First person: Margaryta
Displaced by war in Ukraine, a horse lover uses her expertise to help traumatized children strengthen their bodies and spirit.
Before the Russian military invasion began, our Mennonite Brethren church in eastern Ukraine had special meetings to prepare us for evacuation. When the invasion happened, we had our luggage completely packed. There were 21 of us who would travel together.
We couldn’t believe that the war started for real. Almost every day we were looking for where to go and stop and stay. There was a huge stream of people who were evacuating and needed a place to stay too.
Sometimes it was very sad for our team, and we just sat down and cried and cried. And other times we just laughed because emotions were too much.
We started to pray to God to show us one building in western Ukraine, one house where we could be together. One of our leaders got a call from his friend, who knew a friend in the United States who had friends in Zakarpattia, who had a house. They let us stay there.
When we came in February 2022, we realized it was not comfortable or fancy. It was hard to accept the reality that the toilet was outside, and there was no heat on the second floor. But anyway, we were all together for eight months.
Then my mother, sister and I moved into our own place. It took me half a year to recover a little bit. I think all those constant moves made me feel weak. In the church I started to attend there, I could not sing. My body and soul needed to refresh.
During this time, we started to deliver MCC-supported food packages to other displaced families through the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine. We started to talk to those families, and I could understand that my pain is not so big or so much as in some other people.
God helped me to understand deeply that there is some kind of mission, even in these circumstances. I have a bachelor’s degree in physical rehabilitation and a master’s degree in ergotherapy. I started to have a very huge desire to open some kind of ministry belonging to my profession and to help people refresh.
My leader told me, you need to think about it, and you need to pray about it. Then you will get a thought of how to make it.
I always liked horses. I sat on a horse for the first time when I was 12 years old. It was an ordinary walk at a leisurely pace on horseback, but at one point the rhythm of the steps increased, and the horse trotted several paces. Those emotions of joy and flight cannot be described in words.
About that time, I had started to visit church and had given my life to Christ. I realized that a horse is not just an animal. Horses can help restore strength, restore emotions. Interaction with God’s creation can help, can give a whole lot of positive emotions.
Later, when I was in university, I was able to ride horses, but only a few times a month because it was very expensive.
In 2022, as I started to think deeply about what my ministry would be in western Ukraine, I knew that riding therapy, connected with massage, could bring big changes for the physical body.
So, I drove around looking for stables. At the first stable I found, I took more lessons and learned how to care for the horses. Special teachers showed me how to put the children on the horses and other details I needed to know to combine my skills in physical therapy with horseback riding.
In October 2022, I went to shelters where the supervisors gave me a list of children who needed rehabilitation, and I talked with their parents. I paid to give lessons using the stable’s horses with money I made giving massages to people who had problems with their backs. Some of my friends who knew what I was doing donated money to help. MCC began to support the project in February 2023.
"Interaction with God’s creation can help, can give a whole lot of positive emotions."
Many children in Zakarpattia hide in their hearts deep suffering, including pain, fear, loneliness and rejection. Each rehabilitation session aims to restore the child’s emotional, physical and psychological health for positive personal formation as a young peacemaker.
When a child is in the saddle, it inspires and helps a child to concentrate no longer on one’s own experience, but on new and potential achievements and opportunities. All the front and back movements of the horse send impulses to the brain and then to the whole body to refresh all the muscles.
During the massage, I need to understand which approach to use for that specific person. If a lesson is serious and difficult, massage relaxes the person after that and children are quieter. If the person is relaxed a lot with the muscles on the horse ride, afterward when we do massages, we make the muscles more energized.
Conversation is open for the children. They can tell us what they are feeling. Very often, children talk about what they had to leave because of the war and relocation. They talk about a pet that died. Most children miss dad because men tend to live elsewhere to earn money or protect property. They talk about everything terrible that they saw.
Sometimes children don’t want to get up from the massage table — they want to stay longer. Sometimes parents ask if I can give them a massage, too. I feel joy when I’m working with the children, especially when I can see some kind of results. And I like to make good emotional support for parents. Sometimes I offer prayer support.
In the future, I have a big dream about making my own rehabilitation center, where other types of rehabilitation could be used, and other kinds of clients could be served.
My traumatic experience created the starting point for this kind of service because I, myself, needed it. My experience helps me to understand people and serve them.
Margaryta, who has degrees in physical rehabilitation and ergotherapy, is currently based in western Ukraine. Full name not used for security reasons.