Study to examine whether therapeutic riding can help manage stress in youngsters with autism

The potential for therapeutic riding to provide a medication-free option to manage stress in young adults with autism is being investigated in a study in Pennsylvania.

The researchers are not only exploring the influence of riding on the stress levels of participants with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but also examining whether there is any relationship between the rider’s stress levels and those of the horse.

The 20-month project, which began early in March at Slippery Rock University’s Storm Harbor Equestrian Center, has been backed by a $US88,000 grant from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.

Principal investigator Dr Elizabeth Kemeny said ASD ranked as the most prevalent developmental disorder, with 1 in 68 children affected.

“The core symptom areas are deficits in social communication and interactions, sensory issues, and restricted or repetitive behavior.

“Related to these core symptoms, social anxiety in adolescents with ASD often impedes independent function in adult life.

“For youth who are transitioning into adulthood, elevated stress levels and lack of coping mechanisms become barriers to health and quality of life.

“Finding evidence of an effective way, without medication, to address stress in young adults with autism, will have broad implications for health of the individual as well as their family members.”

The study will use a crossover design to compare stress management techniques.

Thirty participants, aged 13 to 25, will be randomly assigned to the order in which they will be assigned to a therapeutic riding program, the non-horse-related HeartMath stress management program, and a control group, which will receive no treatment.

In each research wave, 10 participants will take part in each phase for 10 weeks. The study program will take 18 months to ensure separation between each protocol.

Measures of stress, including cortisol in saliva, heart rate, social responsiveness, social anxiety/stress, and perceived stress, will be collected before and after the interventions.

Caregivers and the participants themselves will be surveyed.

A HeartMath specialist will administer this individual stress management program, following its standard curriculum.

A certified instructor will administer the therapeutic riding protocol using a standard instructional method (pre-tested in a pilot study) which consists of 30 minutes of ground work (grooming, tacking, relationship building) and 30 minutes of riding (consisting of warm-up, teaching a basic riding skill, review, and cool down).

The saliva and heart-rate variability will also be collected from the horses at baseline on a non-riding day, and before and after each session.

It is anticipated that the project will be completed by the northern summer of 2018.

Steffanie Burk, an equine scientist at Otterbein University, will partner with Kemeny on the project.

The Storm Harbor Equestrian Center, with 12 horses of different breeds and sizes, offers a range of learning and development programs, hosting about 120 riders with disabilities each week.

The university has around 180 students each year who major in recreational therapy.

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