Therapeutic horseback riding combined with cognitive exercises can help children with ADHD and Autism

Therapeutic horseback riding combined with brain-building exercises can improve the dexterity, coordination and strength of children with neurodevelopmental disorders, shows a study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

by Kristin Coan, Frontiers Science News January 31, 2020

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 is known to 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.

“We wanted to investigate how a combination of equine-assisted activities and various brain-building tasks, administered by a speech therapist, would affect motor skills in children with disorders including autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity,” says Dr. Brandon Rigby, of the Texas Woman’s University in the United States.

“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.”

For their 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. “These findings may allow for a greater demand for these programs, ultimately making them more accessible and affordable,” says Rigby.

Source Frontiers Science News

  References

Changes in Motor Skill Proficiency After Equine-Assisted Activities and Brain-Building Tasks in Youth With Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Rigby B. Rhett, Davis Ronald W., Bittner Melissa D., Harwell Robin W., Leek Eileen J., Johnson Geoben A., Nichols David L. Front Vet Sci. 2020 Volume 7. p.22. DOI 10.3389/fvets.2020.00022. Full text

  Further reading

Benefits of hippotherapy in children with cerebral palsy: A narrative review, Martín-Valero R, Vega-Ballón J, Perez-Cabezas V. Eur J Paediatr Neurol. 2018 Nov;22(6):1150-1160. doi: 10.1016/j.ejpn.2018.07.002. Epub 2018 Jul 10. Review.

Effects of Equine Therapy on Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review, Sudha M. Srinivasan, David T. Cavagnino, Anjana N. Bhat. Rev J Autism Dev Disord. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2019 Jun 1. Published in final edited form as: Rev J Autism Dev Disord. 2018 Jun; 5(2): 156–175. Published online 2018 Feb 20. doi: 10.1007/s40489-018-0130-z. Full text

Equine assisted activities and therapies in children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and a meta-analysis, Trzmiel T, Purandare B, Michalak M, Zasadzka E, Pawlaczyk M. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Feb;42:104-113. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2018.11.004. Epub 2018 Nov 5. Full text

Long-Term Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Trial, Gabriels RL, Pan Z, Guérin NA, Dechant B, Mesibov G. Front Vet Sci. 2018 Jul 16;5:156. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00156. eCollection 2018. Full text

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Crossover Effects of Attachment Behaviors with Family Pets in a Sample of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Petty JD, Pan Z, Dechant B, Gabriels RL. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Mar 3;14(3). pii: E256. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14030256. Full text

Effect of Hippotherapy on Motor Proficiency and Function in Children with Cerebral Palsy Who Walk, Champagne D, Corriveau H, Dugas C. Phys Occup Ther Pediatr. 2017 Feb;37(1):51-63. doi: 10.3109/01942638.2015.1129386. Epub 2016 Mar 1.

What is hippotherapy? The indications and effectiveness of hippotherapy, Koca TT, Ataseven H. North Clin Istanb. 2016 Jan 15;2(3):247-252. doi: 10.14744/nci.2016.71601. eCollection 2015. Review. Full text

Effects of hippotherapy on gross motor function and functional performance of children with cerebral palsy, Park ES, Rha DW, Shin JS, Kim S, Jung S. Yonsei Med J. 2014 Nov;55(6):1736-42. doi: 10.3349/ymj.2014.55.6.1736. Full text

Systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of equine assisted activities and therapies on gross motor outcome in children with cerebral palsy, Tseng SH, Chen HC, Tam KW. Disabil Rehabil. 2013;35(2):89–99. doi:10.3109/09638288.2012.687033

Therapeutic effects of horseback riding therapy on gross motor function in children with cerebral palsy: a systematic review, Whalen CN, Case-Smith J. Phys Occup Ther Pediatr. 2012;32(3):229–242. doi:10.3109/01942638.2011.619251

Effects of hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding on postural control or balance in children with cerebral palsy: a meta-analysis, Zadnikar M, Kastrin A. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2011 Aug;53(8):684-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2011.03951.x. Epub 2011 Mar 24. Review. Full text

Horseback riding as therapy for children with cerebral palsy: is there evidence of its effectiveness? Snider L, Korner-Bitensky N, Kammann C, Warner S, Saleh M. Phys Occup Ther Pediatr. 2007;27(2):5-23. Review.

Does horseback riding therapy or therapist-directed hippotherapy rehabilitate children with cerebral palsy? Sterba JA. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2007 Jan;49(1):68-73. Review. PDF

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Horse-riding can improve children’s cognitive ability in Frontiers Science News

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