Recovery in Ukraine: When horses do the whispering
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The grief and pain that Ukrainian soldiers can suffer on the front line is sometimes beyond the reach of doctors and therapists. Horses, though, can help.
“I am in a down moment,” he acknowledges, leaning on a crutch by the stables. “When I get bad news about my buddies dying at the front, it is difficult.”
The Arion equestrian club has been offering hippotherapy, as horse therapy is known, to soldiers like Flint since the summer. Its team had already been working for five years with children with varied physical and psychological disabilities when it decided to take on the challenge of treating soldiers. Its mission is to provide a haven of peace and healing to those scarred physically and mentally by the violence of war. It’s a volunteer effort.
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“We decided we wanted to do something to have an impact in this war,” says Tetiana Cherevata, a former TV health journalist who has found a new calling in hippotherapy – a practice that is slowly gaining ground in Ukraine. “Many people come to us mentally burned out because of what they have seen at the front line.”
Hospitals and other official institutions choose and send soldiers to Arion’s twice-weekly, two- or three-hour sessions, timed to coincide with the soothing effect of sunset. They might suffer from a stutter, resulting from seeing their friends killed, or from anxiety, or from sleep-related problems ranging from insomnia to night terrors.
“We see all kinds of cases of the brain not working the way it should as a result of trauma,” says Ms. Cherevata. And the riding school also treats patients with war-related physical ailments that can run the gamut from shrapnel wounds to body strain related to use of heavy gear.
Nothing to be aggressive about
Those who feel up to it ride a horse while doing breathing and relaxation exercises. Others – who may have a fear of riding – do similar exercises walking alongside the animal. “The soldiers who come to us are very sincere and open,” she adds. “They understand the value of life and so they are open to everything. They don’t have the hang-ups and hesitations of regular people.” They often return to the front line after two or three weeks of treatment.
Many soldiers struggle with aggression, but none has blown up at the school. “The environment itself is relaxing,” points out Mariia Ivashura, the club’s owner, riding teacher, and therapist. “They see dogs, cats, and horses. That reminds them of their childhoods. There is nothing to be aggressive about here.”
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The riding club boasts 23 horses, but only three are considered fit for the job of healing soldiers. Therapy horses not only need to have the right temperament. They also need to be the right shape – not too tall, not too skinny, and not too wide – so that they are comfortable to sit on and do not strain the hips or backs of physically damaged riders.
“You have to take care of a horse,” says Ms. Cherevata, a cheerful redhead who delights in feeding all the horses before going to work. “That takes your thoughts off your problems. It’s a bonus feature: When you feed a horse a carrot or an apple, you can’t help but smile.”
“I will sleep well tonight”
Psychologist Oksana Mosiychuk has been accompanying veterans to the riding club for the past four months. All of them have been combat soldiers dealing with blast injuries. “Some of them return to the combat zone,” she says. “Others simply can’t, due to their health problems. A special military commission decides on that.”
Much depends on a soldier’s background, says Ms. Mosiychuk.
Recent army volunteers and conscripts have limited training and fighting experience, she points out. “They come from all walks of life. Some are taxi drivers, IT specialists, veterinarians, or schoolteachers. They simply don’t have the skills. They just went out to protect their homes, their families, and their country. They were simply not ready for what they were seeing and experiencing, mentally or physically.”
Professional soldiers, on the other hand, “have a greater capacity for recovery because they have been through special training and know how to perform tasks under pressure and follow orders,” Ms. Mosiychuk says.
Ukrainian men are not always receptive to psychological treatment, Ms. Mosiychuk has found. But they are often very partial to animals. The opportunity to be around horses, and the cats and dogs that play alongside them, is something most of them treasure. “Even those who are afraid of riding a horse … get the mental relief of just being here,” she says. “They go back to the hospital relaxed.”
Fox, the code name of a taciturn soldier who turned up for treatment along with Flint, prefers to walk alongside the chestnut mare, Gesha, rather than ride her.
“I can’t describe the emotions,” he says. “But I am sure that I will sleep well tonight.”
Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.