Duke the Best Bad Horse
Duke the Best Bad Horse

Duke – the Best Bad Horse

by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA

My family moved to Tennessee in 2004 when my father Paul Edwards decided he wanted my siblings and I to experience an aspect of his childhood that he had greatly valued. This aspect was off-grid living. He bought 40 acres and built the house, barn and other out buildings from logs cut off the place.

For the first few months we used the little tractor we had brought, at least when it was working. When it wouldn’t, we borrowed Grace, the big white Percheron from down the road. Seeing my brothers’ genuine interest in working horses, Dad went in search of buying one. One day he came home with a beautiful Belgian/light horse cross that we named Duke.

Duke had been broke to harness but couldn’t pull himself out of a paper bag. He wasn’t very experienced and didn’t know his strength yet. Soon after Duke came to us, Dad brought home Mary. She was an old red Belgian mare that Dad used to teach Duke how to work. Mary had come from an Amish farm and had spent her life plowing and other field work. Her calm and ready responses educated Duke much quicker than a person could as he followed her lead.

Mary was wonderful around the farm. With a cultivator she would go as slow as you asked, making it possible to get as close to the plants with the cultivator as you wanted.

What Mary enjoyed doing was field work, what she didn’t was logging. About this time my father had purchased a small circle sawmill and had begun some small scale sawing and logging. Not too far into this venture it became obvious that Mary was carrying a foal and would need some maternity leave. She had come to us not very far along and that was changing.

Annoyed by this inconvenience he had not anticipated or desired, Dad had to look for another horse. All of a sudden, suitable horses were scarce as hens’ teeth. Friends of ours offered an old draft horse they had, a retired logging horse. When they brought Polly over, Dad was dismal indeed. Polly looked like a bag of bones and had hardly enough teeth left to eat.

Not sure what to do, Dad hooked her up next to Duke just to see what would happen. He was in for a surprise. That Polly loved to work! And she wasn’t going to let some young green horse out-pull her, she’d go to her knees first. Dad had done a fair share of horse logging but had never seen a horse who had the heart to pull like she did. She taught Duke everything she knew.

When Dad found Willie, a young bay gelding about the same size as Duke, Polly returned to retirement. But Duke never forgot what he learned from her, he would lean into his harness sometimes and stretch out so it looked like he’d fall on his face. Dad was careful to never hook the horses to a log they couldn’t pull. That is one of the quickest ways to ruin a horse, by killing their self-confidence. Duke however could pull some mighty large logs.

No More Math?

At this time my brothers were in their mid teens and big strong lads at that. Eager to earn their manhood, they wanted to work in the woods and at Dad’s mill. They really didn’t want to be pushing a pencil at the house where they were homeschooled. Especially the tedium of math.

Dad relented, or so it seemed. He allowed them to cut out math and fit their studies around some time in the woods and at the mill. Emanuel and his friend BJ ended up operating the sawmill and Emery went to the woods with Dad to log. In the meantime there were no calculators on the property.

A few months later, Emanuel had some wry comments when he reflected on his education. “It was a trick,” he said. “We didn’t have to do any more math in school. Humph! I can’t do anything out here without math!” He was talking about how a board foot is 12x12x1 inch, but how many board feet are in a 5×5 that is 8ft long? Or that 4ft by 3-1/2ft by 10ft long lumber stack that someone wants to buy at 40 cents per board foot. Or when he rolls a log up onto the sawmill carriage, will it make a 6×8 or 7×9 cross tie with how much side lumber? Or in the woods, roughly how many board feet will be in a tree 22” diameter at the base with maybe 2 or 3 log lengths in it? “A trick,” he muttered. “A dirty little trick.” But now as men, there are few of their peers who can do mental math faster than they can.

A Lady Logger

One winter weekend as Dad and Emery were logging a piece for our neighbor Preston Carter, Emery smashed his foot. He wasn’t paying attention as well as he learned to do afterward and the single tree he was following snagged a large root. Willie, used to hard pulling, kept going and when the single tree released the root in returned to the earth like a sprung mousetrap. The mouse was Emery’s foot.

Seeing them suddenly short-handed in the middle of a project, I volunteered to sub for Emery while he went back to pushing a pencil at the house. The hollow they had been logging was impossibly narrow. Two hills came together with barely a footpath between them, and it was a long ways up in there. There was a small log yard at the woods’ entrance.

Following the logging trail back into the woods we walked nearly half a mile back to where the trees were being cut. I’d pull Duke up, catch a log length with a log hook, toss the lines over his back and send Duke down the trail. Then Willie would be backed up to the next log and as soon as the hooks caught, I’d toss the lines over his back and send him too. Then I ran along the bank above them as the trail was only wide enough for one horse or one person at a time. Every few hundred yards I’d call them to stop for a breather. After catching their breath (and mine) I’d kiss for them to go again. And go they did! Not quite at a trot but as fast as they thought they could.

Duke was always sent first. He was just lazy enough that he wouldn’t go any farther than he thought he had to and would stop at the log yard entrance. If Willie was first, he wouldn’t stop at the log yard, he’d go all the way home. I’d catch Duke’s lines, pull him to where I wanted the log, unhook it, and send him back. Then I’d pull Willie up, unhook the log and send him back up the trail too.

Years later my youngest sister Abby spent a season logging as well. By this time most of the little birdies had flown the nest and she stepped up to prove herself a capable hand.

