Year of Publication

2010

Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Education

Department

Kinesiology and Health Promotion

First Advisor

Dr. Richard Riggs

Second Advisor

Dr. Julie Cerel

Abstract

Therapeutic horseback riding can be recommended as a useful health promotion intervention for individuals with disabilities who face challenges to optimal health and wellness. This qualitative study examined the perceived benefits of a therapeutic riding program for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), with particular focus on aspects that can potentially help maximize the physical, emotional, and social health of this population.

This study utilized multiple methods to gain an in-depth perspective on the benefits of a therapeutic riding program based at Central Kentucky Riding for Hope in Lexington, Kentucky, for subjects presenting primarily with ASD. Focus groups were held with five instructors and five class volunteers, and semi-structured personal interviews were conducted with two staff members and the parents and family members of 15 children diagnosed with ASD who were currently enrolled a riding session. Client records containing medical history, lesson plans and client evaluations were also reviewed.

Thematic analysis of the data supported perceived gains in the areas of physical, cognitive, psychological, and social development and also highlighted additional support mechanisms for family members of the clients. Some of the most common benefits reported included increased physicality, improved focus and attention, modification of inappropriate behaviors, enhanced self-concept, and increased social interaction and communication. Major factors believed to affect the success of this intervention were the unique movement and sensory stimulation of the horse, the supportive environment of the facility, and the increased motivation for the children to participate and complete the structured activities and exercises required in the riding class setting.

Results of this study encourage the utilization of therapeutic riding as an effective health promotion intervention for individuals with ASD. Recommendations for future research efforts include analysis of the effects of deep sensory pressure and the movement provided by the horse on the emotional regulation and cognitive processing of children with ASD. Study designs isolating the variable of the horse’s presence could further clarify the nature of the animal’s role in similar interventions. Quantitative studies with larger samples measuring specific cognitive, psychological, and social variables not previously studied but revealed in this data are also encouraged.

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