Ride to health

Anita Shkedi’s crusade to promote therapeutic horse riding for the disabled.

Anita Shkedi (left) helps with the treatment of a disabled child. (photo credit: COURTESY INTRA)
Anita Shkedi (left) helps with the treatment of a disabled child.
(photo credit: COURTESY INTRA)
SOME PEOPLE talk about doing things that will change lives; others don’t talk, they just do.
Anita Shkedi, the British-born pioneer of therapeutic horse riding in Israel, is an internationally acknowledged expert in the treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She has spent the past 30 years doing remarkable work by means of riding for the disabled, with clients of all ages, producing life-changing results for people across Israel’s social and religious spectrum, including many former soldiers with significant physical and mental injuries.
In her book, “Traumatic Brain Injury & Therapeutic Riding,” Shkedi describes the unique stimulus provided by therapeutic riding as follows: “It has been proven that a horse’s rhythmic movement can improve physical problems by creating a state of ‘arousal’ … In this context ‘arousal’ refers to a physiological and psychological state of being awake that involves activating elements of the central nervous system, leading to a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and response readiness.”
HER INSPIRING story, told to me with equal doses of boisterous laughter and deeply touching experiences, is one of tremendous professional achievements alongside the personal tragedy of losing her eldest son, Jonathan, a casualty of the First Lebanon War. We met at her recently relocated INTRA (Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association) stables at Bnei Zion, near Ra’anana, in central Israel, to chart Shkedi’s journey from rural England to the often far from peaceful reality of life in Israel.
Her love for horses began as a child in Britain’s Lake District, where her family moved from London when her father took a job at the country’s first nuclear plant, Windscale.
“We had this huge house, High Dudden, and we were only a family of four! My mother started taking in children who had nowhere else to go, even a newborn baby. They instilled values into me about caring for other people,” she relates to The Jerusalem Report.
Always in a hurry to get on with things, she left school in the north of England and headed south to Bath College to study botany, biology and zoology. “Everyone thought I would go on to study medicine, but the [seven-year] course seemed so long, so I wrote to Great Ormonde Street Children’s Hospital in London and got in there to study nursing. I stayed on after my four years’ studies and worked on the intensive care cardiac unit. I loved it.”
IT WAS while studying nursing in London that Shkedi married Michael Boyden, who was training to be a rabbi with the Reform movement in Britain. It wasn’t easy at first for the cardiac nurse to adjust to her new role and she had to make plenty of quick adjustments along the way.
Boyden was eventually appointed rabbi at the Menorah Synagogue in Cheshire, south Manchester, where Shkedi settled into her role as rabbi’s wife while continuing to work as a district nurse, attending to people who had been released from the hospital for home recovery. At times, her dual identity came as a surprise to the locals.
“I’ll never forget I went to a house close to the Orthodox synagogue to see a lady who needed a dressing changed after an operation. As I walked in, there was this unmistakable smell of bacon and eggs. They turned around and saw me enter, clearly recognizing me as the rebbetzin. The frying pan flew up in the air and out of sight. They had assumed the district nurse was coming but never expected that it would also be the rabbi’s wife! I pretended I hadn’t noticed. It was hilarious. I was living a double life.”
In the early 1980s an Israeli family holidaying in the Manchester area was involved in a nasty road accident. The three boys were relatively unharmed, but the parents were hospitalized for some weeks. The local hospital turned to Shkedi to care for the boys, which she did without hesitation. The following year she and her husband went on a first visit to Israel and decided to telephone the family to see how they were doing.
“We called and they told us their son, Rami Keich, had been shot while in Lebanon.
He was paralyzed. On the phone, I said I could help him by putting him on a horse and make him feel better. I didn’t hear from him for a year then he suddenly called and said he was on his way to Manchester. He came and we got him riding; he managed to sit up.”
The Menorah congregation rallied round and bought Keich a horse and saddle, shipping it to Israel to help with his rehabilitation. In 1985, Michael and Anita, together with their two children, Tanya and Jonathan, decided to immigrate to Israel. Unlike most families who board a plane and fly direct, the Boydens ‒ who were keen sailors ‒ decided to sail a 34- foot yacht from Liverpool to Tel Aviv.
They eventually arrived in Israel and were given a room at the Ra’anana immigrant reception center. But verbal promises of work, which both had received prior to leaving England, proved worthless.
The traumatic struggle to find their place in their new country hastened the end of their marriage.
It’s a story with which many idealistic new arrivals in Israel can identify – the thrill of being among your own people as a majority for the first time soon losing its charm when there is no work; savings dwindle fast; you struggle to make yourself understood in Hebrew; and you melt in the blistering heat of the Israeli summer.
SHKEDI EVENTUALLY got a job as a riding instructor in Kfar Shmaryahu, a far cry from her previous existence as a rabbi’s wife. It was there, through Keich, that she was introduced to Giora Shkedi, an accomplished horseman who a couple of years later would become her second husband – they have a son, Danny. Giora worked with her from the start as they established the Riding for the Disabled in late 1986, following a cash donation from the Reform Synagogue Movement of Great Britain, which helped get the project off the ground.
Israelis didn’t like the word disabled, so the name was soon changed to therapeutic riding and her success in treating and helping severely disabled people was quickly noticed.
“Word spread like wildfire and people started arriving day by day. I could barely cope. Lots of disabled children and lots of disabled Israeli war veterans.
We soon became too big and had to move a number of times over the next few years. I worked so hard. I used to do 80 lessons a week by myself. We moved the stables to Ramat Hasharon and people kept coming and coming. At that time, I took no money for my lessons.
