Therapeutic Horseback Riding In Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, May 18, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
11:00 AM
Z. Pan1, J. A. Agnew1, A. Sholffner2, J. Vendl3, J. S. Runde4 and R. L. Gabriels1, (1)Children's Hospital Colorado / The University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, Aurora, CO, (2)Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, Longmont, CO, (3)Children's Hospital Colorado / The University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, aurora, CO, (4)Children's Hospital Colorado / The University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center , aurora, CO

Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) include therapeutic horseback riding (THR), which is frequently sought to address the behavioral disturbances that impair the quality of life for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, few published evidence-based THR studies guide clinicians and consumers. In our pilot study (Gabriels et al., In Press), the effects of 10 weekly lessons of THR with 41 subjects diagnosed with an ASD (ages 6-16 years) were compared to a waitlist control group (n = 16).  Subjects in the THR group demonstrated significant improvements on measures of Irritability, Lethargy, Stereotypic Behavior and Hyperactivity as compared with the control group. The THR-specific change suggested the improvements were related to the THR treatment.


To test whether the changes in self-regulation behaviors observed in the pilot project can be replicated by a larger randomized control trial (NIH/NINR 1R01NR012736) involving a THR and active control group.  Also, to examine if there are long–term (i.e., six month) effects of THR on self-regulation behaviors (i.e., Irritability, Lethargy, Stereotypic Behavior, and Hyperactivity) as measured by the Aberrant Behavior Checklist-Community (ABC-C).


Subjects are children and adolescents aged 6 to 16 years with a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder or Asperger’s Disorder. Other inclusion criteria include a score of 11 points or higher on the Irritability and Stereotypic Behavior subscales of the ABC-C and nonverbal IQ ≥ 40. Exclusion criteria are those who have physical ailment or behavioral issue that would prevent participation, have a history of animal abuse or phobia to horses, are judged by the standard therapeutic riding screening to be beyond the level of a beginning rider, or if they have had more than two hours of EAAT experience within the past six months. The intervention site is certified as a “Premiere” therapeutic horseback riding center by the PATH International, a national accrediting agency for EAAT. Subjects’ pre- and post-intervention evaluations are conducted by occupational therapists, speech therapists, and professional research assistants blinded to intervention condition. A designated caregiver for each participant completes the ABC-C each week during the 10-week intervention period as well as six months after the participants have completed the THR intervention.

Results:  :  Preliminary analyses suggest that the ABC-C subscale response pattern in data collected thus far is similar to that in the pilot trial. It is anticipated that at the time of this presentation, preliminary results will be reported on ABC-C data from 17 subjects in the THR group from the randomized control trial and all six-month post intervention data (i.e., self-regulation, communication, socialization, and motor coordination and imitation functioning) from six subjects who participated in the THR group.


Determining if and how the human-animal interaction via THR is helpful to individuals with an ASD has far-reaching implications for the quality of life in this ASD population and their caregivers. THR is less invasive than the use of medications to treat symptoms such as irritability and hyperactivity, critical areas that impact the child's ability to function successfully in home and school environments.

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