About us: humans and horses
Michele Stuurman is originally from the Netherlands. She has lived in England, Belgium and the USA and is now living in Norway.
She has been interested in horses from a young age but decided originally to pursue another interest as a career. She graduated from the School of Journalism in Tilburg, the Netherlands, with a specialization in public relations.
In the years that followed she worked for different companies both in the public and private sector, amongst others as a communication manager and member of the management team for Volvo Car Operations in Born, the Netherlands.
Michele has also been working as a freelance journalist for many years, amongst others for a leading horse magazine in the Netherlands.
Besides the 'office jobs' she also worked with horses, amongst others in a racing stable in Newmarket, England, and at an Arab breeding facility in the South of the Netherlands.
She continued her equine education and passed the Dutch exam for basic level riding instructor (Commandant-A) and basic level dressage judge. Other training includes dressage and jumping training (Chiron-method) in Germany; and horse management, breeding and basic shoeing/trimming at a Dutch agricultural college.
Michele competed for many years, mostly in dressage competitions in the Netherlands and in Belgium, with her own horses and for other people. She has been breeding and training horses and prepared young stallions for the Dutch stallion grading shows.
While living in the USA she became interested in barefoot trimming. She has studied the work of Robert Bowker, Hiltrud Strasser, Jaime Jackson and Pete Ramey, and in 2002 started on a two year long education to become a hoofcare specialist. Since 2004 she has been living in Ås, Norway, with her norwegian husband Hermod Wallestad and their daughter Maxine.
No 'About us' would be complete without talking about the ones that made all of this happen: the horses. So, here are their stories, as told by Michele...
Billy (Nothing is Impossible)
For my 16th birthday I received a painting of a horse as my present. A brown horse, with two white hind socks and a white star. The painting has had a place of honour in every house I lived in since then.
In 1990 I got a very special birthday present again: on my birthday, at the exact same time I was born, my old mare gave birth to a brown filly foal with two white hind socks and a star - exactly like the horse in the picture. (In other words, for those who believe in such things, this foal turned out to be my cosmic twin. But that is another story...)
Dutch Warmblood horses have to have a name that begins with a certain letter of the alfabet. The foal was a real handful and therefore got the name 'Impossible'; Billy for short.
She grew up without problems (except for being very lively and full of mischief), but when she was two I thought her feet looked very big and too flat.. and I forced my farrier to put shoes on her, against his advice.
She did not move as well after that but still was a very nice riding horse.
Due to changes in my personal life I had to move her to another stable, further away. This means I could not check on her every day. The owners of the stable promised me she would be exercised - but she was not. After some weeks I received a phone call: Billy was seriously ill with colic.
Treatment and painkillers did not help and she ended up at the University clinic. Here they found out that she was suffering from severe ulcers, probably due to stress..
I almost cried when I saw my beautiful horse in the clinic, in pain, tied up with chains so she would not rip out the tubes she had stuck into her everywhere, with her head hanging down and her eyes just staring into space. I whistled softly to her and rustled a candy paper in my pocket - she looked up, saw me, her eyes focused and she wanted to have the candy! Then I knew that she would survive.
Luckily she could go to a friend of mine on the other side of the Netherlands to recuperate, just be in a pasture for several months and do nothing. She gained weight and looked much better, but her hooves started looking worse and worse. I thought it had to do with the medication and the stress, and I just hoped the hooves would improve.
Well - they did not. Billy ended up with horrible cracks, especially in her left front hoof. Here the crack was so deep that you could see the live tissue...
When I moved to a small farm in Belgium Billy came to live with me again. Her feet were still not good, but I had little time to ride anyway, so we just puttered along.
After meeting my (future) husband I picked the millenium change to move to Norway. Billy stayed for the time being on a horse farm in Belgium and I started looking for a place where I could have her in Norway. Then my husband got an offer to work in the USA for three years, so Billy had to stay in Belgium a few years longer..
In the summer of 2006 she finally came to Ås! She did not enjoy the trip, she was very skinny and her feet looked really awful - but she was home!
Her feet started improving after only a few months of regular trimming and she was soon back to being her normal self: very curious, kind, eager, active and 'taking care of business'.
Billy will celebrate her 18th birthday in May 2008. Since I have not enough time to ride we are both somewhat out of shape, but it is great to see how well she moves and how active she is. So much so that, even at this age, I have to lunge her before riding if she has not been ridden for some days!
And to celebrate her 'second youth' we have even given her a new name: Nothing is Impossible!
Billy showing off her impressive bucking - winter 2007 - not bad for almost 18!
Davy (Da Vinci) - An unexpected love story
Love comes in many ways and often unexpected.
Being from the Netherlands, I did not expect to meet a Norwegian guy – let alone that I would move to Norway to be with him.
And being a ‘warmblood person’, I did not expect to meet a thin grey Arab on the other side of the world – let alone that he would end up in Norway, too.
This is a little part of the story of Da Vinci, the grey Arab who has changed my world in so many ways.
