“IT WAS TERRIFYING,” Rebecca Cushman said of her first-time wiring thousands of dollars in purchase and transport fees to Hong Kong for a dressage show horse she was importing from the regions of war-torn Ukraine to her facility in Port Townsend.
Cushman, owner of Paradigm Sporthorse Training, reached out to horse contacts in Ukraine about rescuing show horses after learning a gal in one of her Facebook groups was in the process of importing horses to her home in the U.S.
“There’s a real need to help these horses because their owners in Ukraine, who got their livelihood from this, can’t take care of their horses any longer because of the war,” she said.
Cushman, a Grand Prix rider and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist, is aware every horse she considers importing will arrive scared and traumatized by the war, and ultra-thin from a lack of food.
She took me around her place, where I got to meet four of the 11 horses she’s helped so far. Aside from their beauty, what struck me most was how gentle each was, along with the gratitude expressed in each of their eyes. When I took my camera out to photo one called Carcare (I think pronounced Ka-kar-ee), the 2013 17.1-hand Ukrainian Warmblood gelding trained to FEI level 2 immediately stretched out and posed beautifully for me. Naturally I fell in love with him. If only I were much younger and had the money!
Traveling from Kyiv, he and another horse spent 22 hours in a Benderup horse trailer (a small, light-weight trailer) to reach the Poland border. There, they had to wait another eight hours to cross to enter quarantine in Slovakia. Already skinny, he struggled to put on weight during his 60-day quarantine. He lost more in travel to the airport (another 14-hour journey). He was held back an additional three weeks before being allowed to fly so he could gain weight.
“It costs $18,000 to import horses here, so unless a person is independently wealthy, which I’m not, I have to look for well-trained horses, with good temperaments, that will appeal to my buyers and can be resold at a reasonable price,” Cushman said. “I look to for a highly trained horse that looks like it might be a good fit for amateurs here in the U.S.”
In fact, the only reason she could afford to help is because of money received in a class-action lawsuit after her home burned down in the 2017 Santa Rosa wildfire. Upon hearing what she wanted to do, friends she refers to as her “Paradigm crew” joined her in sponsoring horses. Thus began their quest to bring some of the horses in Ukraine to the U.S., away from the dangers of war.
Currently, money can’t be wired directly to Ukrainian banks. So, it’s sent through an international agricultural commodities broker based in Hong Kong. “It was quite nerve-wracking waiting to hear the broker received the money,” Cushman said.
There was also the risk the horses would even make it to the U.S. alive and reasonably healthy since, she said, insurance companies aren’t insuring anything in Ukraine right now.
“These are valuable horses the owners are having difficulties out of the country,” she said. “While dogs, cats and other animals have been permitted to cross the border into Poland, and then get vet checked, shots and microchipped, horses are not allowed to cross without it, and the USDA requires a blood test and 60-day quarantine first.”
Deciding on which horse to import was a process involving many helping hands, she said. When interested in one, she and her fellow sponsors researched its background, confirmed its papers and microchip number were registered through European horse governing organizations and national equestrian organizations. They also searched for Federation Equestre International level 1 or higher dressage horses.
Once choosing, the next step is to get a blood test to see if they test positive for Equine Piroplasmosis, a blood-borne protozoal disease of equids. “As far as I know, there’s currently only one veterinarian that’s going to the frontline [of the war zone] to take the blood samples,” Cushman said. “From there, it’s taken to the only international accredited lab, and that’s in Germany, that the USDA will recognize.”
The veterinarian freezes the blood and then takes the samples to Poland. There he ships them to a lab in Germany. If the blood tested negative, Cushman then sends the vet back out to the horse to do a thorough vet exam and take x-rays that are sent to the vets here to look at. “And if that all works out, we decide, ‘OK, we’re going to buy him,’” she said.
The horses are then trailered to a central military stable in Kyiv. Once there’s enough horses to make the journey, they are trailed across the border in Poland to Slovakia for a 60-day quarantine. “After that, they come here, which takes an additional 12 days,” she said.
“These are all highly trained and valuable FEI-level dressage horses with proven bloodlines that would normally sell in the $50,000 to $100,000 price range,” she said. “At this point, I can’t afford to wait until I have them in top shape performing at the level they were prior to the war, so I’m selling at a reduced price so I can turn around and import another.”
She said horses are arriving skinner each time, and she expects it to get worse due to the agricultural consequences of the destruction of one of the country’s largest dam and hydropower plants, the Kakhouka. The already-severe food shortages are anticipated to worsen in the coming winter months with temperatures dropping to sub-zero.
Cushman said she’s willing to help any individuals interested in the process, and she’s always looking for more sponsors to help rescue more horses. More information and videos are available on her Facebook pages Rebecca Cushman or Paradigm Sporthorse Training. A very busy woman, she requests calls are only from serious inquires. Email her at becky@paradigm sporthorse.com or phone 415-717-1775. Located at 1710 S. Jacob Miller Road in Port Townsend.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Saturday of each month.