Recovery in Ukraine: When horses do the whispering

For several years now, the Arion riding club outside Odesa has been offering “hippotherapy” – treatment based on the use of horses – to children with physical and psychological disabilities.

Now they are trying it on wounded Ukrainian soldiers. Since the summer, the club has welcomed psychologically traumatized or physically injured men and put them astride horses, to benefit from the animals’ comforting gait.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

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.

Or sometimes just their presence. Some soldiers prefer to do their breathing and relaxation exercises while they walk alongside their animals. “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.”

Whether a soldier will return to the front after his course of hippotherapy depends on a military commission; professional soldiers tend to recover more quickly than volunteers and conscripts “who were simply not ready for what they were seeing and experiencing,” says psychologist Oksana Mosiychuk.

But the riding school gives everyone “mental relief,” she says.

“I can’t describe the emotions,” comments one veteran, walking his horse round the paddock. “But I am sure that I will sleep well tonight.”

Sitting astride a calm chestnut mare, his eyes closed, the soldier draws in a deep breath. Then he surrenders his mind and his body to grief. He buries his face in the horse’s mane, lets out a muffled sob, and breathes with the heavy steadiness of a runner determined to finish a long race.

“Healing has its highs and lows,” says Flint, as the Ukrainian soldier is known, after guiding his horse at a walk twice around the paddock at the Arion riding club, on the outskirts of Odesa. “The recovery process can be good, but it can also be bad. Right now, I am working on stabilizing my mental health.”

His mind has plenty to process. When a Russian tank shell hit his unit’s position in the eastern region of Donetsk, several of his comrades were killed. He helped another, who had a severe open stomach wound, walk to safety while administering ad hoc first aid as best he could. The trauma and grief of such terrible moments returns in waves.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

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.”

Soothing sunsets

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.

Dominique Soguel

Therapist Tetiana Cherevata visits the stables and hands out carrots to horses before getting to work at the Arion club, Sept. 22, 2023.

“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.

Previous ArticleNext Article