Armenia’s Only Hippotherapy Center Breaking Ground in Mental Health Sector Amid Financial Trouble
On a blazing summer day in a village named Ushi, Davit Mamikyan, a resident of Jermik Ankyun, Armenia’s first home for physically and mentally handicapped adults, cautiously climbed onto a chestnut-colored horse named Salma.
The horse, barely saved from a cruel sendoff to the meat-packing factory, and renowned for her gentle demeanor towards new riders, stood completely still. With encouragement from his housemates, who were anxiously looking on, and direction from instructor Boris Podorovski, Mamikyan’s fears slowly gave way to a big smile. As he rode across the open field that led up to the mountains of Armenia’s Aragatsotn region, the 22-year-old seemed to be a long way from the difficulties he had endured earlier in his life, living on the streets with his mother who recently passed away. He became, even for a short time, a young adult enjoying an unforgettable experience.
Alya Kirakosyan, Jermik Ankyun’s executive director who watched Mamikyan and other Jermik Ankyun residents take turns to ride, was pleasantly surprised by the effect the horses had.
“I was a bit afraid at first that they wouldn’t want to , that they’d be afraid of the horses, but even the most problematic of our residents want to interact with the animals, and it’s really very good,” she says.
Mamikyan is just one of many lives that Centaur, Armenia’s first and only hippotherapy center providing rehabilitation for physically and mentally affected children through horseback riding, has managed to change since its inception almost four years ago.
Founded by investigative journalist Hasmik Hovhanissyan with expert instruction from Armenian fence-jumping champions and brothers Boris and Andrey Podorovski, the NGO has singlehandedly carved leaps and bounds into the paltry state of mental health care in the post-Soviet state — where children with what are considered “shameful” disabilities like autism and Down’s syndrome are more often hidden away and kept on the fringes of society rather than rehabilitated and integrated into it.
A 2009 World Health Organization Mental Health Systems report found that mental health services in Armenia are insufficient, with three mental health facilities that provide day treatment and care for adults only, treating 9.5 users per 100,000, and none for children or adolescents. The report also goes on to say that mental health and mental disorders among children in Armenia are not regarded with the same importance as physical health.
With nine horses, one pony and eight rescue dogs, the trio has provided an unconventional option to frustrated parents who sometimes turn to hippotherapy as a last resort for their children. From the center’s first patients from the Kharberd State Orphanage for Children to a local village child suffering from cerebral palsy whose mother called the horses “a miracle we waited for so long,” Centaur’s growing success rate indicates they seem to be riding in the right direction.
For Hovhanissyan, who frequently wrote about disabled people and the issues they faced in Armenia, Centaur was a dream that finally turned into reality.
“I was worried about two things in Armenia when it came to disabled people: we don’t have complex therapy or emotional rehabilitation,” she says.
Hovhanissyan set out to carve out some change in disabled care and therapy after working with hippotherapy specialist Dmitri Tsverava, a member of the Federation of Riding for the Disabled International and co-founder of Tbilisi Medical Academy in neighboring Georgia. She soon met Borya Podorovski, who trained and later joined her to establish Centaur.
It took a year of convincing for Borya’s brother, Andrey, to join the team and, after initially working at stables where management didn’t grasp the importance of their hippotherapy work, they went off to look for greener pastures, coming across businessman Aghasi Zatikyan and his stables in Ushi village.
With what Hovanhissyan referred to as a “very Armenian agreement” without formal paperwork, Zatikyan agreed to let the trio use the space and train the animals in hippotherapy in exchange for their expenses and care.
On a nonexistent budget, a lot of DIY (do it yourself) and heaps of love and care, they transformed the land, along with the horses, into the first comprehensive animal therapy center in Armenia. Every little victory was celebrated along the way — from transforming a shy horse to work with children, to moving a heavy, abandoned Red Cross trailer onto the land so they wouldn’t have to change clothes in the stable and even seeing an autistic child smile for the first time.
But when Zatikyan announced he was selling the venue and horses for $50,000 due to financial trouble, the celebration came to a halt. Now, the Centaur team is desperate to raise money in order to continue their work.
“We will do everything to save the horses,” Hovhanissyan says. “I will even sell the only property I have — my car. We have put so much into it — our time, money, health, well just life. We cannot lose it.”
If they do, it might mean the end of hippotherapy in Armenia and the end of virtually the first form of therapy for mentally disabled children, at least temporarily.
“Wherever we go, even if we find a place, it will take us years to get back on our feet again and a lot of money, of course, so we won’t have hippotherapy in Armenia for a few years.”
Through photo exhibitions and donations, Centaur has raised $3,000, gaining supporters along the way, including Chrisandra, a dancer who goes only by her first name and runs the Kilikia dance group in Nottingham, England, performing traditional Armenian dances.
The group raised £1,000 through a variety of different endeavors.
“We decided to try and raise as much money as possible, and at first thought we could raise £400,” she says. “But the amount kept growing.” Her dance groups fundraised through bake sales, dance events, donating profits received from their performances and collecting donations from others who were interested in saving Centaur.
Chrisanda and 22 of her friends then personally delivered the funds to Hovhanissyan in Armenia.
“People were enchanted by Centaur,” she says. “Someone said it was like a Garden of Eden had been created. The love with which the project is run is clear for everyone to see.”
Milada Kilianova is another supporter.
Originally from the Czech Republic but now living and working in Armenia with People in Need NGO, Kilianova discovered Centaur through Facebook.
The work that Centaur does, she says, is important, as children who are deemed “different” don’t have many opportunities to grow, due to high-cost medical care, lack of medical experts in the country, and the general attitude towards disabled people.
“Hasmik gives hope to people, kids and their parents. They can see how the children are getting stronger, physically as well as mentally, as with the progress they are also more self confident … I think that this alternative therapy is very important, as the standard treatment is insufficient.”
As Centaur faces the difficult task ahead of raising the remaining $47,000 and is now dealing with the deaths of two beloved horses and a recently adopted dog, the team is still celebrating their successes, no matter how small.
“Only a few months ago, Gegham, an autistic child attending hippotherapy sessions since last year, could not get the concept of washing the horse properly,” Hovhanissyan wrote on the Centaur website. “Today, while Borya holds the hose, he rubs the horse with both hands, starting from the neck and gradually going down to the feet, and then after washing runs the horse on a cord to get her dry. He is becoming more and more adequate and receptive in other fields too, listening, and obeying commands, expressing more and more emotions!”
For Hovhanissyan and the children whose lives the center has changed, the stakes to raise the money needed are just too high.
“Centaur is not just a regular horse-riding club or hippotherapy center,” she says. “As one of my students said recently, Centaur is a fairy tale for so many children and adults. Centaur is a paradise for so many dogs and horses. What will happen if we don’t raise the money? We will just lose the paradise.”