Details about the beginning of his life aren't known to us, but when we met this 16+ hand Shire it was clear he was carrying more than his fair share of burdens.
The horse we met was the shell of a horse. He stood in his stall with a vacant look & attempted to do what he was told. We were told when they tried to ride him he would often have huge reactions- throwing his rider.
In his eyes you could feel the emotional weight. He clearly had been twitched & tied & held down his whole life & didn't expect that to change. I imagine it stemmed from attempted treatments to the sores on his legs, then built on sour experiences and resulted in a broken horse.
He looked like a person who has developed the trauma response to dissociate their mind from reality. His body was here on autopilot, but he wasn't able to connect in any meaningful way. At the time, we were working with a couple clients whom would also dissociate when things got to be too much. We partnered this great big horse with the clients & had them tell us when he was present & when he wasn't. This gave them the opportunity to see dissociation from the other side, helped them to find & use other coping skills as they saw how dangerous it could be. At the same time, Duke was feeling valued for who he was & started being more present & connecting with people.
He didn't understand how to work with people, he just kinda existed. He also didn't understand how to get along with horses. His first reaction was to be very defensive, which could have been dangerous for everyone. We spent four months getting his body & mind in better shape - helping him carry himself & move rather than being trapped in a stall. Our mini horse, Chaps was his first buddy & helped Duke realize he didn't have to be by himself. He very slowly was integrated into the herd, making friends with the smaller horses before building confidence to connect with other horses.
Much of his healing has been allowing him to be a horse. Being in a herd helped him to find his personality & be brave enough to be himself. Connecting with our clients has really brought Duke out of his shell & given him purpose in his days.
He especially enjoys partnering with our veterans as they find tools to fit back into the lives they have built. As a rider you have to be clear & confident in your requests to help Duke have confidence in what he’s doing. Rising to that expectation can be very empowering for any rider- especially someone that battles anxiety.
Spring of 2021 we began to get our herd fit to participate in the Trail to Zero here in Fort Wayne. This opportunity would put our horses downtown for a 20 mile walk to bring awareness to the crisis of veteran suicide. Over & under bridges, with 25 other horses, flags, passing vehicles, lots of people – there was a lot to take in for riders and horses. Duke stepped up to be one of our six participating horses.
We did a lot of trail riding up & down hills for fitness, rode through the subdivision our Fort Wayne barn is located in, built trust going through obstacles & spending time together.
Through the ride this big horse carried himself with pride. He was brave as the police motorcycles passed to help keep us safe, over highway overpasses & under train trestles. 20 miles for a horse that was afraid of his shadow four years earlier.
Judging by the growth of his teeth Duke is 21 years old. He has accomplished more than most horses in his position, partly by luck, partly by will. If a great big horse that was so shutdown he could hardly function can trust & move forward to help other people, imagine what you can do.