Irish racing tries to save Kyiv's trotting horses from ravages of war

Thousands of horses in Ukraine left to fend for themselves after their owners were killed or forced to flee

A volunteer grooms one of the 280 horses at Kyiv's Hippodrome. Photo: Bradley Reed
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As a passionate horseman with a long career in the reconstruction of war zones, John O’Connor felt compelled to act when he visited Ukraine and saw hundreds of horses at risk of going hungry or dying during the Russian invasion.

Back home in his native Ireland after two trips last year, Mr O'Connor set up a fundraising drive to tap the country's equine industry for donations of essential veterinary supplies and animal feed to improve the lot of horses in Kyiv and Odesa.

He called his effort Project Cossack and volunteers recently completed its first mission to Ukraine. The team behind Mr O'Connor delivered two vanloads of items for the 280 horses in Kyiv’s Hippodrome, the main base for the country’s trotting horses. Now, the horse trainer's focus is on the next delivery of aid to keep the endangered stables going.

In putting together the project, Mr O'Connor is drawing on experience going back to his work as a military communications specialist in Kuwait after the First Gulf War. Alongside his charitable work, Mr O'Connor hopes to participate in the reconstruction of the country more broadly by establishing a business platform for international companies to operate there.

With his help, he believes western businesses can create links with Ukrainian companies. His hope is that it will serve as a channel for international companies to help Ukraine recover in the post-war period and meet the standards required for EU membership.

Since Russian tanks rolled across Ukrainian borders a year ago, thousands of ponies and horses have been among the unnoticed victims of Moscow’s aggression against its neighbour. Many were left behind as their owners fled to safety while others were killed in Russian bombings.

Speaking to The National, Mr O'Connor said the 90-acre Hippodrome in the Ukrainian capital is an “oasis of normality” for horses and volunteers in the midst of war. But they simply do not have enough food and medicine to meet the animals' needs.

“There’s a constant battle with money to buy the necessary products and medicines,” he said. “They have oats, the cost of which has gone up due to rising fuel prices, but they need balancers to make it nutritious for the horses.

“A lot of the staff and volunteers there are women and they’ve got a lot on their minds. They might be raising children, have husbands fighting on the front, and they have a lot of things to worry about. There’s not much I can do about the war but if I can take one of their worries away from them it would be a help.

“It’s controlling the controllable. It’s trying to do the thing that you can do.”

Mr O’Connor cares for about 20 horses, including racehorses, mares and foals at Ballykelly Stud, near Cashel in County Tipperary. The site is in a well-known centre for horse breeding in Ireland and is the global headquarters of the Coolmore Stud ― one of the world’s largest breeding operations of thoroughbred racehorses ― is just up the road.

The first load of donations delivered to Kyiv included feed supplements, bandages, IV bags, orthopaedic supplies and antibiotics for horses. Volunteers sent surplus items to Odesa, where the core of Ukraine’s racehorse population is based.

The plight of the animals was highlighted by the case of one dappled grey whom volunteers named Factor after they stepped in to prevent him ending up in a meat-processing plant.

“His owner’s house took a direct hit and he was on his way to the factory when people at the Hippodrome thought they would be able to help him,” Mr O’Connor said.

About €5,000 ($5,303) raised from donations, as well as manufacturers putting forward medicines, made the first dispatch possible.

Project Cossack, which has a fundraising target of €20,000, will continue providing practical help to people as long as it is needed, Mr O’Connor said, while acknowledging there has been “compassion fatigue” as the war drags on.

“We will soldier on and find a way to do this one trip at a time. When one is over we start to plan for the next one," he said.

Bradley Reed, Mr O’Connor’s project partner, delivered the aid in a convoy that drove across Europe. Once the deliveries were offloaded, he donated one of the vehicles to a friend in Dnipro to transport injured soldiers and civilians to hospital. It replaced another vehicle the rescuer had been using until it was destroyed when he drove over a landmine.

Speaking to The National by phone from Kyiv, Mr Reed said locals were elated when he rolled into the Hippodrome with vehicles laden with donations.

“Many people say they are going to help and they kind of get caught up in things and don’t. So when we showed up people were surprised and so grateful to see us. I think it’s the very least that we can do,” he said.

“Russian soldiers are killing horses and they may be doing it for food. Ukrainians are trying to save them where they can.”

Volunteers at Kyiv's Hippodrome prepare to feed the horses. Photo: John O'Connor

While trying to meet the immediate needs of people and animals, the pair also have their eyes on the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine.

Having worked in Kuwait in the immediate aftermath of the First Gulf War, Mr O’Connor, who has a background in aerospace, has a certain expertise in how to regroup when the fighting moves on. He arrived in Kuwait after the fighting ended in February 1991 to help with the rebuilding process, part of an approach known at the time as "Swords to Ploughshares", the adaptation of available military technology for civilian purposes.

Last year Mr O'Connor set up Ucrain Nua, which means New Ukraine in Irish, to assist Irish companies wishing to play a part in helping the country to recover once the violence ends. The platform, which has a bureau in Kyiv, exists to “create some confidence” among international companies wanting to do business in Ukraine without fear of corruption.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has in recent months been on an anti-corruption drive in which he sacked several top officials. His campaign is considered vital for Ukraine to retain the support of its allies.

“It’s establishing a footprint,” Mr O’Connor said. “I have been in Ukraine a couple of times since the war started to see what can be done when the shooting stops, or even before the shooting stops, in terms of rebuilding.

“When the First Gulf War ended the next day you could not get a hotel room," he said. "If what happened in Kuwait is anything to go by then the reconstruction will happen very rapidly in Ukraine when the war stops.”

Updated: February 24, 2023, 6:00 PM