After showing that a 10-week therapeutic horseback riding intervention reduced irritability and hyperactivity while improving the social communication skills of youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus
researcher and Children’s Hospital Colorado psychologist, Dr. Robin Gabriels, has received a $2.5 million grant to investigate why the therapy works.
“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. “And the children who also had psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression had even better outcomes.”
Gabriels, who started the Neuropsychiatric Special Care inpatient and partial hospital unit for youth with ASD at Children's Hospital Colorado in 2004, said the study will also investigate how horseback riding can help these children regulate their emotions so they don’t overreact in a dangerous manner.
“If we can show horseback riding is emotionally regulating, perhaps we can reduce the need for so much medication and help keep them out of the hospital,” she said.
During the 10-week interventions, the THR and barn activity groups will wear heart rate monitors and wrist bands that record changes in electrodermal activity. Saliva samples will also be taken before and 20 minutes after the interventions to measure cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Her initial study was the first to show that participating in 10-weeks of THR resulted in significant improvements in irritability, hyperactivity, social skills and word fluency compared to the barn activity group (Gabriels et., 2015).
For years, that impact was whimsically described as 'magical'.
“We are now trying to explain the magic,” Gabriels said.