Horse-riding program improved the social and communication skills of autistic children

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The social interaction and communication skills of children with autism improved significantly under a therapeutic horse riding program, researchers report.

Mengxian Zhao and her fellow researchers, reporting in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, noted that many therapeutic interventions have been studied and found to be effective for certain typical behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder, particularly in relation to social and communication skills.

Recently, there has been increasing interest in animal-assisted interventions as an effective therapy option for children with autism.

Therapeutic horse riding may have positive effects on multiple impairments in children with autism, including physical, emotional, social, cognitive, behavioral, and educational functioning.

There is also evidence that it improves motor functioning and sensory processing, the study team noted.

However, support for therapeutic horse riding for autistic children is still limited by a number of methodological weaknesses in the available research.

“Little evidence is available about use of a structured therapeutic horse riding program as an intervention for the core behavior impairments of children with austism spectrum disorder,” the researchers wrote.

Few studies with larger sample sizes, randomized control trials, and long-term interventions with horses have been conducted, especially in China.

The program used in their study was specially created with a structured routine in which horseback riding tasks were broken down into different steps, incorporating visual card supports, as well as using verbal or nonverbal scripts in order to help the children quickly get involved and active.

“It was inferred that a highly structured program could capture the children’s attention and generate a sustained level of focus.”

Eighty-four children diagnosed with autism, aged 6 to 12, were recruited from therapy centers and special schools for children with the disorder.

Half were randomly assigned to take part in the 16-week therapeutic horse riding program, with hourly sessions twice a week. The other half formed the control group, participating in regular (non-horse) activities for the 16 weeks.

Fifteen of the 84 children quit the program for different reasons, including eight withdrawals because of absences and fear of horses.

In all, 61 completed the wider program, with 11 leaving the riding program during the duration of the study, and 12 leaving the non-horse program.

Recognized evaluation tools were used to assess the children’s social and communication skills, with assessments carried out a week before the start of the experiment, following completion of the program after 16 weeks, and at the mid-point.

All riding was carried out at the International Equestrian Training Center in Jinan, Shandong Province, China.

The results indicated that the riding program had positive influences on overall social skills and communication, compared to the control group.

A notable improvement in the overall social interaction score was observed from the interim-testing point to post-test.

“In addition, participants in the therapeutic horseback riding group achieved significant improvements on six out of seven items in their communication evaluations,” the researchers reported.

“In conclusion, after 16 weeks of intervention, the therapeutic horse riding program significantly enhanced the subdomains of social and communication skills in the areas of social interaction, communication, responsibility, and self-control, compared to the control group.”

The full study team comprised Mengxian Zhao, with Shenzhen University; Shihui Chen, with Texas A&M University; Yonghao You, with Hefei Normal University; Yongtai Wang, with the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State; and Yanjie Zhang, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Zhao, M.; Chen, S.; You, Y.; Wang, Y.; Zhang, Y. Effects of a Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program on Social Interaction and Communication in Children with Autism. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 2656. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18052656

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

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