Original Research

The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on heart rate variability of children with disabilities

Zingisa Nqwena, Rowena Naidoo
African Journal of Disability | Vol 5, No 1 | a248 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ajod.v5i1.248 | © 2016 Zingisa Nqwena, Rowena Naidoo | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 01 December 2015 | Published: 18 August 2016

About the author(s)

Zingisa Nqwena, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Rowena Naidoo, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

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Background: Heart rate variability (HRV) is the oscillation in the interval between consecutive heart beats, resulting from dynamic interplay between multiple physiologic mechanisms that regulate instantaneous heart rate. Short-term heart rate regulation is governed by sympathetic and parasympathetic neural activity and therefore HRV examination can be used as a non-invasive estimate of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Aim: To determine the effects of therapeutic horseback riding (THR) intervention on the HRV of children with disabilities. The objective was to examine if THR intervention improves the HRV of children, hence improving the parasympathetic activity that is associated with a calm and relaxed state.
Methods: This is a quasi-experimental design. Heart rate variability components were measured over six intervention sessions of THR. Heart rate variability measures were recorded from 29 participants with various disabilities, and was assessed in both time and frequency domains.
Results: Over the six THR sessions, the time domain showed an increase in HRV for pre-THR indicating improved vagal activation, whereas frequency domain showed both increased sympathetic activity and increased parasympathetic activation during THR based on different components of frequency domain.
Conclusion: Therapeutic horseback riding intervention of six sessions demonstrated a change in HRV of children with disabilities. However, the changes obtained were not significant to make conclusive measures as to whether sympathetic or parasympathetic activity is predominantly increased after the six sessions. Further research involving more than six sessions of THR is required to yield more significant changes.


Heart rate variability; therapeutic horseback riding; cerebral palsy; autism; down syndrome


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