Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute

American frontier tales promote the magical connection between a man and his trusty steed. A rider communicates with his horse through words and movements, forming a bond in which each “reads” the other. Horse enthusiasts have said these bonds help people with autism, a disorder affecting social and communication skills, but they didn’t have much rigorous research to back them up – until now.

A new study, coming from the old frontier state of Colorado, shows that children with autism who took therapeutic horseback riding lessons became less irritable, less hyperactive, spoke more words, and showed other improvements, compared to children who didn’t ride.1

Other studies have found various benefits to therapeutic riding,2 or other interventions involving animals, but many of those studies were small or had problems with the way they were conducted.3, 4, 5 “High quality research” is hard to find for animal interventions in autism, one review said.3

What makes the Colorado study noteworthy is its size and scientific design. Researchers conducted a large randomized controlled trial, a type of study that removes factors that could unfairly sway the results. They randomly assigned 116 children with autism, ages 6 to 16, into two equal groups. Half received lessons with a certified therapeutic riding instructor for one hour per week for 10 weeks. The other half spent the same time learning about horses, using a stuffed model of a pony, in a farmhouse at the riding center. Their lessons largely mirrored that of the riders, and they got the same amount of adult attention. But they had no contact with real horses or riding. In that way, they served as a control group against which the riders were compared.1

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