Horseback riding provides therapeutic benefits to disabled children

Baylor Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Brian Garner is leading a program of hippotherapy, a horse-riding simulation technology, to helps kids with autism. Chase (Junyan) Li | Photographer & Videographer

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Dr. Brian Garner, associate professor of mechanical engineering, has designed a horse simulator device, called the MiraColt, that uses motion capture technology to mimic the motion of the pelvis on a horse as a therapy method for disabilities like autism.

“One of the rationales of this type of therapy is that by riding on the horse, someone with a disability can experience the natural movement patterns that they can’t generate for themselves,” Garner said.

Hippotherapy, horseback riding to heal, is used in occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.

Dr. Beth Lanning, associate chair of the department of public health, works with Garner on the project studying the psychosocial aspects.

“So what we’ve seen in the therapeutic riding world is that kids with autism seem to show better behavior or external behaviors which they tend to be less distracted, more social, calmer, and able to focus better. Some kids will actually say their first words on the back of a horse,” Lanning said.

In a previous study Lanning conducted on hippotherapy for disabled children, she said the horseback riding group had better outcomes.

“We had kids who were in what’s called social circles, which is one of the ways of helping them to learn to socialize and is especially for kids with autism, and then we had a group that was in a therapeutic riding program, riding a horse,” Lanning said. “Then we measure different kinds of behavioral markers, and we found that the kids that were riding horses had better scores on their changes in behavior, and they were more social. They were more focused — able to concentrate more than those in social circles.”

The secret sauce in this device is that it provides the realistic complex three dimensional motion patterns experienced riding a horse or walking, unlike other devices designed for core strength that don’t provide these natural movements, Garner said.

Dr. Paul Fillmore, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, is also working on the study. He said the motion capture technology tracks the pelvic motion and the motion of the horse, so the device could accurately produce the same movements the user would go through while horseback riding.

“What is different about this one from other horse simulators is the precise biophysical models,” Fillmore said. “They would actually go out to real horses and put motion capture systems on different joints of the horse’s body so that they could record the way the real horse was moving and try to reproduce that pretty exactly.”

The hope for the technology is that the rhythmic motion has an effect on cognitive abilities and physiological abilities of disabled kids, Lanning said.

“We’ve come to see some of the same things, behaviors that the parent documents at home — things like outbursts, lack of concentration — we hope to see some of those diminish,” Lanning said. “In the past, we see some behavioral changes where they’re more willing to socialize with other kids, sometimes better eye contact. That’s what we want to see behaviorally wise — so less outbursts, more control of their behavior, and then the physiological changes: better balance, better walking gait and we’re hoping to see some changes with the EEG that Dr. Fillmore is doing.”

Dr. Jonathan Rylander, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said he is assessing the movement and balance effects the device has on participants. Speaking in broad terms, Rylander said he expects to see a synchronization in the movement of the rider and the horse.

“If we start seeing synchronization, what I would expect to see is changes in both sort of the brain activity but also in their gait and balance,” Rylander said. “So I think that that synchronization is going to come with sort of an internal change in the kid and how they regulate their body posture in motion.”

Fillmore said a grant awarded last spring to the study has been a sort of crux for this project and provided for more assessments of effectiveness. They received the research grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“We’re going to be doing lots of different sorts of assessments that we didn’t have the capability to do before,” Fillmore said. “We’ve got like high resolution EEG, tracking eye movements, different assessments of balance and gait, how the kids are walking, as well as assessments of language and cognitive abilities, and kind of general awesome symptomatology.”

Dr. Julie Ivey, associate professor of educational psychology, founded the Baylor Autism Resource Clinic in 2008. She is recruiting the kids with autism into the current study and said the grant has allowed her department to do more assessments and fund student researchers involved in the study, helping them gain experience.

“It’s really important because we were able to fund some student graduate assistants, and so those students are getting hands-on research experience working with children, working on the horse,” Ivey said.

Though the grant was specifically for research purposes, Garner said he hopes to get the company up off its feet to make the therapy tool more accessible.

“At the moment though we’re sort of in a startup mode, and so we’re trying to do what we can to be a blessing to people,” Garner said. “In order to be a blessing to people we have to survive — be able to be successful and sustainable. We’re sort of in that mode of trying to get our feet underneath us and get ourselves into a sustainable state.”