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Equitherapy and autism: a pilot study about visual attention


Equitherapy is widely practiced and its positive effects are quite well known. However, dynamics of communication between the horse, the user and the therapist is little described. Here, we proposed a pilot study that focused on visual attention of these three partners at two moments: before and during horseback riding (HR). The triad had been observed during the equitherapy session (around 45 min) of four boys with autism (6-9 yo). Ten-second scan samplings recorded the gaze direction of each subject. Data were converted in percentage of time. Horses had mostly gazed at physical environment both before (76.2±6.6%) and during (91.6±1.6%) HR. Human they mostly gazed was the therapist before HR (8.7±3.3%). Similarly, boys mostly gazed at physical environment throughout the session (61.7±17.1% and 46.9±15.3%, respectively). Focus on social partner showed that boys mostly gazed at horse especially during HR (8.7±4.7% and 13.2±9.6% respectively). Likewise their visual attention to humans was enhanced during HR (9.0±1.5% to 19.3±3.1%). At last, before HR, therapists mostly gazed at boy (33.8±9.4%) and horse (38.4±16.7%). During HR, their attention on boy increased slightly (36.7±10.0%) but surprisingly, their attention on horse decreased extremely (7.2±0.9%) in favor of the physical environment (26.1±11.5% to 50.3±12.7%). This pilot study on visual attention during equitherapy suggested that children with autism, whose attentional skills are impaired, seemed to be more attentive to social partners during HR. In this situation, horses seemed few attentive to humans that might be explain by either apathy or working situation. Finally, the reduction of therapist’s visual attention to the horse during HR suggests a decrease in vigilance. This was an example of routine where human pays less attention to animal, which constituted one of the most accidental situations. Thus, therapists must be greatly attentive when horses are used in such therapeutic programs where safety is indispensable.

Dates and versions

hal-01345058 , version 1 (13-07-2016)



Elodie Dubois, Martine Hausberger, Marine Grandgeorge. Equitherapy and autism: a pilot study about visual attention. 64th Annual Meeting of the European Federation of Animal Science, Aug 2013, Nantes, France. Wageningen Academic Publishers, 19, Book of Abstracts. ⟨10.3920/978-90-8686-782-0⟩. ⟨hal-01345058⟩
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