On a sunny Sunday morning, Bolivia, Dodo, and Rada are full of excitement waiting for special guests. Seeing people arriving, they begin to sniff, hoping to catch the smell of apples that the visitors always bring. For horses, the appearance of the guests makes no difference. What matters is the attitude and hidden snacks. In response, they provide their little treats — unconditional acceptance and emotional connection free of sorrow and excessive curiosity.
Most of today’s visitors are veterans of the war in Ukraine — young and middle-aged men who recently had their arms or legs amputated and are in the process of rehabilitation or waiting for prosthetics to be installed. After having fought on the frontlines, they are now re-entering civilian life, facing numerous challenges.
Volunteer-led free equine therapy activities in western Ukraine have been organized by Vasyl and his wife Oleksandra and recently supported by Natalka — a veteran herself with the call sign “Sonechko” or “Sun”. She first faced the war in 2014, volunteering to join the army. Returning to civilian life, she took up a course in body-oriented therapy and opened her own veterans' centre in Kyiv Region which she fled in February with the start of the Russian invasion.
“My own way of re-entering civilian life was very difficult and lasted two years. I know that in fact war does not bring anything new to your personality, it just reveals what is hidden inside – low self-esteem, experience of abuse, lack of communication,” says Natalka.
Veterans say that separating from the military service may feel similar to losing part of the identity. Equine therapy with sensitive and social animals, such as horses, can make a difference – helping veterans to heal wounds of war, overcome isolation and transition to becoming active members of society again. Sessions conducted by Oleksandra and Natalka are based on scientific grounds, psychosocial support, and strict rules. Such an approach is familiar to people who have undergone military training and service.
Rule #1 To ride a horse, you should first brush it
The stable is located 40 kilometres from Lviv, in a remote countryside, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, internet, live updates about the war, or even mobile connection. There are an indoor arena and several pastures, surrounded by scenic fields and forest tracks – ideal for on-the-ground activities with horses. Oleksandra and Natalka pair veterans with the horses, based on their personality. The visitors should not only learn how to ride, but also how to take care of a horse: groom, saddle, and feed it.
Oleksandra explains why it is important to let veterans know that they will be supported in their transition from military to civilian life. It is also crucial for them to learn living independently and taking care of themselves.
Rule #2 If you fall off a horse, you can always get back on it
“Accident” – this is how veterans playfully call falling from a horse. After each “accident” they need some time to get back in the saddle. But with every new visit, they ride with more confidence. After the session, veterans can also speak with a psychologist and a doctor about their physical sensations and mental insights that surface during the experience. As horses can reflect a person’s mood and emotions, it becomes easier for veterans to acknowledge their feelings. They are also encouraged to share experience with other veterans, making new acquaintances.
“Recently, one of the veterans told me that after losing his arm, he saw more opportunities. He accepted everything that happened to him, and during the fifth equine therapy session he was already able to stand on his horse,” shares Natalka.
Reducing post-traumatic stress and anxiety, dealing with hypervigilance and other mental issues, better quality of sleep and well-being are only several benefits of interacting with horses for veterans with disabilities and various types of mental disorders. People with amputations can also use horseback riding therapy to redevelop motor skills, regain balance and improve mobility, and better adjust to their disability.
Rule #3 Listen to your horse, your instructor, and your emotions
The common favourite horse, Dodo, loves to pose for the camera. This horse survived several weeks of military operations near Chornobyl and was transported to Lviv. A veteran with an amputated leg is riding Dodo and stops after a circle. “Another circle or you want to finish?” asks Natalka. “As you say,” replies the veteran. “And what do you wish yourself?” — “I can do another circle”. With such small steps, veterans learn to listen to themselves, and set new goals.
“Eventually, they can ask themselves what they want to do in life – win a grant to open a company, study or retrain... We should encourage them to move forward,” says Oleksandra.
The initiative, launched by veteran Vasyl and Oleksandra, was supported by IOM within the EU-funded project focused on strengthening community resilience through socioeconomic support for veterans last year. Thanks to the received grant, Oleksandra and her husband bought good-quality saddles and other horse-riding equipment for equine therapy activities for veterans, children with autism and other people with special needs.
Now, Oleksandra wants to open a veteran space in the Carpathians. Her plan reflects rising demands. In May, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine predicted that the number of veterans, their family members and families of fallen soldiers, may increase to 5 million people after the full-scale war.
Rule #4 Nothing is impossible
A former military pilot and now a psychologist at a local rehabilitation centre, Serhii, has become the link between veterans and equine therapy sessions. He genuinely understands all the struggles of recovering for those living with a paralysed lower body. Following his example, veterans learn that it is possible to successfully re-enter civilian life even after severe injuries.
A doctor and other veterans are helping Serhii ascend from a wheelchair onto a horse’s back. As people and horses walk using the same circular motion, riding can help a person to recall this movement. In the saddle, Serhii begins to smile — more and more widely with each new circle.