Study examines effectiveness of horse therapy on children with cerebral palsy

Researcher Janie Giraudon, left, with Gemma Lumsdaine. Photo: University of Dundee
Researcher Janie Giraudon, left, with Gemma Lumsdaine. Photo: University of Dundee

Can horse riding reduce the effects of spasticity in the limbs of children with cerebral palsy?

A medical student at Scotland’s University of Dundee has embarked on a research study with a local riding school to see whether patients can benefit from therapeutic horse riding, known as hippotherapy.

Student Janie Giraudon has been working with Dundee’s Brae Riding School to see if there are any positive changes in pressure distribution in children with cerebral palsy during therapeutic riding. The school has been providing horse-riding therapy for disabled adults and children since 2008.

Her research is exploring whether muscle spasticity is reduced due to hippotherapy. This involves measuring the seating pressure of the children before, during and after horse riding using a pressure-sensitive mat placed on the saddle and wheelchair accordingly.

“It is already recognised that horse riding can bring significant therapeutic benefits for a rider,” Giraudon says. “The warmth and three-dimensional movement of the horse is transmitted through the rider’s body gradually, making it more relaxed and supple, reducing spasms and improving balance, muscle-tone, co-ordination and posture.

“What I am trying to establish through this study is whether there are particular benefits for people with cerebral palsy.”

Giraudon said she had been interested in the potential therapeutic benefits of working with horses ever since visiting the Brae Riding School a year ago with the medical school.

“The early indications from our research are that there are benefits for the children but we are still in the process of collating the final data before we can absolutely confirm this.

“The findings of the research will hopefully benefit physiotherapists and as a result have a positive effect and even lead to a change in the view of hippotherapy within the current NHS [National Health Service] system.”

Gemma Lumsdaine, 17, from Monifieth, has been taking part in the hippotherapy sessions at the Brae. She believes she has benefited from horse riding.

“It really helps my hips and my muscles,” she says. “The only other way I could get that positive effect would be with medicine, so this is a great alternative.

“Coming here to the Brae and riding the horses has been great for me, not just physically but there’s also a boost to my confidence.”

Giraudon has taken a year out from her medical studies to conduct her research, which is supervised by Dr Sheila Gibbs, Dr Graham Arnold and Professor Rami Abboud as part of an Intercalated BMSc honours in Applied Orthopaedic Technology in the Department of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery.

She has been assisted with her data collection by rehabilitation technician Ian Gibbs at the university’s Institute of Motion Analysis and Research.

Seven children, with the blessing of their parents, volunteered to take part in the study, with data collected at each of their riding sessions over six months. The children were not required to do anything differently, but simply sit on their horse and enjoy their normal riding sessions.

Brae centre manager Mary Sneddon saw the research as an opportunity to add to the evidence supporting the benefits of therapeutic riding and to help attract funding.

“This is the first time we have had the opportunity to engage with external researchers since we opened seven years ago and it has been a positive experience for both parties.”

Professor Abboud, who heads the Department of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery and is also director of the Institute of Motion Analysis and Research, said he hoped the research would have a positive effect on the understanding and wider use of therapeutic horse riding within the NHS, whilst building a better understanding of the mechanics and complexities of cerebral palsy.

Giraudon had her research accepted for podium presentation at last month’s 13th Staffordshire Conference on Clinical Biomechanics in Stoke-on-Trent.

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