Adding horse-related activities to childhood obesity therapy may improve outcomes, research findings suggest.
The children who took part in sessions that involved horses built muscle, burned fat and increased their levels of activity and self-confidence.
Crucially, it appeared to motivate the overweight children to attend treatment.
The effect of the horses on the children was assessed in a recent pilot study undertaken by researchers from Texas Tech University.
Childhood obesity is becoming an increasingly serious problem in the United States.
Jason Van Allen, an associate professor of clinical psychology, has been offering an intervention program called Positively Fit to the community for several years through his Examining Nutrition, Exercise and Rest in Growing Youth (ENERGY) Laboratory.
Positively Fit is designed to address the weight-management needs of children, including caregiver education and support.
During each session, the respective groups meet separately to discuss aspects of weight management with peers in the intervention.
Caregivers and children also meet collaboratively during each session to discuss shared activities and priorities that can help both groups achieve the goal of improving the child’s overall health and health behaviors.
“The program covers topics related to eating habits and dietary choices, increasing exercise and helping caregivers navigate the challenges of making changes in their family to support their efforts,” Van Allen said.
“For example, we discuss strategies for caregivers to help them address child misbehavior or frustration around making changes to their typical eating habits, as children often display some resistance to making these changes.
“We encourage caregivers to use positive reinforcement to help promote new habits and to model health behavior themselves by engaging in dietary changes and physical activity with their children.”
The first step for the pilot study was to adapt the program curriculum for the equine therapy environment.
Van Allen teamed up with Katy Schroeder, an assistant professor of companion animal science and director of the Equine-Assisted Counseling and Wellness Laboratory and Clinic, and Emily Dhurandhar, an assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the department’s Nutrition Laboratory, to make the changes.
For the pilot study, each family in the intervention was assigned a horse to work with throughout the program.
Children were physically active for 45-60 minutes of each weekly session, participating in horsemanship activities such as learning to groom and lead the horses as well as practicing riding skills, which provided mild to moderate levels of exercise intensity.
Schroeder said the horse activities were designed primarily to reinforce concepts in the curriculum, but also to provide a fun way for families to learn the material and help children build self-esteem and confidence for healthy eating and exercising.
“Our program is quite innovative; this is the first time an animal-assisted intervention has been incorporated into a standardized intervention for childhood obesity, and it was very well received by our first group of families.”
It also proved successful for the two families involved in the study.
“We found that the multi-family group therapy format could be particularly advantageous in fostering a supportive learning climate for the families,” Schroeder said.
“Both children experienced increases in lean mass and decreases in fat mass, while also increasing their moderate to vigorous physical activity, from pre to post-intervention, and each child’s self-efficacy for physical activity also increased.
“After the intervention concluded, we conducted a focus group with the families, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The caregivers and children agreed that the horses increased their motivation to participate in the program, and the group environment was helpful for gaining advice and support from each other.”
The team recently presented their research at the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Convention in Chicago. They are pursuing grant funding and hope to expand upon the research next year.