Therapeutic Horseback Riding Programs Prove Beneficial for Children on the Spectrum

April 12, 2021

Improvements Detected in Social Interactions and Communication

Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) have been viewed as an alternative therapeutic approach for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous research has recognized AAI as a structured and goal-directed intervention that connects kids on the spectrum to nature, the environment, and animals.  Now, a new study out of China and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has looked specifically at the effects that therapeutic horseback riding (THR) programs have on social interactions and communication skills for kids on the spectrum. For their research, the study’s authors recruited 84 children with ASD aged 6 to 12 years old. Half of the children were put in the experimental group which received a THR program. The other half were enrolled in the control group that did other structured activities. The study took place over 16 weeks. Both groups met twice-a-week for 60 minutes. The THR sessions consisted of activities and exercises which encompassed social skills, communication skills and horseback riding skills. Each experimental group participant was paired with the same horse throughout the program, in order to solidify the horse-rider relationship. At the end of the 16 weeks, the experimental group demonstrated improvements as measured by the Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scales (SSIS-RS) and analyses of variance (ANOVAs) in the areas of social skills, communication, responsibility and self-control. The control group’s participants did not experience significant growth in any of those areas. The study’s authors suggest that these improvements could be due to the rhythmic movements experienced by horse riding that can stimulate the vestibular system which may, in turn, help produce speech sounds. Additionally, they point out that a horse moving in a fixed rhythm could play a role in promoting calmness and body coordination. They also propose that the children in the experimental group needed to control their own body movements and behavior on the horse and learn how to adjust their body and postures to different positions during riding. These processes require children on the spectrum to maintain active engagement. Ultimately, the authors concluded that horse riding may help children with ASD improve their patience and communication skills and also allow them to understand how their behaviors could influence their horse.

Original Study

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