Benefits of therapeutic riding among autistic youngsters remained six months later – study

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The effects of a therapeutic riding program on young people with autism spectrum disorder lasted at least six months, a study has found.
The effects of a therapeutic riding program on young people with autism spectrum disorder lasted at least six months, a study has found.

Several important improvements identified in autistic youngsters who took part in a therapeutic riding program were still noticeable six months later, researchers report.

Their study followed up on 64 of the 116 young people diagnosed with autism spectrum who had participated in a previously published randomized controlled trial of therapeutic horseback riding compared to a no-horse control group.

The authors noted that there was a lack of research examining the longer-term maintenance of benefits from animal-assisted interventions for individuals with autism beyond immediate outcomes.

University of Colorado researcher Robin Gabriels and his colleagues set out to determine if significant improvements in irritability, hyperactivity, social, and communication behaviors observed in participants who were given a 10-week manual-based horse-back riding intervention were sustained six months after their participation ended.

Thirty-six caregivers of those who took part in the riding program completed a measure of irritability and hyperactivity behaviors, as did 28 caregivers for young autistic individuals who received no riding therapy.

Additionally, the riding-group participants completed the full battery of study outcomes assessments, essentially repeating the tests involved in the original study.

The study team, reporting in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, found that the riding group maintained reductions in irritability behavior, which they assessed as being 73% intact when measured against levels at the primary endpoint of the riding study – that is, within a month of their involvement in the riding program ending.

However, hyperactivity behaviors did not sustain this same trend.

“Comparisons from baseline and six months after the intervention revealed that the therapeutic horseback riding group sustained significant initial improvements made in social and communication behaviors, along with number of words and different words spoken during a standard language sample.”

This, according to the authors, is the first known study to examine and demonstrate the longer-term effects of therapeutic riding for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

The findings warranted a more thorough evaluation of whether the effects of riding are maintained for at least six months after the intervention compared to a control, they said.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said their results show that the riding group retained some of their initial improvements made in irritability and sustained significant initial improvements made in social and communication behaviors.

“These results suggest that therapeutic horseback riding may be an effective complementary intervention to enhance social and verbal core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, and to reduce irritability behaviors.”

They acknowledged that there were some limitations to the study, including its small sample size.

“Despite these limitations, this study provides useful preliminary data to both support and extend the significant findings from our previously published pilot study and randomized control trial.”

They suggested that future studies of therapeutic riding may consider collecting follow-up outcome assessments at several time points following the riding intervention to learn more about the lingering time course of outcome improvements.

Gabriels RL, Pan Z, Guérin NA, Dechant B and Mesibov G (2018) Long-Term Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Trial. Front. Vet. Sci. 5:156. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00156

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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