From Norway to the USA
After moving to Norway at the start of the new Millenium I expected to stay there for the rest of my life. But a year later my husband Hermod was offered a job in the USA. We sold our house, packed up everything and ended up in California.
My big warmblood horse, Billy, still was in Belgium. I did not want to take her to the USA. But after a few months I really wanted to do something with horses again. There are many organizations in the USA that help abused horses find a new home. I decided to look for a horse there, that I could train and then sell again when we would move back to Europe. Preferably a bigger horse - certainly not an Arab – and preferably a brown or black horse, most certainly not a grey.
I visited several organizations and finally ended up with one called TIER (http://www.tierrescue.org/). There are several ‘feedlots’ in California where horses are collected and fattened up before they are shipped for slaughter. The lady who runs TIER would visit those feedlots and take pictures of horses that maybe could be saved. I looked at the pictures on the Internet several times and there was one that caught my eye every time…. Yep, a grey Arab! I had some long discussions with my husband and with myself and finally told them that I would take the horse, but that TIER would have to take him over if he would be too badly injured.
At TIER they suspected that he had been used in so-called Charro or Mexican rodeo’s. One of the ‘events’ there is called horse tripping. A horse is made to gallop flat out – and then it is thrown down with a lasso. As a result these horses end up with horrible injuries, broken legs, broken backs etc. They like to use hot, young horses for this - preferably Arabs - and they make them run with whips and even electrical cattle prods. The rodeo’s hire the horses from the feedlots. The ones that are damaged too severely get sent on to slaughter. The other ones go again the next weekend… Is this legal? No. Does it continue? Yes.
Davy at the feedlot
It was a thin, frightened and worried horse that came off the trailer. Some strips of skin still torn off of him, a big rope burn on one leg, and a very sore left hind leg. He obviously was not trained in any way as a riding horse; not used to being led, not used to being tied up, not used to being brushed or having his feet picked, and scared of almost everything. I put him in the middle of a huge corral so he could run and he would just stand there, frozen. Obviously he associated running around with being lasso’d down. And, understandably, he was terrified of getting a rope or a lunge line around his legs.
So, we took it very slowly and started by finding a name for him. Nothing seemed to fit until we one evening were watching CNN and saw a newsclip on the opening of a new foot bridge in Norway, close to where we had been living. The bridge was constructed after drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci. Now we had our name. The grey horse was christened Da Vinci (Davy for everyday use), in the hope that he would turn out to be a genius, too!
Too ignorant to listen
But even a genius has to start with small steps. We took a lot of time getting to know each other and getting Davy just used to everything. I had his leg checked out by a vet who also did chiropractic treatments, and that really helped. After that I could finally teach him to lift his legs and get him used to his feet being picked out. (If you want to read more about these early days, please visit http://www.tierrescue.org/David.htm )
After some months training I carefully started riding him. In the beginning everything went fine. I used a saddle that fit him reasonably well. He was getting calmer and gaining some weight. However, after a few weeks he started getting a bit nervous every time I tried to get on him. I figured out he just needed a bit more training. Then, one day, as soon as I lowered my butt in the saddle, he took off and gave some huge bucks. I was totally unprepared, flew off and landed flat on my face. Luckily I was wearing a helmet (which cracked, by the way), but I ended up with a chin that was disconnected from my chinbone, a visit to the hospital, lots of stitches and a major headache.
The next day I went back to the stable and found a really upset horse. Maybe he had done this before and been punished for it? Or, maybe he was a real bucking horse?
After spending some hours thinking over this I finally realized what the problem was. The saddle that fit well when he came did not fit anymore since he was gaining weight and muscle. With my weight on top it was getting more and more painful for him to be ridden. He had been trying to tell me that for a long time, but I was too ignorant to listen to him.
I used my rehabilitation time to find a new saddle for him, and spent a lot of time making sure he was comfortable and relaxed. I myself was a lot less relaxed the first times I rode him after the accident, but with his new saddle he behaved like a gentleman (well, most of the time).
‘There are no good farriers!!’
Davy was barefoot and his feet seemed OK to me. I asked a local farrier to trim them a bit, but I was not really happy with his work. One day I asked a friendly woman at the stable if she knew any really good farriers. I never expected her answer: ‘There are no good farriers!!’
And then she told me about barefoot horses and that I should get in touch with James and Yvonne Welz at The Horse’s Hoof. (http://thehorseshoof.com/)
I checked out the website and everything just made so much sense. Then I gave Yvonne a call and she told me James would be coming to California just a few days later – and that he would be willing to trim my horse, but I would have to read several books first! Phew. That was the first time a farrier asked me to do such a thing. But, it also made sense. So I begged and borrowed the books from somebody and a few days later James came to do the first trim.
Finding The Answers
Reading these books (‘A Lifetime of Soundness’ and ‘Shoeing, A Necessary Evil?’ both by H. Strasser) opened a whole new world for me. In the Netherlands I had been involved in breeding and training horses, and one of the main concerns was always: will they stay sound? My old mare had been diagnosed with navicular syndrome many years ago. I still remember the uncertainty, the many questions, and how little help there seemed to be. Her daughter Billy (the horse that still was in Belgium) had always suffered from horrible hoof cracks and was more or less retired at a very young age because of that. Now I finally found answers! And again, finally everything made sense.
