“When was the last time you rode a horse?” I asked Kateryna Polianska on the late April day she first visited the barn.
“Two months ago, before I left Ukraine,” she replied in her Slavic-accented English.
Kateryna had arrived in Eugene, Oregon, on March 23—one month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started Feb. 24—to begin a three-month fellowship with the environmental nonprofit Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide. She didn’t want to leave her family, her friends or her horse to come to the U.S., but she hopes the fellowship will allow her to develop her English skills and do research that could benefit Ukraine’s environment after the war—and help hold Russia accountable for damages it has caused.
Kateryna is a landscape ecologist at the Kyiv office of Environment People Law and has a doctorate in physical geography. She’s also an avid equestrian.
I first met her after the folks at ELAW reached out to me, as editor of the local weekly paper, to ask us to do a story on Kateryna’s work. Later they reached out to me again because they know I have a horse and spend about as much time at the stables as I do at the newspaper office: Would I take a horse-loving Ukrainian scientist with me to the barn?
Like most people I know, I’ve wanted to do something to support Ukrainians amidst of the horrors of war. Plus, I’d been having a bit of a rough spring myself between a nonstop depressing news cycle and struggles getting Cairo pregnant, and one thing I do when I am down is try to make other folks happy. So I said I’d love to take her to the barn, while my friend Nadia Raza offered her Paint horse, “Noodle,” for Kateryna to ride.
What could be more American, we thought, than riding a Paint horse named Noodle?
Noodle is a 5-year-old champagne tovero pinto who is green with a heart of gold. I had neglected to ask Kateryna how experienced of a rider she was before recruiting Noodle—all I knew was that she owned a horse back in Ukraine she badly missed—but I thought they’d be OK.
It was more than OK. Watching Kateryna smiling and releasing some of her stress by cantering Noodle around the arena was just lovely.
But let me drop back a little bit.
After the start of the war, Kateryna and part of her family left Kyiv for the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, but a few days later fighting began there. They saw Russian tanks near the village, saw explosions and smoke and airplanes. They were able to drive on to the city of Fastiv, about 50 miles south of Kyiv, and then to Rivne, about 180 miles west.
Kateryna stayed in Ukraine for a month after the invasion began. Originally, she said, like others, she thought the invasion would last only days. Instead it dragged on. She and her family helped Ukrainian defenders make Molotov cocktails and sandbags, she said.
She said the Russian military has committed crimes against humanity and against Ukraine’s environment and animals. The military has burned stables of horses, and war has resulted in hundreds of animals dying in shelters and in zoos.
Before the Russian invasion, she had planned to use her fellowship with ELAW to research environmental laws and use that information to strengthen Ukrainian laws, as well as to strengthen her English—publications in English have the most impact both in terms of legal work and in terms of her work as an environmental scientist, she said.
After the invasion, she changed her research plans and decided to head to the U.S. not as a refugee but as a scientist. She would examine Russia’s use of munitions and the impact of heavy metals in warheads, razed buildings and burned bodies on the environment. Environment People Law has a database collecting information about damage, such as forest fires, that Russian forces are causing to protected areas. The goal is to submit the data to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, she said.
Getting to Eugene required a 12-hour nighttime bus ride from Ukraine to Poland, where she boarded a plane to the U.S.
Kateryna’s English is quite good (unlike my Ukrainian, which is nonexistent), having started learning in grade school, but she was so intent on maximizing her time in the U.S. that, while most people take three courses at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute, she took six. This meant that, together with her scientific work, and a class she was lecturing to once a week online, she had a packed schedule. But we soon figured out how to get her out to my barn, just outside Eugene in Pleasant Hill, Oregon.
She came for the first time on a rare sunny spring day in the Pacific Northwest. It was clear to me from the beginning that Kateryna knew horses—she gave Noodle a thorough grooming and spotted every bump and scratch he had. We outfitted her in boots and a helmet, and I proceeded to quiz her further on her riding skills.
She originally did jumping and dressage, she said, but now she did something else. She attempted to explain through our mild language barrier that she did galloping, and jumping on and off the horse. Her English is quite good, but the specific language of horseback riding is not a vocabulary topic that probably comes up at the English Institute.
“Oh, you do vaulting!” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, not vaulting. The horses are loose.
“Like Cossacks,” she said.
I was still unclear what this meant, but what was clear was that she was a competent horsewoman. I hopped on Noodle first and showed her his basic walk, trot and canter, then handed over the reins.
Honestly I think she could have ridden him without reins. Actually, she did. She checked in with Noodle, patting him all over and swinging her arms as she rode. Next thing I knew, she was riding with her arms out and reins on his neck. Noodle thought this was just great.
