Healthy Kids : Horseback Riding Benefits Kids with Autism

Cortney Langley, The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg

A William & Mary study validated what Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center have known anecdotally for years: Horseback riding helps children with autism.

Researchers at the School of Education coordinated with Dream Catchers to follow 21 autistic children. Classroom teachers rated their behavior at certain times over 30 weeks.

They found that symptoms diminished whenever children participated in the therapeutic riding program, located in Toano. They were calmer, improved their relationships with others, and they were more engaged in learning.

They saw less fear, more confidence, less repetitive behaviors, more appropriate social responses and less discomfort with physical contact.

However, the positive results lasted only as long as the kids continued to ride. Six weeks later, their autistic symptoms receded to pre-study levels.

"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, Dream Catchers' executive director. "This study demonstrates their intuition with scientific data about the benefits these children experience from our four-legged friends."

The results were announced to about 50 parents, caregivers and special education teachers last week.

"This is an exciting study for parents and teachers of children with autism," said study researcher Sandra Ward, a school psychology professor specializing in assessment at the School of Ed. "There is a significant decrease in autism symptoms, especially with regard to social interaction, that manifests in the child's classroom behavior."

The researchers have presented the findings at the Professional Associa­tion of Therapeutic Horsemanship International conference in Kentucky. They plan to present at the Council for Exceptional Children conference this spring.

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