We lived from my savings, which I used up.”
In 1988, the director of Wingate Institute, Israel’s center of sporting excellence, invited her to create the country’s first-ever course to train therapeutic riding instructors. The course proved a huge hit, while at the same time Shkedi’s work was attracting clients from around the world.
“Disabled people were coming from everywhere, from as far north as Metula and as far south as Eilat. Some people flew in from abroad. I remember one man with Multiple Sclerosis coming from Uruguay. He arrived in a terrible state and couldn’t move. We treated him and he went back much improved. The riding is a great help to MS sufferers and increases their mobility.”
The therapeutic riding stables flourished through the 1990s. From 1991- 2000, Shkedi traveled with the Israeli national teams to the riding world championships and then to Atlanta to the first Paralympic games in 1996.
The biggest challenge then in running a charity was keeping crucial funds coming in – it still is to this day.
“The problem is that the more you grow as a charitable organization, the more donations you need, and fundraising is hard. You’re chasing your tail all the time. It was only later that the health funds recognized therapeutic riding as a treatment that had major benefits and agreed to subsidize it. That was a breakthrough, but it also created a lot of problems.”
WHAT SHKEDI alluded to was the fact that the moment other regular riding schools saw there were significant funds available from health funds for subsidizing therapeutic riding, they too opened up as therapeutic riding centers, often without the necessary experience and equipment; simply eager to get their hands on the money.
I asked Shkedi to tell me about her son Jonathan, because it was his tragic loss that became a defining moment in her life and her life’s work.
“Jonathan was an incredible kid. He was very clever, very sensitive. He and I were very, very close. He always wanted to support me.” She’s gazing past me now at a tree wafting in the breeze outside her office. “All through the drama of coming to Israel, the struggles, the separation, he was there. He was one of those kids who really looked after his mum. He helped me with the horses, but his real love was cycling. He won the Kinneret race. He rode for a club in Haifa and every morning before school would get up at 5 a.m. to train.”
A particularly fit young man, Jonathan joined the navy commandos, but then chose to transfer to an infantry unit based in southern Lebanon. “It was the biggest joy for me when he came home or we met him somewhere, all those things that mothers love. He would often come home and play the piano for two hours.”
In July 1993, Jonathan was on a mission and was mortally wounded when his troop carrier, on its way to rescue fellow soldiers, was attacked by Hezbollah.
“A single piece of shrapnel near his eye passed through his vital centers. He was in Haifa’s Rambam Hospital for 16 days. They took him off the life-support machine, but he continued to live for one week because he was a very strong boy from his cycling. I knew from being a nurse when he was about to die and, basically, he died in my arms. It’s something I will absolutely never get over.
“You do blame yourself. He was still just 19, nearly 20. You blame yourself for coming here. He wanted to do the right thing and go into the Israeli army. He went enthusiastically. He rescued people.
One family told me he had carried their son through the Bekaa Valley on his shoulders as they couldn’t get a stretcher there.”
WITH HER son gone and the shiva period over, Shkedi admits she didn’t know what she was meant to do next.
“I remember thinking, ‘Do I just draw the curtains and stay here? What are you supposed to do? What do you do with your life afterwards?’ I decided I’d try and go back to work, crying all the way.
A woman came into the office with her son, who had a traumatic brain injury.
She told me how he had been ambushed.
He could barely speak, had visual problems and was hemiplegic. Then she said he was her second son who had been injured. When she said that, I suddenly thought, ‘This is my mission. I have to keep going.’ I felt so much more connected to the disabled soldiers after Jonathan died.”
LAST SUMMER’S Gaza war has seen a new influx of soldiers benefitting from Shkedi’s internationally renowned expertise.
She insists that the deep trauma of their experiences and their permanent injuries and disabilities aren’t always catered for in the health system.
“Working with the horses is connected to the emotions and all these people have really suffered emotionally,” she explains. “It’s something that medication can’t help with. There is a chunk missing which is connected to a person’s motivation, their self-esteem, their emotional side. Operating surgically on someone doesn’t deal with the soul.
“When you connect somebody to a horse you can help them face a new reality.
In the recent Gaza campaign, there were guys who were right in there seeing everything; they went through those tunnels, they got blown up, they were dismantling bombs. Now I meet them and there is no money for them to come have the therapeutic riding, but they really want it. We have 10 people here and know of 20 more who want to come. In the last 8-10 years, there are 700 soldiers in Israel with PTSD.”
For the last five years, she has been lecturing regularly all over the world, spreading the word about the benefits of therapeutic riding for the physically and mentally disabled. In Britain, she recently started a PTSD group in Scarborough, in northern England, which has been a big success. The UN has written about her work, and many of her trainees have gone on to teach therapeutic riding around the world.
Now in her late 60s, after nearly 30 years at the helm of therapeutic riding in Israel and research into PTSD and TBI, Shkedi has moved to her new base at Bnei Zion, where she and Giora have worked hard to transform a run-down farm into a top specialist riding center.
“This is my last move,” she says with absolute certainty. “This wandering Jew is wandering no more! This really is going to be the finish of my personal work.
I recently did a pilot study here in Israel in which we saw incredible changes in people’s sleep and communications, but it wasn’t scientific enough. We need to raise a great deal more money.”
She observes that it is a sad fact that it often takes a life-changing illness or injury to make people realize that we are all basically the same. We all feel the same pain, have the same fears and insecurities, and need help to be there when we need it most.
“This place is open to everyone – Jews and Arabs,” she says proudly. “Just like the Hippocratic Oath, we treat everybody equally here.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is www.paulalster.com and he can be followed on Twitter @ paul_alster