This is then. She brought the horses across the river and released them into the Novopilitsky Forest.” The Facebook message posted by Julia Molokova on March 5 from Irbin, a Kyiv suburb where the fighting has been going on for days, has gone viral all over the world. The videos show Molokova running through the city with her five horses “I have no other way out.” I hope to see them again after the war.”
A nearby stable at Erben caught fire after the collision, and fourteen horses did not survive. The fighting became increasingly fierce. The city’s population fled en masse to Kyiv. “Our city Irbin is empty, everyone has left the city,” Molokova wrote on March 10. “I don’t know where my horses are. I’ve left messages on all kinds of horse sites, I hope someone will see or hear something.” Then a week after their release, she decided to put herself in a safe place, too. She is fleeing west.
Ukraine is a real horse country, where more than 100,000 horses live. Many, like the owners, are trapped by the war. Equestrian centers, breeders, racetracks and private owners have to take care of their animals under harsh conditions. Stocks of hay, straw and fodder are running out. Evacuation is getting tougher as cities are cordoned off, bridges are destroyed, and gasoline and diesel rationing.
In Facebook groups where light horse facts are shared, massive aid campaigns have been organized since the Russian invasion on February 24. Horse owners from all over Europe offer Ukrainian owners stables for two, sometimes five or even ten horses. A horse farm from France says it can hold up to a hundred horses. The Ukrainian Equestrian Federation is working on a database that links supply and demand for aid. But at the moment, Ukrainian horses are slowly flocking across the border. On March 9, according to official figures of Polish veterinarians, only 27 horses were allowed to cross the Polish border.
Sometimes owners who manage to arrange transportation and get to the Polish border have to wait days or even weeks before arranging the correct health data for their horses. And even in those endless queues, hay and water are scarce. Meanwhile, German aid organization Equiwent has built emergency stables along the Romanian border, where evacuees can isolate horses and get medical care. But even there, only a few horses crossed the border, according to Marcus Rabe, farrier and founder of Equiwent, on his Facebook. He says he has vets and vet carts ready on the Romanian border, but it’s too dangerous for his volunteers to come to the aid in Ukraine themselves. “Waiting for the border, that’s all there is for now.”
Not safe today
This is also the experience of Nicole Karis of the Dutch Horse Flight Operations Transport Company, which has already received many calls from Ukrainian owners who want their horses removed. “Our carriers are no longer entering the country. So at the moment, almost no horse has come out of the country. The owners, who acted quickly after the invasion, were able to evacuate their animals. But it is getting more and more dangerous day by day. very difficult.”
Now, Karis received a call from a Ukrainian woman who wanted to transport her two horses to Dubai. “She has to first bring it to Poland by herself, then we can put it on the plane to Abu Dhabi,” she says. “Also, a girl with more than 40 horses called and she was running her stable with someone else. What do you do next? Load six horses into a truck and leave forty horses with only one guard? What if he gets sick or injured? These are infernal dilemmas.”
The most expensive Ukrainian horses brought to safety so far seem to be. Meanwhile, top show jumpers like 23-year-old Kornet Obolensky and his 18-year-old son Kom-il-Foot 5 have been trucked from their horse farm in Zachkow through Poland to Germany. Bred in Belgium, Kornet Obolensky competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has become a successful breeding stallion ever since. Having these types of horses that travel well have all the necessary border documents, which will undoubtedly help in wartime.
Concerns were also raised about the ancient Akhal-Teke breed, a graceful horse from Turkmenistan, famous for its coppery instinct, of which there are very few worldwide. Important bloodlines of Akhal Teke are guarded by two stallion farms in Kyiv. From the world of horses, there is now a cry to save those horses, as happened with Lippizaners in World War II. At that time, American soldiers succeeded in clearing white stallions from the bombed Viennese Spanish Riding School.
Read also: Pets are not left behind in Ukraine
keep the rhythm
But at the moment, not many horse owners have a way out. One of them is 40-year-old Valery Yasinskaya from Zhytomyr, about 140 kilometers west of Kyiv. Together with her 69-year-old father, a former show-jumping contestant, she is raising Ukrainian hot-blooded. “Good sporting horses, with lots of German blood.” Together they raise sixteen horses, four of which will soon have a foal, as well as four dogs and three cats. “We can’t evacuate them all and I can’t choose between them,” she said via Messenger.
Since the February 24 raid, she has been sleeping in the stable so she can release the animals in case a fire breaks out. “If I could sleep at all, because every night you hear the planes, there was another bomb attack last night in my city, the fifth so far. Since February 24, life seems like a long, terrible day. Every morning I’m glad I made it through the night again “. The horses are currently in good health. “We try to keep their circadian rhythm, and we let them out in the meadow. They just don’t have to work.” She sends videos of horses and dogs raging in the snow. She says the animals are her family. You couldn’t leave them behind. But she also says, “If I had to, I’d release them into the woods.”
Advice is being shared on Facebook, including by American horse owners who have experienced wildfires, about what to do if you release your horse. Don’t leave the halter on, for example, because the animal may restrain itself. And: Write your phone number with a permanent marker on the hooves. Or even better: Braid a plastic or metal business card into a mane. So that even studded horses can be traced back to the owner.
Yasinskaya says the situation is worse in Kyiv and Kharkov, where stables are close to the front line and forage is running out. “Many horses are now on stakes, and there is no hay anywhere.” She herself tries to collect donations for horses in her area. “But it is also difficult, because it is currently difficult to deal with banks.”
Save from slaughter
For example, four hundred horses at the Kyiv Hippodrome, one of the race tracks in Ukraine, are at risk. There have been no races for weeks. Many knights and their patrons fled the city, and others went to fight at the front. A small group of grooms take care of 150 hard trots around the clock. If there are no air raid sirens, animals can go out to enter the horse walker.
There are more than two hundred private horses at the Hippodrome. There is a small riding club called Free Riding Club, which provides free lessons for children in Kyiv. Some of the 10 horses in this equestrian center have already been saved from slaughter. Now they have to fear for their lives again. It is easy to follow how the war overcame them on the association’s Facebook page. On February 19, the club posted carefree videos of jumping lessons, and a week later, a picture of a blonde girl appeared next to the head of a white horse saying: “This is our last peaceful photo. In the following days, Kyiv woke up to war.”
During the first week of the war, the Free Riding Club rationed horses to save oats and hay. Now more than thirty shepherds have donated fodder and money, so that the horses will have enough food for now. Now the club wants to save up for evacuation, although at the moment that seems impossible, as the city is virtually under siege. Then there is always Option 3: Abandon the horses.
Julia Molokova, the woman who launched her five horses, arrived safely in Holland, where she was greeted by Yannick Gillen, saddle maker from Hengelo. Things are going reasonably well under the circumstances. The Molokova family has now arrived in Holland. Her horses are still regularly spotted, and new photos appear on Facebook. “Three horses still walked along the river, where I left them,” Molokova says. “I’m sure they are waiting for me there.” The other two wander the streets of Irben, wandering in the gardens and among the houses. “But they’re still alive!”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 18, 2022
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 18, 2022