PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Judeley Hans Debel runs as fast as his prosthetic leg can take him when he arrives at a Haitian equestrian center. A riding session with his favorite horse is the highlight of his week.
"You're the best horse, you're the best horse," the 9-year-old boy says soothingly to a tan polo pony named Tic Tac when he arrives at her stable.
Pretty soon, he's sitting high and proud on Tic Tac's back at the Port-au-Prince equestrian center that offers therapeutic riding to disabled youngsters. Advocates say it improves their balance, coordination and confidence, with the movements of the horse mimicking pelvic motions involved in human walking. The riding also provides muscle and nerve stimulation.
Judeley's unemployed single mother, Nerlande Jean Philippe, says the free weekly sessions offer her son a welcome respite from a life of urban poverty. She struggles to support him and has to do her best maintaining his battered prosthetic leg as he grows because she can't afford a new one.
"He's a very determined, strong boy. But the horses give him even more strength and he just loves to come here," she said at the Centre Equestre Chateaublond hidden behind a concrete wall along Port-au-Prince's winding Route de Freres.
Judeley was one of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 people to undergo amputations after the powerful earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital seven years ago.
Just 2½ years old at the time, his tiny body was pinned under jagged rubble at his shattered concrete home and he was scarred by burning oil from the crushed stove. His mother spent hours frantically digging him out and then rushed him to a hospital where doctors amputated his right leg just below his crotch.
Seven years later, the boy with bright, shining eyes refuses to let his disability hold him back. He enthusiastically plays soccer and other games with schoolmates and hopes to study medicine when he's older.
But his favorite activity is unquestionably riding Tic Tac, a roughly 32-year-old mare with a sweet disposition. His rapport with the animal was nearly immediate.
After his ride on a recent morning, he methodically washed Tic Tac with a soapy sponge and water from a hose. He's even learning how to help hoist saddles onto the animals and prepare them for rides.
He's one of a few dozen disabled people receiving riding lessons at the center, said his instructor, Louis Guerdes.
Anne-Rose Schoen, who founded the equestrian center, said perhaps the most important thing about therapeutic riding is it makes youngsters happy in a country where disabled people face enormous challenges.
"It brings such joy to the lives of these kids," she said, watching students ride around the center's dressage and jumping arena.
Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this report.