The only problem was: what would I do when we went back to Europe? How could I keep my horses barefoot – and how could I find somebody to trim their feet? After much thinking I decided that the only real solution would be to do the education myself. So I started the training, although I had to put it on ice for a while when I got pregnant (hard to trim when you have to throw up every time you bend over!).
Back To Europe
Soon after our daughter, Maxine, was born, my husband was offered a tempting job in Norway. We decided to move back, but of course there was one huge question: what should we do with Davy? Taking him with us would be very expensive, and how would he deal with the quarantine?
But finding a new home for him in the USA was more difficult than I had expected. Because of his old injuries he would always need careful training and regular ‘treatments’ (such as chiropractic) to keep in good shape. The best kind of training for him is good, old-fashioned classical dressage, so he builds up the correct musculature and gets stronger in his back. This means he needs a good and sympathetic rider – but those are not so easy to find. And people who really are interested in dressage usually want a warmblood, not a smaller Arab with a shady past, a volatile temperament and old injuries. People who are specifically interested in Arabs usually don’t want one without papers. And on top of that I wanted to be sure that he would be kept barefoot.
I realized that there was another dimension to this question. Most important: what did Davy want…? We asked several ‘horse communicators’ to ask him his opinion, and the answer was clear every time: he wanted to come with us! And so it was decided.
The Da Vinci Bridge
We delivered a shiny well-muscled horse to the quarantine facility in the USA, and some months later a very thin horse with muscles only in the wrong places arrived in Norway. I had tried to explain to him what would happen, but the first time I saw him again I almost could read his mind like a neon-sign over his head: ‘You didn’t tell me it would be like THIS!’ But how can you explain quarantine and an airplane transport to a horse? At least he seemed really happy to see us again.
We had bought a house in Ås, a small town in Norway which is home to the agricultural university. I had found a nice stable for Davy which was not very far away. And amazingly enough it was very close to the Da Vinci bridge that had given him his name in the first place.
It turned out that our new neighbours also had horses. Not only that – they even wanted to start a natural boarding facility for barefoot horses!
So in the winter of 2005/2006 Davy finally moved home… in the middle of a snowstorm. I decided it was safer to walk him home than to drive a trailer. He did great and had no problems at all, although I really was struggling to stay on my feet.
Davy is now living in a group of horses. They are outside, day and night, the whole year. And all of them are barefoot. I have finished my education some time ago and have more than enough horses to trim.
Most amazing is the change in Davy’s behaviour. He was very nervous and explosive when I got him – I did not even ride him outside the arena the first two years I had him. And he always was on a diet of strictly hay so he would not get any hotter.
Now he gets lots of hay or silage and a good portion of oats every day. He is happy to work but much, much more relaxed. I have even started riding around the neighborhood; over highway bridges with traffic zooming under us, past kids jumping on a trampoline, through lonely forest tracks… He still thinks that cows are possibly very dangerous and he got very confused by a man in an electric wheelchair, but his spooks are a whole lot less spooky than they used to be! Since we have lots of roads with gravel here I have bought some boots for when we go out, which works fine.
He is so well-behaved that he is allowed to graze on our home lawn every now and then. This is of course great fun when we have guests with children. Maxine brushes him, leads him around and even gets a riding lesson on him every now and then.
Davy and Maxine
A Teacher In So Many Ways
One of my wishes is that Davy will have many happy years here, and that he will continue to do what he seems to do very well: namely, teaching people about horses. Looking back over the past few years I realize that the ‘horse that I never really wanted’ has become a teacher for me in so many ways…
Learning to trim, for example. Since he is the first horse I trimmed and the one I have trimmed the most, of course he is also the one where I made the most mistakes. Taking away too much, taking away too little… Davy quickly managed to sort that out. When his feet need to be done he will happily allow me to trim. When I’m tempted to do too much he will just pull his foot away – or refuse to be caught. (Which is funny afterwards but not while you are actually running around trying to catch him!)
Through the ‘saddle incident’ Davy taught me that it was high time to start LISTENING to horses. And to take what they are saying very seriously (especially if you don’t want to get hurt). Maybe there should be training courses in horse listening instead of horse whispering…..
The enormous difference in Davy’s behaviour when stabled or when outside has made me think about some uncomfortable ethical questions.
Why do we still think it is perfectly acceptable to keep horses in stables? (A dog is usually not kept in a small cage most of the day.)
Why do we just accept that the way we keep and use horses very often destroys their health? (Such as racing two year old horses – or putting shoes on at any age.)
Why is it acceptable that another living creature has to suffer just so we humans can have some fun, or can satisfy our ego by winning yet another coloured ribbon?
Do we want to do things with a horse – or TOGETHER with a horse?
But maybe the most important of all things Davy has taught me is how amazing and wonderful it is to have a horse as your friend. Some people say he has been lucky, but in my heart I know that I have been the lucky one.
Davy grazing under a rainbow