An Experimental Analysis of the Effects of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on the Behavior of Children with Autism
Jenkins, S. R., & DiGennaro Reed, F. D. (2013). An experimental analysis of the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on the behavior of children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 721-740. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2013.02.008
Reviewed by ToniAnne Giunta, MA, BCBA, Caldwell College
Why research this topic?
Therapeutic horseback riding (THR), which involves teaching horsemanship skills (e.g., holding a horse’s reins, controlling the horse with voice commands, using basic riding skills), has been reported to relieve symptoms in a variety of domains, including socialization, self-regulation behaviors, expressive language, and motor skills. Existing studies, however, have had significant limitations. For example, investigators have relied solely on parent ratings, instead of including other types of measures such as direct observations of children’s behavior. Also, THR has been implemented in conjunction with other interventions (e.g., programmed reinforcement), making it difficult to determine the effects of THR by itself. The present study selected behaviors similar to those analyzed in previous studies, but used more direct observations and a sound experimental design.
What did the researchers do?
Seven children with autism, ages 6-14 years, participated in the study over nine weeks. Four participants were assigned to a treatment group that included a non-treatment baseline phase followed by weekly 60-min THR therapy sessions, and three participants were assigned to a waitlist control group in which no treatment was given. In the treatment group, treatment started at differing times for each participant, allowing for an experimental test of whether the introduction of treatment rather than the passage of time was associated with any behavior changes made by the participants. The following behaviors were observed during academic, art, game, and snack centers at an after-school program and in participant homes: (a) happy versus unhappy affect, (b) spontaneous initiations, (c) responses to initiations, (d) off-task behavior, (e) compliance, and (f) problem behavior. For participants in the treatment group, the above behaviors were also measured during THR sessions, in addition to vocal/gestural commands to direct the horse and their posture. For all participants, pre- and post-tests on standardized assessments (The Child Behavior Checklist, CBCL/6-18; Teacher Rating Form, TRF) were also supplemented for comparison.
What did the researchers find?
Participants in the treatment group showed minimal to no differences in all the behaviors measured during the center-based activities and home visits (affect, spontaneous and responses to initiations, off-task behavior, compliance, problem behavior) when comparing the baseline phase to THR treatment phase. Furthermore, their behavior levels throughout the study were comparable to the participants in the control group, who did not receive THR treatment at all. During the THR sessions, the researchers detected some improvement in all participants for overall posture improved for all participants. However, responses to initiations and rate of vocal/gestural commands to the horse remained unchanged, spontaneous initiations either remained unchanged or decreased, and compliance either remained unchanged or improved. For three of the four participants, problem behaviors were low during THR sessions. Two of the four participants in the treatment group, as well as all three participants in the control group, showed improvements in their CBCL scores from pre- to post-tests. Three of four participants in the treatment group and one of three in the control group showed some improvement in TRF scores.
What are the strengths and limitations of the study?
The study examined an already-established treatment program (THR) yet failed to replicate the previous studies’ positive effects, likely because of the direct and repeated measurement used (as opposed to subjective self-reports used previously). Limiting factors to this study included a shorter amount of exposure to THR than in previous studies, lessons that somewhat differed from previous studies, and minimal loss of data from a few sessions.
What do the results mean?
THR did not produce clinically significant effects or meaningful improvements in any of the measured behaviors in both the center-based and home activities, contrary to previous research and testimonials. Children who received THR showed improvements on the CBCL and TRF, but so did children in a waitlist control group. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that THR was responsible for the changes noted in the participants on these measures. Although it may be possible to find an appropriate use of THR in future studies (e.g. attending a THR session after earning tokens during academic programming), therapeutic horseback riding is not recommended as a treatment for addressing symptoms of ASD.