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Goodbye to ranch’s Duke

       Duke, a 19-year-old Belgian draft horse who had been at the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site since 1998, passed away in January.

Courtesy of Andy Morris

       A veterinarian told ranch manager Andy Morris the cause of death was colic, and there was nothing the ranch could have done to save him.
       Duke had been the oldest of the five horses at the city-owned, 1880s-style working ranch off North 30th Street and Gateway Road.
       Weighing 1,850 pounds and standing nearly 5 feet 9 inches from the ground to the top of his back, he was often seen in harness with Dan, a similar-looking Belgian draft horse, pulling a wagon with hay bales that ranch visitors could sit on for rides.
       In an interview, Morris remembered Duke as “my favorite. He was a leader, our alpha, but he never had to prove it by acting like a bully to the other horses. He was hard-working, smart and sweet, and everybody liked him.”
       He also valued what he called the horse's confidence, which helped him cope with the ranch's public exposure. “You have to have that, pulling a wagon in our environment,” Morris said. “We get kids running underneath the horses, people poking umbrellas at them. They have to be bomb-proof.”
       Morris had bought Duke and the original Dan as a team from an Amish farm in Iowa. When that Dan died in '04, Morris went back to Iowa for another (which he also named Dan).

In a photo from 2007, a Rock Ledge Ranch visitor pets Duke. Other horses in the photo are Kava (foreground) and Dan (partly obscured), who joined Duke in pulling the wagon that ranch visitors ride in.
Westside Pioneer photo

       But he does not expect to look for a replacement for Duke. Two younger horses - black English Shires from Illinois named Winston and Victoria - were donated to the ranch five years ago. They are about the same size as the Belgian draft horses, and Morris thinks they can now step in as the wagon-pullers.
       The tentative plan is for Dan to serve as a “breaking horse,” alternately being paired with Winston and Victoria as a way of mentoring them. Before too long, “I'd like to see them step in and be the team” Morris said.
       The other ranch horse is Kava, who pulls the buggy.
       Morris's appreciation for Duke continues - and not just because he liked him so well. Although admitting it might not sound right and of course the animal had no way of knowing it, Morris pointed out that the sturdy steed picked a perfect time to pass - during the winter in the ranch's off-season, giving the manager the current window of opportunity to prepare another team.

Westside Pioneer article