Date of Award

Summer 8-17-2018

Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Interdisciplinary Program

Advisor

Robert Causey

Second Committee Member

Marie Hayes

Third Committee Member

Shihfen Tu

Additional Committee Members

Robert Lehnhard

Kenneth McKeever

Abstract

This study examines the effects of equine-assisted psychotherapies in children with an autism spectrum disorder. The CARS-2 and Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire parent-report questionnaires were used for evaluation, as well open-ended questions. A single researcher contacted and visited many PATH-certified centers in the United States. Facilities that participated were all located in the Mid-Atlantic to Northeast region. There were 16 participants, from 11 different farms, that completed both the initial and follow-up questionnaires which were given 7 weeks apart. A $25 Amazon gift card was used as an incentive to increase participation. Participating facilities also completed a questionnaire.

Overall, results do not show a definitive trend towards worsening or improving. There was a possible age effect in participants who had an autism diagnosis, with improvements being seen in children older than 9 years. More research is needed to validate this claim. Those that improved or worsened on both questionnaires varied by age, gender, farm, and duration of equine therapy experience. No conclusions regarding the efficacy of equine-assisted psychotherapy could be made from these results.

Subjective responses in the questionnaires indicate that participants feel that equine assisted therapeutic activities were enjoyable and beneficial to their children. Results also indicate that participants feel that they received the benefits that they expected to receive. There were no reports of negative experiences in this study. It could be possible that those that did not perceive enjoyment or benefit from this therapy may have stopped participating and therefore dropped out. In the absence of any measured objective effects, it is not clear if the perceived benefits merely represent a placebo effect, or a valid treatment effect. It is possible that factors dealing with expectations and feelings are affecting growth and healing.

This study addresses future directions in this field. Growing interest in equine-assisted activities and therapies requires larger sample sizes to determine epidemiologic trends. However, the best way forward may not be through a randomized, double-blinded, heavily controlled approach. Instead, studies based on information accumulated in large patient registries and databases may allow us to assess the effectiveness of these therapies in the settings where they are traditionally practiced.

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