A Lesson in Shoeing

Duke had four white hooves and Willie’s hooves were black. Typically a black hoof is harder than a white hoof and won’t wear down as fast. Dad did all our shoeing and our horses were always shod. Our ground was so rocky it would wear the horses’ hooves down to leave them barefoot. If a person took it upon themselves to pick up all the rocks, you’d be left with a hole.

One spring Dad had an accident that left him with a broken collarbone and couple of broken ribs. Shortly into this Duke threw a shoe. Dad had hoped Duke would be fine long enough for Dad to recover enough to re-shoe him. Often it is best to re-shoe all 4 feet at once, so Emanuel, knowing that forgiveness is easier than permission, pulled off the other 3 shoes. Then he went to the house to tell Dad to come out and tell him how to shoe the horse.

Dad was so mad he couldn’t see straight, but what could he do? He either had to hire a farrier or go out and tell his 15 year old son how to shoe that horse. So Emanuel learned to shoe and Emery soon followed.

Emery is one of only two farriers that I have ever heard of that shod horses while he was barefooted. Dad warned him against it but eventually decided to let broken toes (that Emery never did get) speak for themselves.

The Last Bite

Duke was very much loved by our family. He was the best working horse around, he was extremely intelligent and we were proud of him. At the same time, Duke had vices. He could be cranky and he would bite. He dearly hated Willie and would bite at him when frustrated. He was the barnyard boss that the other animals avoided with exception to Daisy and Frisky. Daisy was a gentle milk cow with impressive horns that Duke didn’t want to test. Abby’s pony Frisky was a pest to anyone he could find and that did not exclude Duke.

Duke’s biting was not reserved for only Willie. He had bitten Dad, my brothers, and their friend BJ each in turn. He seemed to like to bite Emery the most, we always debated whether it was for the taste or sound effects.

Duke was very touchy about how he was harnessed and did not like his chest jostled by the harness. He would bite anyone who was careless about it. One fall day as Emery was harnessing he saw that Duke had the look and knew a bite was likely coming. Emery had his heavy Carhart best on that morning and so he thought, ‘go ahead and bite,’ and he let the harness jostle. Later he informed us how Duke had the ability to pinch through Carhart like it was tissue paper. Duke couldn’t seem to be cured of this. At least he was a gentleman about it and never bit a girl. A day came though when Duke in a fury snapped at Willie and blindly caught my father with a very serious bite. Once Dad caught his breath and the stars subsided he and Duke proceeded to have an extended discussion about this unacceptable behavior. They came to an understanding and Duke never bit anyone again.

Duke the Best Bad Horse


When we got Duke we were warned that he didn’t like barky dogs nipping at his heels. Wherever he came from he had killed a dog for it. A couple years after Duke had settled into farming and logging at our place, a young stray wandered in that one of my sisters took a liking to and named Skippy.

Now Skippy had a bad habit of his own. He loved more than anything else to antagonize Duke. Not only would he bark at him and nip his heels, he would also sometimes make a flying pass and nip Duke’s nose. This would properly enrage Duke and Skippy couldn’t seem to be stopped.

With an unhealthy habit like this we were not expecting Skippy to live to a ripe old age. The day of expectation came when Skippy went after Duke in the pasture with Duke out of harness. With no blinders on, Duke saw him coming and Skippy did a face plant on Duke’s hoof. Duke left a parting stomp before I chased him away.

Surprisingly Skippy fared much better than it initially looked. He was temporarily stunned by they kick to the head and the stomp left a back leg crushed. This leg was amputated and Skippy came to be a much better dog with three legs than he ever was with four.

The Whole Package

We need not allow ourselves to be fully defined by our vices or virtues. These come together to be a complete package in any individual. Duke’s virtues did not end at the logyard, and although he could be cranky and disagreeable, he could be charming too. When in the pasture or barnyard, if you wanted to get his attention, all you had to do was crinkle a peppermint candy wrapper. He was a lamb for candy.

Duke became every bit as good as Mary at cultivating, going as fast or as slow as you wished. As long as the plants were tall enough that you could make out rows he’d follow them and not step on the plants. With the lines you could place his every step if you wanted to.

For several years Dad logged properties near our home. When he was logging within a mile of the house he would come home for lunch and bring a wagon load of logs to the mill on his way in. When lunch was about ready Mom would send Abby on her pony down to the logwoods to fetch the crew. When Duke saw her coming he knew exactly what it meant and would become rather uncooperative if Dad wanted to make another trip up the trail before lunch. He was an extremely intelligent and alert horse that always informed us to anyone coming up the logging trail or through the woods.

The horseflies in Tennessee were terrible, relentless and there were swarms of them. I used to get a one inch slat of firewood that was a couple feet long and use it as an improv flyswatter. Duke would stand perfectly still for you as you walked around him swatting horseflies with a stick. I offered to do it for Willie but he preferred the horsefly over the swat it took to get it.

Going Out With the Harness On

I was living in Iowa when I found out that Duke had passed. I could hardly imagine it. I wondered how Dad was taking it as I knew he dearly loved that horse.

On my next trip south I asked Dad about Duke. He said Duke had not been feeling well and he didn’t know why. The old horse seemed to be comforted by his company so he threw a harness on him and went to the woods. It was not so much work as to be together. Dad tied him to a tree down by the logyard and went up to check the trail. When he came back, Duke had passed.

Dad looked out the window and said, “Y’know, when it’s my time to go, that’s how I want to do it. With my harness on.”