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At a Russian émigré's ranch in western Ukraine, veterans learn to live with lost limbs and psychological scars

At a ranch near Lviv, Ukrainian amputee veterans ride horses as part of a free, volunteer-run therapy program.Photography by Kiran Ridley/The Globe and Mail

Vadim Medvid grew up in a village in Ukraine and he used to ride horses almost every day as a child. But that was 20 years ago and he had long forgotten about horses, until a Russian missile blew apart his legs.

Before the war, Mr. Medvid, 35, drove trucks and made deliveries to farms and villages in the Chernihiv region in northern Ukraine.

When Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, he joined the Ukrainian military and headed to the front line. Six months later, on Aug. 26, he lost both legs when a Russian Grad missile slammed into the spot where his unit had taken up its position in Luhansk.

Now as he waits to get fitted for prosthetic legs, he has found solace in a unique therapy program at a ranch outside Lviv. Mr. Medvid is among a handful of war amputees who take turns each weekend riding through the forests and the rolling countryside. After the excursions, they gather for lunch and talk about their hopes, dreams and fears.

Mr. Medvid acknowledged it wasn’t easy at first, but soon his childhood experience came rushing back and he was flying down the pathways. “It’s no problem at all to ride now,” he said. “The horse becomes my legs.”

Oleksandra Khandodina, with horse Bolivia, runs the therapy program.

The therapy program is run by Oleksandra Khandodina, a no-nonsense 42-year-old émigré from Moscow who loves horses and racing motorcycles. She works full-time as a child therapist, teaches children Mandarin on the side and dreams of buying a Harley-Davidson one day. And don’t ask her about the giant tattoo of The Hulk she has plastered across her back. “It’s personal,” she snapped.

Ms. Khandodina grew up in an eclectic household. She started riding horses as a child outside the Russian capital and spent time in China learning Mandarin at her mother’s insistence. “She wanted me to try something new,” she recalled.

She moved to Ukraine in 2010 after marrying a Ukrainian who shared her love of motorbikes. The marriage didn’t last but her attachment to the country did. She has since remarried and her second husband, Vasyl Irkha, is serving with the Ukrainian army.

Before the war, the couple had a farm in central Ukraine and Ms. Khandodina worked with troubled children, often using horses as a way of reaching them. They relocated to western Ukraine when the war started and brought along two horses – Rada and Bolivia – who are both 13 years old.

Ms. Khandodina turned her attention to soldiers who had lost limbs in battle and she began working with the nearby Halychyna “centre of complex rehabilitation.” It provides care to 160 amputees, many of whom struggle with depression and addiction. She began offering free riding therapy a few months ago and she runs everything in her spare time with the help of a group of volunteers.

Ms. Khandodina, with Bolivia and Kraplyk, has been riding since she was a child in the Moscow area.

Daniel Eechenko and Olexandr Pastukhov are two of the wounded soldiers trying to recover at the ranch.

Serhii Titarenko, a pilot and physiologist now on the ranch's staff, spends some time with Rada the horse.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Ms. Khandodina gave riding tips to a group of children whose fathers were serving in the military.

She walked patiently beside the horses, guiding them with quiet encouragement while yelling instructions to the children.

The horses were remarkably patient given their unsteady cargo, and Ms. Khandodina said Bolivia in particular was well-suited to amputees. ”Rada has some problems with her legs,” she said.

Many of the veterans have never ridden a horse before and some feel intimidated at first. But Ms. Khandodina said they soon settle in, and those with no legs often fare better than those who only have one.

“Riders tend to ride with their legs. So with one leg, the rider pushes the horse in one direction,” she said.

While the riding program offers wounded soldiers some physical benefits, Ms. Khandodina said the real impact is on their mental health. For a few hours each week, the soldiers feel they can move on their own and they forget about their injuries.

Ms. Khandodina shows Mr. Eechenko how to ride.

Volodymyr Hlovatskyi, the medical director of the Halychyna, said the riding program helps the veterans understand that they can lead active lives. “It’s very important to redirect their minds,” he said. “They have never ridden a horse, but now with the injury they can do something they never could before. They understand that it’s not the stop of their lives. And then I can say, you see, you can ride the horse, so you can ride the car, you can walk with prosthetics.”

Mr. Medvid has already started planning his new life. His boss at the trucking company has offered him a job. That could include driving if Mr. Medvid can get the prosthetics he’s applied for from a charity in the United States or if the truck can be modified. “I have hands, it’s possible,” he said.

He knows his rehabilitation will take months and he’s hoping that one day soon he can visit his wife and two children who moved to Ireland when the conflict started. “I must go back to normal life,” he said. “I am trying. Every day is good.”

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