Theoretical Development of Equine-assisted Activities and Therapies for Children with Autism: A Systematic Mapping Review

B. Caitlin Peters, Wendy Wood, and Susan Hepburn

Colorado State University

In this systematic mapping review, we mapped the state of theoretical development of equine-assisted activities and therapies for children with autism to help illuminate promising theoretical frameworks. Across 42 studies and 22 non-research reports, we identified 10 explanatory formal theories related to equine-assisted activities and therapies, and several informally hypothesized change mechanisms. Guided by findings, we propose that (1) equine movement, intentionally used by a therapist, challenges and improves postural control and motor skills, and that an equine-assisted activity or therapy can (2) promote engagement, a platform for social development, and (3) provide structured support for social interaction and positively reinforce communication. While promising, these three nascent theoretical frameworks merit further critique, testing, and refinement.

Keywords: equine-assisted activities and therapies, autism, review, theory, hippotherapy, therapeutic riding