Louise Duncan may be relatively new to the world of para equestrian but she’s got some big plans, with her sights set on riding for New Zealand at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. A crucial part of that journey takes a big step this week in Australia where she chases her third and final qualifying score to Tokyo.
The 31-year-old hairdresser from Levin who owns Louise Duncan Hair Design comes from family of horse men and women, so it is hardly surprising she has overcome massive odds in her life already. Her mum Frankie Webb is an ESNZ coach and FEI dressage rider. Dad Lloyd Webb is a full time farrier who competed up to level 3 in dressage and also showjumped. And then there is the support team – Justin, her farming husband of eight years, her grandfather Ivan Johnston (Frankie’s father) and the “loves of my life”, dachshunds Dobby and Dudley.
Louise was just 17 when she contracted meningococcal meningitis. She awoke from her coma to discover she was paralysed from the neck down and spent many months firstly in ICU and then on a long road to recovery, learning to walk and talk again.
Louise had been a rider since she was just a toddler and being told riding was out of the question became a huge motivator.
“I started riding at two when dad brought home a lovely little Welsh pony who had foundered,” says Louise. “Her owners didn’t want her and were going to put her down, so Dad was going to work on her feet to get her sound.” Panda became her first pony. “I would sit on her and brush her while mum rode. Dad got her sound and I had a lot of fun and success aboard her.”
“I had a couple of other ponies too and rode ponies that Mum had for schooling and breaking in.” She rode Panda for about eight years and when she was 11 got Step Two – Jimmy to his mates. “He was my most competitive pony and was 18 when I got him. He was the ultimate schoolmaster and taught me heaps.”
Louise had plenty of fun in the Pony Club system between Carterton and Levin/Ohau but it was only natural she followed her mother into dressage, riding for the Manawatu West Coast at the NZPCA National Dressage Championships six times including three as team captain.
At 15, Louise moved onto hacks and Jimmy was sold to a semi-retirement home. Louise’s parents had broken in a little Witzbold mare called Witzana who she took through to level 3.
“Ironically we lent her to para-equestrienne Francis Dick for a year.”
At the time, Louise contracted meningitis she was working with a young recently-broken Worldwide gelding. It was during her months of rehab that she was told riding would be out of the question.
“I was determined to ride again and two years later I was back on a horse. We needed a horse we knew well, and on that was safe. Mum gave me the ride on Hunniman and the following year I rode an Inter I on him at the Horse of the Year Show. She wanted one more crack at the NZPCA National Dressage Championships and made it one of her goals while regaining strength and getting back on her feet. She made it riding Hunniman, finishing 10th in the senior section.
After Hunniman died in his 20s, Louise rode a few other horses but none that she really bonded with. “I decided if I couldn’t find another horse I would give up riding completely.”
But then they revisited a horse Frankie had considered for herself a year earlier. The chestnut gelding had been bred by Chris Beach in Auckland and had Witzbold lines, just like Louise’s much-loved Witzana. Chris had competed the horse to level 5 as well as using him at her riding school. “Mum had decided the horse wasn’t for her but I wanted to go and try him. We went to Auckland and I just loved him straight away and granddad bought him for me for my birthday.”
Her first impressions of Wolkenstein BC five years ago proved bang on and in able bodied dressage won the Wellington Regional Level 5 Champion and were selected to ride in an FEI World Challenge. “He is a sensitive soul and has the best work ethic in the world,” says Louise of the 16.1hh 16-year-old Irish draft Hanoverian cross.
“He is incredibly hones and a bit of a worrier, but not silly. After me being so sick and having a few disaster horses, I believe he is my soul mate – we have the most incredible connection and I just adore him.”
Their first outing was riding HC in level 2 and while they “bummed out” with a 52% test, they’ve worked very hard since and certainly improved massively. “He is very enthusiastic in everything he does and always gives 101%.”
In 2017 Louise met para rider Aimee Prout and her mother at the New Zealand Dressage Champs in Taupo. “We talked about my physical challenges and they suggested I join para.” Later that year Louise was classified as Grade IV and in 2018 won the Grade IV Para Horse of the Year aboard Don Ivanno, a horse she shared with Frankie with her own horse Wolkenstein BC reserve.
Louise’s riding caught the eye of international judge Sue Cunningham who suggested she aim for the World Equestrian Games. “She told me I would be unlikely to have a podium finish but it would be a good experience for further international competition. WEG was only a matter of months away and I couldn’t just walk away from my business. Financially it would have been impossible and it was just my first year in para but being approached by someone of Sue’s calibre really inspired me to look towards Tokyo.”
After winning the 2019 HOY title on Northern Ivanthus, Louise initially planned to take him to Australia but the horse nearly died from entrapment colic not long after the show, so she switched her focus to Wolkenstein BC who had finished runner-up in the title class.
“I would love to ride for New Zealand and Tokyo would be amazing,” she says. Already she has learnt so much about the requirements of competing overseas.
It’s not always easy for Louise who still suffers the side effects of the meningitis. She has cognitive, strength and balance issues due to strokes from the meningitis. A lumber puncture has left her with lower back pain and other issues. Initially she was plagued with seizures but after seven years of meds they have subsided. She still suffers “ice pick” head aches and migraines too.
But this is a woman on a mission. She’s hugely grateful for the support of her family and says she draws plenty of inspiration from her mum who she calls her biggest supporter and her rock. “I would be lost without her.”
Louise is in Australia this week for two reasons – firstly to confirm her international Grade IV classification with an assessment at Caboolture at the Brisbane CDI, and then to gain her third qualifying score for Tokyo.
It has been a massive effort by so many to get her there – particularly her family but also the Horowhenua Dressage Group, Bockmann Horse Floats NZ, the Equine Herb Company, Andrea Raves, Charlie Chaff, John Thompson, Kylie James – Equissage NZ and Excel Equine.
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison