is Duke 3 weeks after he arrived at TGC.




 And this is Duke (left)  two months after he arrived at TGC.  All this poor guy needed was something to eat. All too often the story...I put him in Josh’s stall, who had left only a short time earlier, because they were both dark brown horses with a teeny bit of white on the forehead, a bum foreleg and the sweetest voices in the equine world. Duke fell in love with Shawnee, who was still grieving for Josh and didn’t have the time of day for him. He broke down the fence between them a couple of times, and had a little trouble figuring out the routine in the morning, so when Shawnee was let out, he would break thru her stall or his own gates to get out and follow her. One night, he got out of his stall and wandered out to the main paddock area, where he stood, confused, calling until I heard him and came out. In the dark, he ran directly to me, almost running me down, and butted his head into my chest - saying clearly ‘Help me! I’m lost! Where’d everybody go?’ But quickly he learned the routine, and realized that every single day he got to go out and spend all day with a big herd of horses, and every night he got to come back to his stall and eat all he needed without struggle. And his recovery was on track.

Duke always behaved as well as any horse for people that handled him - polite and workman like, he did as he was told. He paid attention, but rarely did he seem interested in any activities of humans except feeding. He loved his herd. I knew it - I watched him interact. But I never realized how important they were to him until last winter.

Duke’s stall floods in heavy rains. Now, here in Southern California, that’s a very rare problem. But we did have some good rains last winter, and his stall flooded, and no level of dirt, rubber mats or straw bales could provide him with decent footing except for a 10x8 section in front of his feeder. At the time, I had only 3 horses in the South Stream stalls - Oso, Anaba and Daisy - and they were past quarantine, so I tried, for three nights, putting Duke next to Anaba in a nice clean dry stall. O my god, you’d have thought I’d put him in the worst of prisons! He started yelling, and didn’t stop all night long, all three nights! Yelling through mouthfuls of food! Yes, he spent every day with the herd, just like always. It was before my corridor, so I had to walk him over to the main area each day, and he’d take off like a slightly crippled rocket to join "his" herd. Never gave the time of day to Anaba or the others - they weren’t "his" buddies. And the 2nd and 3rd nights I had some serious problems getting him back over there. He went reluctantly and punished me with two more nights of yelling! Ok, I gave up. His stall had dried a little while he was gone, and I laid down some more straw and said, buddy, here you go! As he bustled into his stall that night, he cast an irritated but satisfied look at me over his shoulder - don’t do that again!

Now, on the subject of the yelling? A screaming horse can be a real irritation. Star is famous for yelling wildly whenever she doesn’t get her way. It’s a high pitched sound designed to get attention over distance. Horses, however, have many ways to vocally communicate that are lovely. Warm low soft nickers are my favorite sound. Many of my horses talk to me as I bring their buckets - urging me to hurry, thanking me. But Josh and Duke will live forever in my mind for one characteristic in particular - that being the sweetest, most melodious nickers/calls I’ve ever heard. Duke could bellow with the best of them, but when he waited in his stall for his dinner, he would sing sweetly to me that "I’m ready!" "Don’t forget my bucket", and even "can you hurry a little?" Is it a brown horse thing? Pure music ..... I wish I could hear it again...

Duke’s bad leg was a source of great frustration to me. Josh had it. Beau has it. It is, possibly, a contracted tendon problem, and I think Beau had it in both legs (one shows the scarring of pin firing). Every vet I had look at Josh and Duke and Beau told me the same thing - there’s nothing to be done for it. We try to bring the toe back so they can break over when walking, and that’s about it. And it has a weird consequence - you may know that horses doze a lot, actually sleeping on their feet. They can do this because there is a mechanism in their knees that allows their front legs to lock, so they don’t collapse when they fall asleep. With this "knee over" condition, they can’t lock that knee. And horses don’t sleep much on the ground - as prey animals, being down on the ground is to be very vulnerable. So eventually, loss of rest takes a greater toll than the discomfort of the leg. Duke spent a lot of this summer laying down, trying to get the sleep he needed. But it wasn’t enough.

Finally in 2010 Duke got a sponsor. Volunteer Shela stepped up for him as well as her other sponsoree, Chacha. I am ever grateful that someone saw his value, and felt he deserved support.

Unfortunately, in 2010, Duke started to deteriorate. It was harder to keep weight on him, he didn’t lose his winter coat, despite the efforts of his sponsor, Shela and her friend Leslie, and his leg was now so bad that I had to enlist the help of my neighbor and my farrier to throw Duke to the ground in order to be able to trim his hooves. Probiotics and supplements didn’t seem to make any difference - although his appetite remained excellent to the end - and a few weeks ago equine Chiropractor Laurie checked him to be sure nothing was out of whack from putting him on the ground for trims. I closed my eyes when she told me, with her arms around his neck, that she thought this might be the last time she would see him. I knew it too. I’d discussed with Shela several times that I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of Duke enduring another of the bitter cold, windy miserable Anza winters. That I was watching for a sign that Duke was ready to go. But to be fair, I was ready before he was.

Duke was a fighter. He endured through life’s vicissitudes, and came out a winner. Unlike my Lew (a Corvette), or Savannah (the Cadillac), Duke was a Volkswagen - plain, small, sturdy, useful and tough. He wasn’t glamorous, he wasn’t producing babies, he wasn’t highly talented - he was a regular guy. A hard working fellow, with his nose to the grindstone, living, thanks to brutal and indifferent owners, that well known life of quiet desperation. He had a work ethic; he had integrity. I think he had pride in himself. And I hope that his short time with TGC was sufficient reward. I think he held on as long as he did because, finally, he had the life he’d dreamed of through all his years of effort.

His last day dawned with thunder and lightning. I hustled over to the stall line to let him go and clean, and found him standing as always at his gate, having finished his breakfast bucket. For the first time, he’d left a few pellets. Usually, he was impatient to leave and join the herd, but the day before, and this morning, he stood by me even after his morning massage and skritches. Looking in his eyes, I could see him, way in there, looking back. And right then, I knew he didn’t want to leave, but he knew he couldn’t stay. He didn’t want to quit. But it was time. I hugged him and told him to go say goodbye to his friends and I would make arrangements. And he trudged slowly out to join his herd for the last time.

The herd knew he was going. Ronan had kept by his side for the past two days, and the herd leaders, Bru, Joyful and Sara, had paid their respects. And my other grumpy old men, his stall mates, Buck, Falcon and Happy, rallied around - I could hardly keep them off him. When I finished cleaning, I found Duke over by my house for the first time ever, instead of his usual spot clear across the paddock. He was waiting for me. His end here was quick and painless. And I felt a ridiculous lightness, as though it were my spirit that was free, not his. As  I suspect a mother feels when her child hugs her on the way out the door - crying thanks mom!  As though he kissed me as he left .... Thru my tears, I was happy for him. It was time. His struggles were over.

Duke and my Bobby Sox may be the VWs of the horse world, but remember I started the Golden Carrot for Bobby. These sweet hardworking guys, homely and quiet, are the unsung heros of the equine world to me. Who recognizes their effort and their contribution? I hope the people who rode Duke during his working days remember 'that nice brown horse'.  I will always remember him. Shela will. And I hope you who support The Golden Carrot horses will. They do the best they can, and give all they’ve got. And they do it for a couple of meals a day. They humble me. I am proud to have been Duke's friend.

© 2011 - The Golden Carrot is a 501c3 public benefit charity