We have a passion for pets. Simply put? They make our lives better. Pet owners are said to live longer, healthier, more social lives. As we work to create a better world for pets, we’re taking a closer look at the human-animal bond.
The studies may surprise you. While most gravitate towards a dog or a cat, a new four-legged friend is galloping onto the scene—and the benefits could change the lives of some very deserving kids.
In the first-of-its-kind study, we’re seeing the positive, long-lasting effects of therapeutic horseback riding (THR) in children with autism spectrum disorder.
The study, funded as a result of a decade-long public-private partnership between Mars Petcare’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), was led by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“Most pet owners are only too aware of the ‘feel-good factor’ associated with pets in their lives,” said Dr. Darren Logan, head of research at WALTHAM. “The important thing is that there is scientific evidence showing the emotional, social and psychological benefits of interacting with animals.”
Research began in 2015 with a 10-week THR program that included 127 kids, ages 6 to 16. By the end of the program, kids had considerably better social skills, were more verbal, less irritable and less hyperactive than kids who simply visited the center to learn about animals but didn’t interact with them.
The follow-up study found almost half (44 percent) of the children enrolled in the program were still seeing the same benefits, six months later. They were just as fluent and communicative as they were right after the original horseback riding program. They even maintained their lower level of irritability when compared to other children at the center.
This is the first known study to examine and show the longer-term effects of THR for children with autism spectrum disorder. The results are positive and encouraging, and certainly show the need for further and more thorough studies.
For now, researchers are answering the question: why do horses have such a positive effect on children? Some think it may come down to similar routines.
“Horses are known to prefer the same routine—the same stall, same path or route, and the same habits—similar to children with autism,” said Dr. L. Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd, of the Ohio State University in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The results mark an exciting step towards better understanding the relationships we have with our pets and just how those relationships can positively impact our overall wellbeing—especially for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Study lead Dr. Robin Gabriels, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said THR may even help reduce the need for higher medication doses that address symptoms of irritability.
“This is just the beginning,” said Dr. Gabriels. “We hope to conduct additional studies aimed at getting a better understanding of how exactly this form of therapy seems to benefit those with autism.”
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