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Horseback riding, mental exercises improve motor skills in children with autism, ADHD

February 13, 2020

3 minutes to read

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Researchers have reported that horseback riding, combined with mental exercise, has a positive impact on motor skills in children and adolescents diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

This is the first known study among researchers to demonstrate short- and long-term improvements in motor skills as a result of therapeutic riding activities and brain development in this patient population.

About one in six children in the United States has an intellectual disability, according to B. Rhett Rigby, PhD, CSPS, NSCA-CPT, Co-Director of the Institute for Women’s Health and Associate Professor in the School of Health Promotion and Kinesiology at Texas Woman’s University, and colleagues. Therapeutic Riding Activities, also known as Horse Assisted Activities (EAA), are used to teach people with various disorders and disabilities specific riding skills such as riding and dismounting horses to improve their learning abilities. Many centers in the United States that offer EAA are starting to adopt programs that combine EAA with brain development activities performed outside of the horse. Prior to this study, there was no research supporting the effectiveness of a combination of EAA with brain strengthening activities in improving motor skills in children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disorders, according to the researchers. .

The results of a new study have shown that horseback riding, combined with mental exercise, has a positive impact on motor skills in children and adolescents diagnosed with autism, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

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Rigby and his colleagues assessed changes in motor skills in 25 participants aged 5 to 16 who were diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder and participated in EAA and brain strengthening activities as part of the “GaitWay to” program. the Brain ”at the ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, Texas.

The study lasted 32 weeks. It was divided into four 8 week time blocks, each with different protocols. The first 8-week block was a control period in which participants had no riding experience. The second block consisted of only the EAA, during which participants learned about horse anatomy, riding equipment and basic equestrian activities. The third block was a washout period where participants stopped EAA. During the fourth block, the children participated in the GaitWay program, which included both EAA and cognitive exercises, which included eye-tracking exercises, hand-eye coordination exercises, and music therapy.

Participants were tested on their motor skills before and after each time block (pre-check, post-check, post-EAA, post-washout and post-GaitWay). These tests included strength, accuracy and fine motor integration, upper limb coordination and balance, among other motor skills. Caregivers of participants were also asked to report any changes in their child’s motor skills during post-EAA and post-GaitWay testing.

Seven participants were recruited to participate in the program for an additional year after the main study. These participants went through many of the same procedures as in the original study, and their motor skills were tested once more after the one-year program.


According to the study results, participants performed better on manual dexterity, upper limb coordination, and strength tests during the main study. There were overall higher scores in the post-GaitWay tests compared to the preclearance tests (P = .028). Caregivers also reported improvement in their children’s balance and posture after EAA and after GaitWay.

The benefits of EAA and brain strengthening activities were maintained in participants who continued the interventions for an additional year, according to the researchers. Their caregivers most often reported improvements in coping skills, balance and posture. These participants also showed improvements in social and academic performance, reported Rigby and his colleagues.

The researchers hypothesized that the big improvements could be due to the nature of horse-assisted therapy, as participants interacted with their horses on a physical, emotional and social level.

“Our findings should be of use to therapists and other healthcare professionals tasked with implementing strategies and interventions to improve motor skills in children and youth with ADHD and [autism spectrum disorder], which were the most common diagnoses in our study, ”Rigby said in a press release.

As the prevalence and demonstrated effectiveness of combined EAA and brain strengthening interventions increase, there may be a greater demand for these programs to be recognized by health insurance providers, the researchers said.

“This could allow these programs to become more accessible and affordable,” they concluded. – by Kalie VanDewater

Disclosures: The authors do not report any relevant financial disclosures.

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