HABERSON, Del. (AP) — Alyssa Hudson's face was filled with joy before she even mounted the saddle.

But after she was atop Portrait, the dark bay horse that was hers for the morning, she was glowing with delight.

The 15-year-old teen from Millsboro has cerebral palsy, and this is more than just a fun weekend experience she's been taking part in for a decade — it's a form of therapy.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects body movement, muscle coordination, reflex, posture and balance. and riding horses at the Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding center, in Harbeson, Delaware, helps her manage and improve her condition.

"It's because my legs are so tight," said Alyssa, whose broad grin seemed to cause her some difficulty getting the words out. "My legs are so tight and this makes me feel free, independent and fearless.

"My favorite part is to trot and go fast."

The riding center in Harbeson has been providing "equine-assisted therapy," to children and adults with special needs since 1988. The riders gain physical benefits, such as improved balance and reflexes, as well as psychological gains such as self-confidence, self-esteem, emotional control and the freedom that comes from movement without walkers or wheelchairs.

"Picture yourself as one of our riders who are in wheelchairs," said Georgia Truitt, an instructor and program manager at the center.

"From the moment you get up, somebody's got to help you do everything — get out of bed, brush your teeth, shower, everything," she said. "They come here and get placed on that horse and do it all on your own. It's a true equalizer."

Alyssa's mother, Jessica Hudson, said her daughter takes part in a number of therapies elsewhere, but it's her weekend trip to the riding center — weaving among cones and over small obstacles atop a creature that outweighs her by 1,000 pounds — that Alyssa enjoys the most.

"She's very confident when she's on the horse and just loves it so much," Jessica Hudson said. "Like she said, she's just fearless. She isn't intimidated and there isn't anything she won't try up there."

The movement of the horse is the closest a person like her can experience, her mother said, which is why it's so beneficial. It builds muscle strength, core strength and over time, her confidence and communication has improved due to giving the horse orders.

"Some of these children, or even adults, can't speak or even communicate, but you can see their joy and the benefit of this," she said. "And there's a benefit to us parents and caregivers as well, to just have a minute to talk to each other and get to enjoy being with parents who get it.

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Kelly Boyer, a riding instructor and board member with the nonprofit Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding, was among those assisting Saturday's group of riders, firmly but warmly urging them to guide their mounts left or right, to tighten and relax their abdomens and to use their legs to steer.

She said their approach to therapy is catered to the unique needs of each individual rider, who range in age from 4 to 70.

For someone like Alyssa, with cerebral palsy, muscle strength is one focus, as is teaching self-control of their arms and legs. However, for those people facing more-emotional challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the simple process of learning to control an animal so much larger and stronger is therapy in itself.

"You're working with something that's a lot bigger than us and has feelings and thoughts too," Boyer said. "So you learn how to communicate with (the horse) and work with them, and in the process of learning those skills you learn you can be in control of yourself and another being."

The center provides its services for numerous other conditions, including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, behavioral issues and head trauma, as well as for at-risk youth.

Instructors track the progress of riders throughout their sessions to assess goals and milestones they've achieved — through riding, of course, but also through sundry tasks such as grooming and saddling the horse.

"Milestones could be learning how to give effective legging and use their reins independently of any verbal or physical cue from the side-walkers or instructors," Boyer said. "It may be being able to ride two-point (lifting yourself up in the saddle) or it may be being able to ride independently off the lead-line."

She relayed several success stories that had been passed on from families and caregivers, including one of a wheelchair-bound rider who was unable to sit on the bleachers at her brother's football games due to a lack of core strength.

After a few months of riding, she was sitting independently on her own, something Boyer said couldn't be understated in its importance.

"That's a huge accomplishment, not only physically, but emotionally," she said. "To be able to sit up on her own and watch her brother play football, that's a powerful thing for her."

For some parents of riders, it provides something at least as important: a sense of normalcy for their children.

Joe Peet, 27, has developmental delays and is non-verbal, but his mother, Sue Peet, said that riding allows him to feel "normal," something not readily available in many other sports.

"Here, he can feel equal to all the other riders, and makes him feel like he's a part of the world without being looked at as disabled," she said. "The whole program takes the 'dis' out of 'disability,' and makes the riders feel able'd.

"There's just nothing like it."

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Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/