Equine-Related Therapies a Focus for UK Doctoral Candidate

Margi Stickney, MS, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Promotion and Kinesiology in the University of Kentucky's College of Education, has been interested in the therapeutic benefits of animals since her early days as a graduate student at UK. As a lifelong horse person and volunteer at Central Kentucky Riding for Hope (CKRH) since 2001, she began exploring the benefits of equine interaction through the Kentucky Horse Park's Mustang Troop during her graduate studies. The Mustang Troop pairs inner-city kids with formerly wild mustangs with the hope that the horses will teach participants empathy and responsibility to prevent at-risk behaviors.

As a student of health promotion and kinesiology, Stickney became increasingly interested in horses' physical and mental effects on humans, and she was surprised to learn that little research had been done in the area. At the suggestion of her professor, Jody Clasey, PhD, in UK's Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, Stickney began to explore the benefits of programs like CKRH for children with physical and mental disabilities. Most existing research had focused on cerebral-palsy populations, so Stickney's focus shifted instead to autistic patients, who account for the majority of CKRH's clientele. There is no published research in English on the effects of equine therapies on autistic patients. Kim Miller, PhD, also in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, "was instrumental in guiding the qualitative design of my research," Stickney said.

The variability in ages and symptoms made it necessary for her to use a qualitative rather than quantitative research design. Stickney created focus groups of CKRH instructors and volunteers and interviewed parents of autistic riders and asked them what changes they had noticed in the children since starting in a therapeutic riding program. Instructors and therapists believe the sensory input provided by the horse stimulates the brain and improves riders' focus, as noted by a decrease in self-stimulating behaviors such as rocking or hand-flapping.

They also noted movement of the horse and the sensation of pressure experienced while mounted may affect the brain and central nervous system in a positive way, encouraging growth (as was suggested by the studies on cerebral palsy riders), which is especially beneficial, as scientists do not know the exact cause for autism. Therapy sessions allow the children more social interaction outside of their families with both instructors and horses, and they give patients the opportunity to transfer their relationship skills from horses to humans.

''It's crucial for them to enjoy relationships as much as they can, so this whole package of riding the horse in a class situation is a unique situation to therapeutic riding ... [it] provides an intervention that many autistic children need," Stickney said.

Stickney said parents were also grateful for the therapy, saying that interaction with the horses has seemed consistently to calm their children and has had a normalizing effect on mood and sense of motivation.

Stickney also noted the therapy is helpful to the parents. "It's frustrating for families to interact with the world at large," she said. "In children with autism who are higher functioning, it's not as noticeable a disability and their behavior is misunderstood; they are misunderstood as parents."

Stickney said she hopes her project will open any number of fields of study for conducting further research into the topic, as she believes that therapeutic riding is only growing as a treatment option for physical and mental disorders. The inclusion of paraequestrian events in the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will serve to further stimulate the growth of therapeutic riding and equine-assisted psychotherapy facilities across the country. An estimated 25,000 people benefit from therapeutic riding already.

Most of all Stickney said she was excited to see "nonhorsey" family members of patients see the benefits of a relationship with horses.

"Therapeutic riding really helps people appreciate the benefit of the horse ... to realize what a relationship with an animal can do for anyone,'' she said.

Stickney is also working on producing a booklet for UK Health Sciences' Saddle Up Safely program on the value of therapeutic riding.

Natalie Voss is a UK equine communications intern and undergraduate student in equine science

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