This study evaluated the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism. We hypothesized that participants in the experimental condition (n = 19), compared to those on the waitlist control (n = 15), would demonstrate significant improvement in social functioning following a 12-weeks horseback riding intervention. Autistic children exposed to therapeutic horseback riding exhibited greater sensory seeking, sensory sensitivity, social motivation, and less inattention, distractibility, and sedentary behaviors. The results provide evidence that therapeutic horseback riding may be a viable therapeutic option in treating children with autism spectrum disorders.
The results of this study suggest that therapeutic horseback riding may be an efficacious therapeutic option for children with autism spectrum disorders. More specifically, compared to wait-listed participants in our control group, autistic children in the experimental group improved in critical areas such as sensory integration and directed attention. Participants also demonstrated improved social motivation and sensory sensitivity, as well as decreased inattention and distractibility.
Overall, participants demonstrated a sustained level of directed attention and focus that is not usually seen in children with autism spectrum disorders.
Although significant results were found in five out of the eight domains, the treatment effects on three subscales were not significant: fine motor/perceptual, social cognition, and social awareness. Therapeutic activities were primarily directed toward sensory stimulation and did not emphasize fine motor and perceptual skills.
Our findings are compatible with the view that the cerebellum plays a critical role in both motor and social domains. It is possible that therapeutic horseback riding, an activity that demands motor learning skills, motor control, and social engagement, is linked to cerebellar functioning.