The horse whisperer

Among other achievements, Anita Shkedi played a major role in the development of therapeutic riding.

Anita Shkedi 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Anita Shkedi 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
‘I’ve always had a personal need to help people,’ says Anita Shkedi, who founded INTRA, the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association with her husband Giora Shkedi in 2000. Although she has had many other interests in her life, qualifying and working as a district nurse and health visitor back in England, horses have always been her first love, and she pioneered the idea of equine therapy back in the ’80s, when it was a completely new concept in Israel.
Coming to settle in Israel has a way of impacting lives and often changing them, and for Shkedi it has been not so much a change as a metamorphosis.
Before she made aliya in 1985 with her first husband, Michael Boyden, she had been a “rebbetzin,” living with her Reform rabbi husband and two children, Tanya and Jonathan, in Hale, Cheshire. There, Boyden was head of the rabbinical side of the reform movement in England, and officiated at the Menorah congregation in the upscale northern English town near Manchester.
Together with her work as a health visitor going into the poorest areas of the industrial north, she was also an active rabbi’s wife, with an open house for her husband’s flock.
“There was a kind of overflow between the two jobs,” she says.
When her husband suggested they move to Israel, she was ready to take the plunge.
“I had reached a point in my life when I had become a tutor in health visiting, and besides having always been very Zionistic, I felt it was time to make a change in our lives,” she adds.
The family went to Ra’anana, but almost immediately she and her husband split up. They each met and married new partners soon after that.
Boyden went on to found the Ra’anana Reform congregation, and later moved to Hod Hasharon. Shkedi moved to Moshav Udim after leaving the absorption center, and subsequently met and married Giora Shkedi, a son of the moshav.
It was Givat Haim that she set up her first therapeutic riding school, later moving to Ne’urim where she still works today. In 1990 their son Danny was born. Today the family lives in Tel Mond.
The idea for using horses for therapy developed gradually. She had personally known Rami Keich, a soldier wounded in Lebanon who was paralyzed from the waist down, and who was brought back to health through riding when he visited England in 1983.
“He said to me when I came to Israel that if I did it for him I can do it for others,” recalls Shkedi.
In 1993 they all experienced the terrible pain of losing Jonathan, who was killed in Lebanon.
“He went to try and rescue another soldier and was badly wounded. Three weeks later he died in my arms,” she says.
After Jonathan died, Shkedi felt she must go back to work to bury the pain, and the day after the shiva ended she threw herself back into the work with added passion.
She began to research the subject of equine therapy, and today is probably Israel’s leading expert in it. In 2003 she received a master’s degree in education from Liverpool University and is now working on her doctorate. She was instrumental in creating a diploma course for therapeutic riding, which since 1988 is taught at the Wingate Institute.
“I built the course from a combination of my medical background and knowledge of horses together with stuff I’d picked up as a volunteer working with wounded soldiers sent over to England,” she says.
If you thought that horse-riding was a rather aristocratic activity reserved for the rich and royal, then you are not keeping up with the times. Riding a horse has been proven to be very effective in helping the disabled – both those who are damaged in body and those in soul. It is used in homes for the mentally disabled as well as for soldiers returning from war.
“There are two sides to horse-riding therapy,” Shkedi explains. “The physical movement of the horse is almost identical to walking for the rider and it gives the person the feeling of walking normally. When anything becomes normal it has an emotional and psychological effect, as well as physical.
The rhythmic pleasant motion acts to release spasms and tight joints – but it’s more than that: the rider makes a spiritual connection to the horse and a kind of non-verbal communication develops between horse and rider. I’ve seen people change, and grow in confidence and self-esteem.”
Today there are seven courses for therapeutic riding taught in Israel, and thousands of qualified instructors trained to work both here and abroad. In 1988 when all this started there were no facilities at all.
“We raised the bar,” she says.
Therapeutic riding, however, has one drawback: it is incredibly expensive. The Defense Ministry helps in the case of soldiers.
Recently the family bade farewell to Sarah, Anita’s thoroughbred mare, at age 37. She had been flown here in a cargo flight in 1986.
Shkedi’s daughter, Tanya, is now married with two children, and Danny is completing his army service.
In England Shkedi was known as “the rebbetzin with a horse.” While she is no longer a rebbetzin, the horses will always be a supremely important part of her life.