BEIJING - On a crisp spring day at a Beijing equestrian club, 14-year-old Victor Liu climbs into the saddle of a dark-haired horse, starting the latest session of a sport that has changed his life.
Like other young people with autism in China, Victor has long faced stigma in a country where his condition is often misunderstood.
But a charity named Horses Offering People Enrichment (HOPE) is trying to help, touting the mental health benefits of equestrian activities.
Just north of Beijing, tall trees and the neighing of horses and ponies offer respite from the stress of China's chaotic capital.
In China, autism is often referred to as "loneliness disease" and youngsters with the condition are known as "children of the stars".
What HOPE aims to do is to help children with autism build confidence and strengthen their coordination skills.
Victor, who also suffers from visual impairment, has been riding horses at HOPE's centre for over eight years.
In between sessions, which have trainers guide students through tailored horseback activities, he also helps out with feeding and grooming.
His mother, Stella, told AFP she has seen marked progress in his ability to listen to instructions and coordinate his movements.
"From my perspective as a parent, I've seen horse riding bring about changes in him," she said.
At HOPE's riding centre, horses and humans bond, the air filled with the clattering of hooves as the animals follow attendants around the site.
With the horses towering high above the children's heads, trainers gently help students up wooden mounting blocks to get them ready for action.
- Equine allies -
Established in 2009, HOPE seeks "to bring the benefits of equine assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) to individuals in China with special needs", writes founder Priscilla Lightsey on the NGO's website.
The United Nations declared April 2, 2008, as the first annual World Autism Awareness Day, aiming to foster global support and inclusion of individuals with the condition.
Since then, advocates have used the occasion to develop new ways to help people with autism, while raising awareness and demystifying the condition.
And hippotherapy, the use of horses in treatment for people with various physical or mental ailments, is gaining traction worldwide.
Recent studies show that it can be particularly helpful for children with autism, who can find interacting with the world challenging.
"You don't need to use a lot of language around horses," said Lucia Zhou, who started volunteering at HOPE in 2017 before becoming a professional trainer.
"In the process of learning, a student must also have more interaction with us -- the coaches and volunteers -- which will naturally help them improve their willingness and ability to socialise."
NGOs that provide specialised development assistance to children with disabilities are hard to come by in China.
And where available, the costs often mean such services are out of reach for most parents.
Vanessa Vandevraye, director of the Oriental Equestrian Club where HOPE is based, said that apart from hospitals and psychologists, children with special needs in China often lack access to services that can help improve their lives.
So her club decided to host the NGO, Vandevraye said.
"But the waiting list is long because there are so few organisations that can provide this kind of service," she said.
The children that do get in are thriving.
Last year, Victor participated in a competition, putting the skills he had acquired over the years to the test.
"When it was over, he was given a commemorative medal," his mother said.
"That made him extremely happy."