Project Description

Dr. Matthew Siegel

Dr. Siegel working with a patient.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Study

February 2020

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus (CU Anschutz) in Aurora, Colorado, in collaboration with the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, has been awarded a $2.5 million grant to study why therapeutic horseback riding benefits children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly children who have co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses.

The grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health will fund a five-year study of the physiological impacts of therapeutic horseback riding. A previous study by Principal Investigator Robin Gabriels, Psy.D., a CU Anschutz researcher and Children’s Hospital Colorado psychologist, showed that a 10-week therapeutic horseback riding intervention reduced irritability and hyperactivity while improving the social communication skills of youth diagnosed with ASD. To learn why, Gabriels is now teaming up with MMCRI Faculty Scientist Mathew Siegel, M.D., the study’s co-investigator and leader of the Autism and Developmental Disorders Service of Maine Behavioral Healthcare.

“This study is exciting because it’s not often we have a chance to try to understand why something works,” Siegel said. “Learning why will hopefully help us create other interventions that could address challenges that children with ASD face.”

The study will take place this summer at Riding To The Top, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship Premier International Accredited Center in Windham, as well as at a center in Colorado. It will include about 142 children between ages 6 and 16 with ASD and a psychiatric diagnosis. Children will be either assigned therapeutic horseback riding or barn activities for 10-week interventions. Both 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 levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Riding To The Top’s certified instructors, volunteers, horses and many new clients to be involved in ground-breaking research that will provide more objective data as to the specific physiological changes that occur during therapeutic riding, lending further support to the work that we do,” said Sarah Bronson, PT, Riding To The Top’s executive director.

The study also will look into how much therapeutic horseback riding a child needs to see measurable results and how long those results last. Riding To The Top is recruiting volunteers to assist with both the riding and “barn” groups. Anyone who is interested should call RTT 207-892-2813, ext. 22 and ask to speak to Kate Jeton, Program Director. Dr. Siegel’s autism research team will be recruiting study participants in the spring.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01HD097693. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.