HORSEBACK RIDING BENEFITS SOCIAL FUNCTIONING IN PERSONS WITH AUTISM
Reported by Lirio Sobrevinas-Covey, Ph.D.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has many symptoms. No “cure” has yet been established for the condition itself but, as in the case of most medical and psychiatric conditions, symptom reduction and improved well-being can take place.
Lack of empathy, maladaptive behaviors, and a tendency towards repetitive and ordered behaviors are among the common and disabling symptoms of ASD.
Equine-assisted activities and therapy, or simply put, therapeutic horseback riding, has been examined with generally positive results as an intervention for improving the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of persons with disabilities. The underlying rationale stems from horses’ natural ability to detect humans’ body language and communicating those detected emotional states to the rider. A number of studies have been conducted to determine if therapeutic riding (TR) can be helpful for persons with autism.
Such studies have varied from 20 to 127 participants with autism who attended TR programs that varied in duration from 12 weeks to 6 months. Impressively, six out of seven reported studies found significant improvements in several areas of social functioning, including social integration, social motivation, directed attention, and spontaneous communication.
Most recently, a study designed to build on positive findings from prior research examined the effects of horsemanship skills and TR on indices of social functioning and of repetitive behaviors in children and adolescents with autism using highly refined and validated measures of both the interventions and the outcomes. The intervention consisted of first, a baseline week of parent-reported assessments and the children-participants performing a range of horsemanship activities – including grooming and leading the horses around the horse-farm site. This was followed by 5 weeks of one 3-hour therapeutic riding session per week delivered by experienced equine activity instructors who were also trained to work with persons with disabilities. The outcome measures included established indicators of adaptive behavior, mal-adaptive behavior, and the Empathising and Systemising Quotient. Empathising affects a person’s social skills ability; systemising relates to the person’s need to organize, control, or engage in repetitive behaviors.
Analysis of study results found that the horseback riding activities reduced scores on maladaptive behavior and improved empathising, but did not affect systemising or adaptive behavior scores. In other words, well-designed and executed therapeutic riding, using the natural relationship between the horse and its rider, although not effective for all aspects of autistic behavior, can have positive effects on social functioning and possibly, the general health and psychological well-being of persons with autism. This desirable outcome warrants more investigation.
Reference: Anderson S, Meints K. Brief Report: The effects of equine-assisted activities on social functioning in children and adolescent with autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev. Disord. Published online: 25 July, 2016