Horseback riding found to benefit children with autism spectrum disorder

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Grant helps researchers identify why horseback riding is beneficial to children with autism spectrum disorder

By U2B Staff 

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University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus received a 2.5 million dollar grant to investigate why children with autism spectrum disorder showed significant improvements in many areas after therapeutic horseback riding.

The grant, awarded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, will fund a five-year-study to look into the physiological reasons the therapy shows significant success.

The research will be led by University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus researcher and Children’s Hospital Colorado psychologist, Robin Gabriels.

This research will primarily explore the physiological mechanisms of how the riding intervention reduced irritability and hyperactivity while improving the social communication skills of children with autism spectrum disorder.


The current study will be conducted with Matthew Siegel, a medical doctor from Maine Medical Center. The THR and barn activity control interventions will take place at therapeutic horseback riding centers in Colorado and Maine.

This 10-week intervention will include about 142 children between ages 6 and 16 with autism spectrum disorder.

During the 10-weeks, participants will wear heart rate monitors and wrist bands to monitor their emotions. Saliva samples will also be taken before and 20 minutes after the interventions to measure stress hormone levels.

“We conducted the largest randomised controlled efficacy trial on the impacts of therapeutic horseback riding (THR) with youth diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and this current study will focus on looking at the physiological mechanisms that may explain our previously observed benefits of this intervention, particularly in a high-risk subset of youth with ASD and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses,” said Gabriels.

She also added that the grant will allow for research to refine information on the durability, dose and sub-population effects of this intervention.

“In our first study, we also observed that initial improvements made in irritability, social and language lasted six months after the riding lessons were completed in a subset of participants,” Gabriels said.

She also added that the children who also had psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression had even better outcomes.

Speaking on the success of the pilot study, Gabriel said, “For years, that impact was whimsically described as`magical.’ We are now trying to explain the magic.”

Gabriels said the study will also investigate how horseback riding can help these children regulate their emotions so they do not overreact in a dangerous manner.

She added that if research can understand how horseback riding therapy regulates emotions, then it could potentially reduce the need for medication and hospitalisation rates may also see a decline.


Autism affects roughly one of every 68 American children, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, and the number is growing.

The term that describes the condition is autism spectrum disorder, which indicates a group of disorders that impact brain development.

The effects of this disorder range from mild impairment to severe disability. Characteristics of this condition include engaging repetitive behaviors, and difficulty communicating and interacting with others.