Duncan Small – A Man of the Land

Charlotte Gendall looks back at the life of Duncan Small a remarkable man with Down syndrome who left a big legacy in his rural community.

Duncan as a baby with Mum Paula

Shepherd, shearer, dog trialist, horseman, bartender and all round man of the land: Duncan Small was a big character around the small town communities of Taihape and Hunterville in the northern Rangitikei .

At a recent equestrian competition in Taihape, visitors might have been intrigued by the Duncan Small Memorial Jump. The blue and white obstacle featured in the premier ring at the showjumping championships and was also the centre piece of a special class named after the said Duncan.

With riders from all over the North Island taking part, I had to ask “Who was Duncan Small?” The answer was instantaneous. “You didn’t know Duncan? Everyone knew Duncan!”

From talking to his friends at the show, it became clear that their affection for this man was motivated by multiple factors: admiration for his determination, his talent (was he the only Down syndrome shearer in the country?), and his enthusiasm for life, coupled with the way the unconditional support of a loving family had helped him thrive.

Duncan and his siblings

Duncan Small was born in the Taihape Maternity Home in June 1970, the first child to Paula and Jimmy. A formal diagnosis of Down syndrome six weeks later made little difference to getting on with life – it was home to the farm.

Duncan was out on the horses with his father while still in nappies – “my mate,” says Jimmy – and the youngster was frequently rocked to sleep while sitting in front of the saddle by the paces of Dad’s shepherd’s hack they travelled around the hill country of Pohonui Station.

Tug o' war

Talking, laughing and gathering friends as he grew, Duncan initially went to school in Taihape and then when the family moved to Hunterville, he attended the local school and later Whanganui IHC and then on to flatting in a supported environment.

But truly, Duncan’s heart lay in the country. As a talented teen, in 1987 he and Paula travelled to the USA as part of the New Zealand Special Olympics squad, and three years of training paid off with multiple medals.

However it seems taking the boy out of the country couldn’t take the country out of the boy. The 17 year old rang Jimmy from the States. “Dad, I got two golds and two bronze. I finished Olympics, I’m coming home to go docking.”

Duncan on the farm

Retiring from international sport, Duncan threw his heart into rural life. He was given a former pack horse called Scooby, and now had the freedom to get around the steep country independently.

A series of dogs followed: Bacon, Scruff and Sam. Sam was his favourite partner, and Duncan was hugely proud of their victory in the Maiden Huntaway at Poukiore Dog Trials.

At about this time, the Man from Snowy River came out as a movie which Duncan loved dearly. Styling himself as Banjo Patterson’s hero, he was the self-styled “Man from Pohonui.”

Clearly, Duncan Small knew his own mind. For one birthday, Paula and Jimmy asked Duncan what he wanted. The answer was a bar. A bar? “A bar. Like a pub.” A bar was installed at Pohonui with all the fancy bits: nip pourer, mirrors and so forth.

Duncan loved to entertain and his gregarious manner made him a natural at hospitality, always topping everyone’s glass up before it was empty so no one could go home early.

With Jimmy and Anna on the beach
In 1999, Jimmy and Duncan moved to Otiwhiti Station where they spent very happy five years and then in 2004, Jimmy placed the sum for a house deposit in Duncan’s account. Duncan wrote the cheque and purchased “Dunc’s Place” in the Pukeori Valley where Jimmy still lives.

Rural life was Duncan’s life: he loved travelling to shows and hunting events with Jimmy in the horse truck. He competed in the shepherd’s classes at sports meetings, watching his dad showjump while helping out with the competitions.

Duncan riding
When the partnership with Scooby ended, it became difficult to find another horse so perfectly suited to Duncan.

Recognising his love of their sport, the Rangitikei Hunt appointed him as their non-riding honorary kennels man, a role Duncan took extremely seriously. Wearing his committee badge, he was constantly on hand to release and truck up the hounds on farms all over the district.

Shearing sheep is one of the most gruelling occupations around but always strong and fit from gymnastics, Duncan made the task look easy and wasn’t just for show – he notched up a best crutching tally of 200 in a day.

Duncan shearing

As a fastidious homemaker with skills learnt from his mum Paula, a big brother to Ginny, Rachel and the late Rebecca, it’s clear Duncan Small lived a full and happy life.

When the onset of dementia revealed itself, he continued to be lovingly cared for at home by Jimmy and the family until called up to a final muster last year at the age of 47.

Which brings us on to a hot summer’s day at the Taihape championships six months later, on the sportsground Duncan knew, the arena surrounded by burnt pasture, steep hills and sheep.

In years to come, the Duncan Small Memorial Jump will continue to be contested here and at other venues around the district. Perhaps other people will ask “what’s that all about?” It would be their privilege to learn about a man who combined the very best qualities of character, friendship and loyalty.

I wish I’d met him.

— Charlotte Gendall

Duncan Small

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Charlotte Gendall wrote this article after speaking to people who knew Duncan Small, after talking to his dad Jimmy, and with the benefit of reading a tribute from his sisters Ginny and Rachel, some of which she has adapted here.

Duncan and his sisters