Photos: Ukraine soldiers ride out war stress with hippotherapy
A group of Ukrainian soldiers are taking a break from battle with a session of hippotherapy.
A rider in camouflage lies forward and hugs the neck of a horse called Peach, stroking his coat.
In a cosy barn on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, a group of Ukrainian soldiers are taking a break from battle with a session of hippotherapy – using riding and contact with horses for therapeutic effect.
The soldiers have to deal with the difficulties of war but they appear childlike, roaring with laughter over the therapist’s dogs play-fighting or the cat sneakily eating their biscuits.
The organisation, called Spirit, also works with children and people with disabilities. When war broke out, it began offering hippotherapy to front-line soldiers via a programme called Spirit Warrior.
Based at Kyiv’s ramshackle hippodrome, their horses – Persik (Peach), Kombat, Spirit and Amethyst – placidly walk and trot with the mostly first-time riders.
The centre’s founder, psychologist Ganna Burago, begins by seating the men in a circle of chairs on the sand-strewn floor.
Three shaggy dogs sprawl in the centre, one with its paws around a soldier’s boot. A stove burns warmly and a ginger cat sleeps curled up next to it.
There are pauses and no pressure as Burago asks the men to say their names and how they are feeling.
Then she asks them to look at the dogs and a tortoiseshell cat and say which one they identify with.
“The first step is called sharing. It’s getting to know each other,” Burago said.
Then “they have to choose [an animal], establish contact and understand which animal they like most”.
“We project our feelings on the animal,” she says, and participants choose one that they see as sharing some of their characteristics.
One soldier holds the paws of a tousled brown dog. Others stroke the cat and tickle a big sheepdog under the chin.
Then the troops in small groups mount the horses and ride in circles with helpers beside them, trying to relax their legs and gradually raising their arms to waist and shoulder level and then above their head.
Then they are told to lie forward and clasp the horses round the neck, stroking them.
“Don’t forget to breathe. Relax,” repeats the trainer, Galyna.
They finally learn to take the reins and briefly break into a trot.