Claire, who is diagnosed with autism, has benefited from therapeutic horseback riding. Her mother, Jennifer Anderson, recalls when she stated noticing the effect horseback riding has had on her daughter.
“She was sitting on the floor in her room, placing stuffed animals on top of a toy horse, giving them riding lessons,” said Anderson. “I had tears in my eyes. … This was a child who had never done any kind of role playing before, who had never really talked.”
A new study conducted by researchers in the William & Mary School of Education is the first to show that the benefits of therapeutic riding has also extended to the classroom setting.
“We saw the transfer of these benefits into the classroom, and we saw these benefits as a result of lessons that focused on riding skills. There is something about the horse and learning riding skills that is impacting these children significantly,” said Sandy Ward.
A professor of school psychology, Ward, led the study with the help of Kim Wendell, the primary therapeutic riding instructor, and the administrators at Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center in Toano. A former William & Mary professor, Kelly Whalon, and alumna, Katrina Rusnak ’11 also helped with the research.
“We have always heard from parents of students with autism about the successes and improvements they witness in the children as a result of the therapeutic riding,” said Nancy Paschall, executive director of Dream Catchers. “This study demonstrates their intuition with scientific data about the benefits these children experience from our four-legged friends.”
The study examined 21 elementary-school children with autism during the 2010-11 school year who participated in therapeutic riding at Dream Catchers over a 30-week period. Teachers rated the children’s classroom behavior using the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS-2) and the Sensory Profile School Companion.
“One of the goals of our study was to determine if there was a transfer of these effects back into the classroom, so that’s why it was important for us to have the teachers rate the students’ behavior,” said Ward. “These measures weren’t completed immediately after the lesson. They were completed during the week after the lesson, so the teachers based their ratings on the students’ behaviors in the classroom.”
Communication, stereo-typed behaviors and social interaction are just a few of the symptoms of autism that the GARS-2 looks at. The Sensory Profile School Companion measures a student’s sensory processing and its effect on performance in the classroom.
“We were exploring any improvements in their sensory processing, how they responded to sensory information coming in,” said Ward.
During lessons, the students learned how to do things such as getting the horse to walk on and halt. They also played some games to aid the learning of riding skills, like directing the horse to a specific container to place a matching colored beanbag into it. Ward said that although the games make the riding lessons more fun, the emphasis always remained on learning riding skills.
“The riding instructors are there to teach riding skills,” said Ward. “They aren’t counselors; they’re not classroom teachers. Really, the whole goal is to learn how to ride a horse. And that’s what makes the social effects that we obtained in the research so remarkable.”
The researchers found that the children significantly improved in the area of social interaction according to the GARS-2 data . After six weeks of lessons, once lesson per week, the ratings of students’ social behaviors changed from the “highly autistic range” to the “possibly autistic range.”
“One thing that the teachers observed was an increase in eye contact. Also, the students were more engaged in learning. They were showing more interest in relationships with others, which we know is a major symptom for many children with autism,” said Ward. “They were more relaxed in the classroom, which probably helped them engage more in the learning. They were listening to instruction; they were more helpful.”
“This means they were paying more attention,” said Ward. “They were participating more, and they needed less prompting. They were taking a little more initiative.”
The researchers built an orchestrated break into the study after eight lessons to determine whether changes in their demeanor was maintained. After six weeks off from riding, the researchers found that the children’s demeanors returned to their baseline levels on the two scales. However, once the students resumed lessons, they attained their social interaction gains at a much faster rate than they did in the first session of lessons, taking just three weeks to visually perceive the same results. The children also recouped the sensory gains they made in the first session of lessons; however, that progression took the entire eight weeks of additional riding to regain.