You know that feeling you get when you hop on a horse and just for a bit leave the weight of the world behind? Now picture worrying about your horse, your family, your friends, your very country in the middle of a war, and letting that weight drop for just a moment while you canter around in the sun on a funny little horse named Noodle.
I sent videos of the ride to Nadia, and we agreed Kateryna was welcome back at any time to ride Noodle.
She was able to visit the barn several more times, and I asked her more about her life in Ukraine and her riding there, before the war, as well as what was happening with horses, and her own horse in particular.
One thing I was curious about was efforts by people in the U.S. and elsewhere to send aid to horses and animals in Ukraine—had she seen the results of that? She recommended the work of Ukrainian animal rights organization UA Animals, speaking highly of their efforts to save animals during the war. Recently UA Animals raised funds to support 10 jumpers whose owners could not afford to pay for their stabling after the animals fled fighting in the Kharkiv region.
She told me UA Animals helps “stables that are close to the frontline. They send them money for hay, or deliver fodder. They offer help with the evacuation of horses. This organization also takes care of shelters for homeless animals, collects funds for surgical operations of wild animals and animals with wounds and injuries.”
Kateryna’s own 19-year-old gray Orlov Trotter mare, Businka, Ukrainian for “bead,” is in the care of her trainer, Victor Rubchenko, at a barn in a village outside Kyiv. Rubchenko, she knew, was taking good care of Businka, but of course the one thing he could not control was if the barn were to be hit by a missile, she told me. I could not imagine having that kind of fear for the safety of your animals. He had arranged for another barn further out in the country but currently felt the horses were safest where they were.
It was Rubchenko who was teaching her Cossack riding. She later showed me a video of a stunt team of Ukrainian Cossack riders riding at the gallop in a performance. They stood on their mounts’ backs at a gallop, laid across them and dangled upside down. That was what she was learning to do with Businka. Kateryna follows Rubchenko’s training philosophy of not using a whip or spurs. She is, however, learning to ride Businka while carrying a saber!
Oh, that’s what kind of riding you do?!
Rubchenko trains horses for films and music videos, and Businka and Kateryna have participated, appearing in a yet-to-be-released film about Ukraine’s beloved 18th-century poet and philosopher, Hryhorii Skovoroda. Russians destroyed Skovoroda’s historic home and a museum of his work in May.
Even before the war, Kateryna’s dedication to her horse was impressive. She’d come to know Businka as a 5-year-old but didn’t own her for the next 14 years. Businka, who Kateryna calls her best friend and horse sister, was “willful” and had a “difficult character” and not everyone could ride her. She was a strong horse, who needed someone with a strong heart to ride her, she said. “I trust her, and she trusts me.”
Kateryna worked with Businka while others owned her. At one point when the mare changed hands, the new owner was told that Kateryna and Businka were a package deal. She was finally able to buy the mare when the horse was 19.
As we chatted Kateryna helped with my own barn chores—cleaning stalls on weekends, feeding the evening beet pulp. In Ukraine she told me, they feed the horses whole beets, pumpkins, carrots and apples in addition to their hay and grain. The horses at her barn don’t get free-choice water, instead it’s offered to them several times a day, and they drink their fill. She treasures the times she has been able to stay at her barn and take care of the horses, “every time you stay with the horses, you are taught something new.”
Over the next couple of rides, Kateryna hopped Noodle over some small fences and rode him bareback. Before our last ride, Nadia and I introduced her to our barn manager and resident horse whisperer, Agustin Cisneros, and he offered the use of his horse Bucky so we could all go for a trail ride. Kateryna had told me how she loved to ride Businka in the woods around her barn in Ukraine, so we headed to the nearby state park to amble through the Oregon woods.
We said goodbye after that last lovely ride, with promises to keep in touch. Kateryna spent the next month traveling with ELAW to places like Alaska to study glaciers and complete her studies on best practices for restoring destroyed ecosystems and management of protected areas. Ideally, environmental management and restoration practices developed from Western wildfires in the U.S. can be applied in Ukraine, where current fires are being caused by the war.
Kateryna returned to Ukraine in late June, where she lives in an apartment in Kyiv with no car. Before the war it took her up to two hours to get to the barn—first on a bus, then the underground, then a bus again—and she would visit the horses two or three days a week. When I asked if she would be able to do that during the Russian invasion, she replied, “I will find a way.”
Soon after, she sent Nadia and I a message, with a photo with her and Businka in a field of tall grass. She wrote, “Now I feel peace in my heart. No guilt anymore.”