Therapeutic horse riding and its effect on young adults with autism is to be researched by a team at Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University.
The research has been made possible through a $88,000 grant from Horses and Humans Research Foundation. The study will measure stress reduction impact through Therapeutic Riding and HeartMath interventions.
HeartMath is a system of scientific research, techniques, and programs to help build heart coherence and energy reserves.
The team will also study equine stress levels related to participant’s stress levels.
Principal Investigator Dr Elizabeth Kemeny said that with a prevalence of 1 in 68 children, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) rank as the most prevalent developmental disorder.
“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,” she said.
The study will use a crossover design to compare stress management techniques. Thirty participants will be randomly assigned to receive Therapeutic Riding protocol or the HeartMath intervention or no treatment control over a period of 18 months.
In each research wave, 10 participants will receive each condition for 10 weeks. The 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. They will also assess caregiver and self report surveys as well as heart variability/coherence measures.
A HeartMath Specialist will administer the individual stress management program, a standard instructional method, by following the HeartMath curriculum. A certified instructor will administer the Therapeutic Riding protocol using a standard instructional method (pre-tested in the pilot) which consists of one half hour of ground work (grooming, tacking, relationship building) and one half hour 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 nonriding day, and before and after each session.
It is anticipated that the project will be completed by the summer of 2018.