How does it work? 15:17 16 Nov 2022

How horseback riding therapy helps veterans: solution from Lviv region

In the village of Sukhodil, 40 kilometers from Lviv, evacuated horses help wounded soldiers find their balance. There is an indoor arena and several pastures. Rubryka explains how fighters recover from severe injuries, finding psychological and physical balance through interaction with specially trained horses.

The Riding To The Future project was founded in 2018. Then, Vasyl Irkha, a veteran of the Poltava battalion, recovered thanks to horse riding after serving from 2014–2017. Psychologist Oleksandra Khandohina, who worked with adults and children with disabilities then, helped him. So since 2018, as a couple, Vasyl and Oleksandra have already started conducting horseback riding classes with the Ukrainian military who had injuries or PTSD. 

Now the husband serves in the army. And Oleksandra, with Natalka Sonechko, the founder of the Palms Touch public organization, which helps people with war experience in social adaptation, conducts classes with military personnel from the Halychyna rehabilitation center every weekend.

Rubryka found out how such classes take place and what makes this initiative special.

What is the problem?

A new way of life

Approximately 12–20% of service members who suffered combat trauma, but did not seek psychological help, develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that results from a traumatic experience. In rehabilitation centers, they are consulted by psychologists. Veterans in such centers have serious injuries. It is often the loss of limbs.


A wound resulting in amputation is the most severe limb injury in wartime. 

Since the beginning of russia's full-scale invasion number of serious injuries has increased exponentially. After receiving an injury, a serviceman needs rehabilitation, and it should be comprehensive. A veteran needs special exercises, workload, and psychological help during this critically important time.

What is the solution?

 Palms Touch

In 2018, Natalka Sonechko already had front-line volunteer experience. She also started her Palms Touch project, where she worked with military, front-line volunteers, and their families in the village of Prybirsk, Kyiv region. In particular, they held children's camps and developed active tourism. They had several dogs, cats, and goats. All this helped the psychological recovery of the fighters.

Natalka sold her apartment in Boryspil to buy horses for the group. Then, she met Oleksandra to learn how to conduct horse lessons.


Such classes are one of the possible rehabilitation stages, called hippotherapy. Their basis is psychological rehabilitation and restoration of balance in all senses.

Natalka says, "I started studying, and it also became learning to work on myself. A horse is a person-to-person conductor. Then, when there is trust in a horse, there is trust in another person. And then self-confidence returns."

After February 24, Oleksandra offered Natalka to move to the Lviv region. Volunteers helped to evacuate the horses—the animals were brought from Kyiv and delivered to Lviv free of charge. At the same time, women volunteers organized a humanitarian headquarters—Natalka's organization began helping defenders in Lviv to manage life in field conditions, providing them with medicine, means of protection, and communication.

"My friend, also a refugee, settled in the Halychyna rehabilitation center, where boys with amputations stay. We came there to meet the soldiers. Oleksandra immediately offered to put them on horses. Then we talked with the head of the institution and a psychologist and started working together."

This is how the history of hippotherapy for soldiers in the Lviv region began.

іпотерапія для військових

How does it work?

It is vital for veterans to feel supported when transitioning from military to civilian life

Here, the volunteers work using a peer-to-peer approach—veterans or their trained family members help other veterans. In 2016, Natalka participated in the Heart of a Warrior training for veterans, where they used body dynamics, a Danish method of body-oriented therapy. Now the woman uses this experience in working with veterans in hippotherapy.

Oleksandra says that here the military gets to know themselves again:

"We cannot restore lost limbs. People who returned from the war became different, even stronger, and more courageous, but different. We help them find themselves with new values. The most important task is to breathe out, get to know yourself, and explore yourself."

Volunteers say riding is a motor dialogue between the rider and the horse. A horse reads a person's movements; therefore, the person can ride without a bridle, only using body language. Riding is about balance. Touch is also important. Natalka says that you change your emotions and share them when you interact. 

A slow heartbeat of the horse also helps to calm down. Since a horse's heartbeat is slower than a person's, pulse synchronization occurs, reducing the rider's anxiety. 

However, veterans here not only ride horses but also take care of horses.

Natalka explains why:

"We teach veterans to be independent. They clean the horse themselves and clean up after it. We respect everyone but do not seek to pity or entertain them. Nothing prevents you from bringing the horse or feeding it. You are a full participant in the interaction process. That's why the most important thing we strive for here is a mutual connection."

