Fine (2006) states that one promising intervention approach that may enhance intrinsic motivation and reciprocal social interactions among autistic children is animal assisted therapy. Animal assisted therapy uses the human-animal bond as an integral part of the treatment process (Bizub, Joy, & Davidson, 2003). A subtype of this therapeutic approach is equine assisted therapy (EAT), a collective term for all types of activities using horses as a tool in a therapeutic process. EAT typically involves teaching riding skills or else using the horse as a medium to teach balance, communication and social skills. A study by Thomas et al. (2007) found that 11% of parents with an autistic child reported using an EAT as a social therapy intervention. EAT has been found to be an effective intervention for children with different disabilities, including cerebral palsy (Sterba, Rogers, France, & Vokes, 2002), sensory integration difficulties (Candler, 2003) and developmental delay (Winchester, Kendall, Peters, Sears, & Winklsy, 2002). There is also some evidence that EAT is effective in enhancing sensory motor, communication, and overall social interaction skills in autistic children (Umbarger, 2007; Garrique, Moutiez, & Galland, 1994; Citterio, 1997; Leitao, 2004).
More recently, there has been a growing interest in quantifying the effects of EAT with the ASD population. King (2007) examined the social and related behavioural benefits of 10 weeks (2 h per week) of EAT in five children diagnosed with autism. Participants were administered EAT in a small group setting led by a PATH International-certified instructor. The EAT interventions included sensory activities, tasks, and exercises both on and off the horse. Participants’ social behaviours were evaluated pre- and post-EAT intervention by a caregiver and teacher report measure developed by the investigators.
Statistical analyses were not conducted due to the small sample size. However, qualitative information about participants revealed improvements in participants’ mood, eye contact, expressive language/conversation, animal care, cooperative social behaviors, and being more open to trying new things.
A controlled study of EAT for autistic children conducted by Bass, Duchowny, and Llabre (2009) evaluated the effects of EAT on social functioning in children with autism following a 12-weeks horseback riding intervention. Autistic children who took part in the therapeutic riding program exhibited significantly greater sensory seeking, sensory sensitivity and social motivation compared to a wait-list control group, as well as less inattention, distractibility, and sedentary behaviors. The results of this study suggest that EAT improves the functioning of autistic children, and that parents of autistic children should consider equine therapy as an effective treatment option. Compared to other studies in this line of research, this particular study was well-designed and had the largest sample of ASD participants. However, the exclusive use of parent report measures in this study was a limiting factor.
A more recent pilot study by Gabriels et al. (2012) aimed to address this by including a variety of outcome measures (both objective and caregiver report), a large sample size, and a waitlist control condition. The primary aim of this pilot study was to evaluate the effects of 10 1-h weekly lessons of EAT in three core areas of functioning namely, self-regulation behaviours, adaptive skills, and motor skills in school-age children and adolescents (ages 6–16 years) diagnosed with either autistic or Asperger’s disorder. The secondary aim of this pilot study was to compare any improvements made in self-regulation behaviours, adaptive skills, and motor skills in the EAT group to those made in a group of participants evaluated before and after a 10-week waitlist control condition. Participants who completed 10 weeks of THR demonstrated significant improvements on measures of Irritability, Lethargy, Stereotypic Behaviour, Hyperactivity, expressive language skills, motor skills, and verbal praxis/motor planning skills. When compared to the pre- and post-assessments of participants from the waitlist control condition, the EAT group still showed significant improvements in self-regulation behaviours. The EAT specific change from the baseline to post-assessments suggests that the improvements are related to the EAT treatment.
Bass, M., Duchowny, C., & Liabre, M. (2009). The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(9), 1261-1267.
Bizub, A.L., Joy, A., & Davidson, L. (2003). “It’s like being in another world”: Demonstrating the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for individuals with psychiatric disability. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 26, 377-384.
Candler, C. (2003) Sensory integration and therapeutic riding at summer camp: occupational performance outcomes. Physical and Occupational Therapy in Paediatrics, 23 (3), 51-64.
Citterio, D. (1997). Autism and horses: intervention strategy from the point of view of a science of movement. Proceedings of the 9th International Therapeutic Riding Congress, 41, 211.
Fine, A. H. (2006). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (2nd ed.). New York: Academic Press.
Gabriels, R.L. Agnew, J.A¸& Holt, K.D. et al. (2012) Pilot study measuring the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on school-age children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Research into Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 578–588.
Garrique, R., Moutiez, G., & Galland, H. (1994). The use of games on horses to improve communication with autistic subjects. Proceedings of the 8th International Therapeutic Riding Congress, 47, 245–248.
King, N. (2007). Perceived efficacy of therapeutic riding for children with autism. In B. Engel & J. MacKinnon (Eds.), Enhancing human occupation through hippotherapy (pp. 119–126). Bethesda, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association.
Leitao, L. (2004). Therapeutic relations: An exploratory study of psycho-educational riding and autism. Analise Psicologica, 22(2), 335–354.
Sterba, J.A., Rogers, B.T., France, A.P., & Vokes, D.A. (2002). Horseback riding in children with cerebral palsy: effect on gross motor function. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 44 (5), 301-308.
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Umbarger, G. (2007). State of evidence regarding complimentary and alternative medical treatment for autism spectrum disorders. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 42(4), 437–447.
Winchester, P., Kendall, K., Peters, H., Sears, N., & Winklsy, T. (2002). The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on gross motor function and gait speed in children who are developmentally delayed. Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 22(3), 37–50.
Wuang YeePay; Wang ChihChung; Huang MaoHsiung; Su ChwenYng. The effectiveness of Simulated Developmental Horse-Riding Program in children with autism. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 2010 Vol. 27 No. 2.
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