Boy carresing horse

Human Animal Interaction

Study to examine why therapeutic horseback riding has positive and long-lasting effects on children with autism spectrum disorder

The five-year study will investigate reasons why THR reduces irritability and hyperactivity and increases social and verbal skills in children with ASD and other psychiatric conditions.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is notoriously challenging to treat. As the Mayo Clinic says, there is no “one size fits all” treatment. That is why, when a study shows a treatment that enables children with ASD to make real progress, the treatment calls for further research. It’s not enough to know that a treatment is effective. Rigorous science will help us learn why, for whom and how long this treatment should be recommended.

2015 study of children with ASD who took part in a 10-week therapeutic horseback riding (THR) intervention is a prime example of a study that demands more research. The study, conducted by Robin Gabriels, Psy.D., professor of psychiatry, researcher and licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus (CU Anschutz) and Children’s Hospital Colorado, was funded as a result of the decade-long National Institutes of Health/Mars–WALTHAM™ Public-Private Partnership. Results showed that children had considerably better social skills, became more verbally fluent, and less irritable and hyperactive, compared to the children who were simply visiting the animal centre. Even more exciting, however, is that these improvements were still visible in some of the children evaluated a full six months after the program ended.

A new $2.5 million grant to CU Anschutz will help Dr. Gabriels and her research team investigate why the benefits of THR are so pronounced and long-lasting. The grant will pay for a randomized, five-year, multi-site (Colorado and Maine) study to uncover the physiological effects of THR in children with ASD and other psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, ADHD and mood disorders. A third of those struggling with ASD are also diagnosed with these conditions.

It will test the hypothesis that cortisol, cardiovascular, and electrodermal activity levels have a direct link to the benefits observed in children, particularly in those with other psychiatric after 10-weeks of THR. It will also examine just how long-lasting the effects of THR can be for children with ASD, refine answers to questions about the necessary amount of therapy and provide a pathway of information for further research on the therapy effects on people struggling with psychiatric disorders in general.

Dr. Robin Gabriels is excited about what this new study could uncover. “Like so many developmental disorders in children, treating ASD can be difficult,” Dr. Gabriels said. “Any intervention that shows such long-lasting benefits needs thorough research. We need to understand the mechanism by which the intervention works, and therefore how best to administer it. Ideally, rigorous scientific studies like this one will enable and encourage more families and caregivers of children with ASD to better understand when and why to pursue THR.

This study is one of many in the budding field of Human Animal Interaction (HAI), which has the potential to help address many mental health issues. For instance, Dr. Gabriels noted the benefits of THR were even more pronounced among children dealing with anxiety and depression, in addition to ASD. There is good reason to think that THR, or other animal-assisted interventions (AAI), could create real benefits for patients with depression or anxiety who are not on the autism spectrum.

Dr. Darren Logan, the Head of Research at WALTHAM, believes only rigorous research – like that supported by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), NICHD, and WALTHAM itself – can unlock HAI’s potential. Dr. Logan shared,

"We are investigating interventions for people with serious medical issues, so any therapies that can help them must be subject to intensive, long-term study. That said, early results have been so encouraging that it is incumbent upon all of us to engage in rigorous research as quickly and efficiently as possible. People with ASD, depression, anxiety, or even loneliness should not have to wait unnecessarily.

Dr. Gabriels’ new study is a prime example of the kind of research that could help the medical community adopt HAI-based treatments for those who need them most.