Does it work?

Helping each other

Five horses are involved in therapy. These are Svitanok, Kraplyk, Dodo, Bolivia (or Bulka), and Rada. Training a horse to be therapeutic begins at birth. From three years of age, they begin working with the rider: first, there is general training, then basic dressage. And from age six, the horse is already physically developed enough and ready to work with people in therapy.

Four horses also experienced stress due to the war. The horses arrived in the Lviv region hungry and exhausted, and Svitanok could not stand on one leg. Natalka, however, says that the main thing is that the animals were saved:

"We once bought Dodo, Svitanok, and Kraplyk from the butchers. Kraplyk was bought when he was eight months old. He lived on a farm where he didn't see sunlight. As soon as all the horses set foot on their familiar landscape, they suddenly changed. They were drawn to work with people. Now they are fed and satisfied."


Horses here are equal participants in the process. Natalka says that the animals are not forced to do anything: "The horses also get tired during the classes. We treat both people and horses in a very ecological way. Sometimes we see that the horse is not in the mood, so we will not force it to work. That's why the horses don't work for more than 2 hours."

Being yourself

Fighters come to hippotherapy no earlier than two weeks after recovery in the rehabilitation center. Veterans often choose horses themselves; they try to ride and see which animals they get along with best. And sometimes, the volunteers choose horses for each rider individually.


"It is noticeable with experience. Sometimes I can immediately see which of the boys needs a particular horse. All horses are different, each with its character. People too. It is important to choose the right animal for the rider," psychologist Oleksandra Khandohina explains.

She also emphasizes that the interaction with the horse is special because the horse cannot judge. It accepts you as you are, without judging: "It doesn't care if you have a leg or not. It perceives you. You can always be yourself."

терапевтична їзда верхи для військових

терапевтична їзда верхи для військових

Volunteers say that veterans are often surprised that, despite losing a limb, they can safely ride horses. Later, it gives an understanding that they can do even more. Here fighters work on self-confidence.

No limb—no balance

In the indoor arena or, when the weather allows, outside, the military exercises. They are asked to raise one hand, then the other. Veterans must learn to hold on to a horse with one hand and ride with their eyes closed.

The basis of hippotherapy classes is primarily psychological rehabilitation. Volodymyr, a rehabilitator at the Halychyna rehabilitation center, says that the results are noticeable from the first session. At least sleep improves. But in addition, such classes are needed to develop muscles and restore balance, which is necessary for prosthetic implants.

"In addition to psychological recovery, riding a horse restores your balance. Therefore, interaction with a horse also means working with muscles. This is constant physical work—starting from the moment you take the first step towards the horse," Natalka Sonechko, founder of the NGO Palms Touch, adds.


"If we talk about the loss of the lower limbs, these classes play a big role in the sense of balance on the prosthesis. The back muscles must be prepared because the load increases depending on the loss of the limb. The load on the back increases by 30% if we talk about the lower leg. If the thigh is amputated, then the load increases from 10% depending on the level of amputation of the thigh. But this is important not only for those who have lost a limb but also for spinal patients," the volunteer explains.

Pursuing recovery

Most often, veterans, with the help of hippotherapy, simply want to relax and switch gears. However, systematic training can bring visible results already after four sessions.

"Recovery depends on the patient himself and the individual characteristics of the injury. Some guys are slowly rehabilitating. Anyone with horse experience can already stand on a horse in the second lesson," rehabilitator Volodymyr explains.

Natalka adds that the most important thing is what the fighters themselves expect from hippotherapy. If it is enough for someone to believe that he has balance, then two classes are often enough to learn to maintain it again.

How to help?

Classes with combatants are conducted on a volunteer basis. More than 50,000 thousand hryvnias are spent per month on the maintenance of the horses within the Riding to the Future project. 

You can help the project through the NGO Palms Touch ("Doloni Dotyk"):

Hryvnia account:

Organization's name: NGO DOLONI DOTYK

Recipient's code: 44543189

IBAN account: UA303052990000026007031025458



Euro and dollar account:

Recipient name: NGO Doloni Dotyk

Recipient code: 494543

IBAN Code: UA753052990000026009031035929



Photo: Veronika Nanovska


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