Therapeutic riding helped lower stress levels of autistic youth – study

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A study in the US of autistic adolescents found that therapeutic horse riding was more effective than stress management programs in lowering levels of cortisol, the hormone that regulates body processes including stress.

For the study, researchers at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania focused on the comparative effectiveness of stress management techniques and Therapeutic Riding (TR) on stress levels of adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The team, led by principal investigator Dr Martha Kemeny, compared an evidence-based stress management protocol (HeartMath), a TR protocol, and a no treatment control for 27 young adults ages 13 to 22 with ASD. All interventions were one hour in length for 10 consecutive sessions.  The study was a randomized three-period crossover trial in which participants were randomly assigned to the order in which they receive TR, HeartMath, and no treatment control.

Results show that this particular stress management protocol and therapeutic riding protocol are equally effective in decreasing salivary cortisol. But, in comparing the two phases, the therapeutic riding protocol showed greater changes in cortisol levels than did the stress management program.

Horses and Humans Research Foundation board president Pam Cusick.
HHRF board president Pam Cusick.

The researchers noted that youth on the autism spectrum who are lower functioning in verbal exchange may have more difficulty actively participating in the stress management program than therapeutic riding.

“Therapeutic riding offers additional benefits that stress management (HM) cannot. For example, TR can also promote proper posture, trunk balance and leg strength to improve posture and gait for community and work tasks. Equine-assisted activities provide sensory input. Moreover, working with a horse that is non-judgmental can promote bonding and social connections.”

The study was funded by the Horses and Humans Research Foundation (HHRF). Board president Pam Cusick said the foundation was thrilled with the results.

“Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder report high stress and anxiety levels that impact functioning in the community.

“We are pleased to see confirmation that therapeutic riding has a positive impact on stress levels and hope that this research will encourage more adolescents with autism will consider therapeutic riding as an option.”

The results of the study can be downloaded here (Word file).

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