Autistic children and horses have long been seen to have a bond, and facilities all across the country that cater to this connection have sprung up. Now, first-of its-kind research published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science shows that therapeutic horseback riding combined with brain-building exercises can improve the dexterity, coordination, and strength of children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
Neurodevelopmental disorders — such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — affect as many as one in six American children. Physical activity can benefit these patients in a variety of ways, but this is the first study showing the short and long-term effects of a program combining horseback riding and cognitive training.
“Our findings should be helpful to therapists and other healthcare professionals who are tasked with implementing strategies and interventions to improve motor skill proficiency in children and youth with ADHD and ASD, which were the most common diagnoses in our study,” said Dr. Brandon Rigby, of the Texas Woman’s University in the United States.
For the study, Rigby and his collaborators recruited 25 children with neurodevelopmental disorders between the ages of 5 and 16. Each child completed one of several different programs ranging in length from eight weeks to one year. The programs included weekly introductory horseback riding, as well as sessions with a speech therapist two to three times per week.
During the horseback riding, the children learned about horse anatomy, riding equipment, and the basics of riding. The brain-building activities focused on exercises that train the brain to process sensory information such as sound, sight, balance and spatial orientation. These sessions included music therapy, eye tracking exercises and hand-eye coordination tasks. The children and their parents were also given daily exercises that they could perform at home.
After eight weeks of the program, the children showed improved motor skills, although there was sometimes a delay before the changes became apparent. For the participants that continued the program for one year, these benefits continued for the duration of the study. These participants also showed improvements in their behavior and academic performance, including social and communication skills. Additionally, anecdotal responses from parents and caregivers suggested that the children were more positive, focused and calm both in and outside of the program.
Given the small size of the study, larger-scale research is still needed to better understand the potential benefits to the range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Some limitations include the varying diagnoses of the participants (as opposed to looking at benefits per ADHD or autism specifically), and the allowance to continue prescribed medications or therapies outside the scope of this program. Despite this, the program’s results are promising, and the researchers hope that this will inspire further interest in cross-disciplinary programs.