The Science of Learning

Why do Movement Method and Horse Boy Method work?

Our two main programs, Horse Boy Method and Movement Method, are based on the following scientifically based observations:


Cortisol is the stress hormone. It is released by the amygdala and is one of the hormones involved in the flight, fight or freeze response. Cortisol is necessary for us to function successfully. It is partly responsible for allowing us to escape from or fight a threat and stay safe. However, it has both a short and long term effect on our ability to learn. In the short term cortisol narrows our focus so that all our attention can be directed towards escaping from or fighting the perceived danger. In the long term chronic levels of cortisol have been shown to actively corrode learning connections within our brains (Chetty et al, 2014; Medina 2008).

It is well-established that children with autism have an over-active amygdala which causes increased cortisol production (Corbett et al, 2006; Spratt et al, 2012). This is in part due to the malfunctioning sensory system that is such a common feature of autism (Ben-Sasson et al, 2009). So much so that in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association added hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input to their updated edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ‘s diagnostic criteria for autism (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). When a child with autism’s sensory system is overstimulated by everyday sensory inputs like artificial lighting, bad smells or large numbers of people then their amygdala is activated which triggers the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands (Owen et al, 2013). To make matters worse elevated levels of cortisol in the brain, such as those experienced by people on the autism spectrum, eventually cause structural alterations to the pathways between the amygdala and hippocampus which puts the brain in state of constant fight or flight (Chetty et al, 2014). In a nutshell what this means is children with autism are often locked in a vicious cycle of cortisol production which either impairs or completely blocks their ability to learn.

One way that we can deal with this problem is to set up a learning environment for the child that is free from as many sensory triggers as possible.  The ideal learning environment for a child with autism (or indeed any child) is outside in nature where most of these sensory triggers are just not present (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). It is also well-established in the scientific literature that spending time in nature reduces cortisol production (Ward et al, 2012). However we can also make-over an indoor learning environment by removing the most common sensory triggers paying particular attention to lighting, smell and noise (Stein et al, 2013).

Whilst we cannot emphasize enough how beneficial a sensory make-over is to a child it in itself is not enough. Luckily, however, there is another solution – and the best part is it’s FREE.


Oxytocin is the feel-good or pleasure hormone. Its primary role within the body is to activate the mammalian care-giving system. Oxytocin not only stimulates the start of labor but is released by both mother and child during breast-feeding and when a mother rocks her child. Oxytocin allows us to feel safe and when we feel safe we have more attention available to focus on new concepts and learn (Medina, 2011).

Think back to our hunter gatherer ancestors out on the African savanna. If they encountered a lion then it was their amygdala that was activated which in turn triggered the release of cortisol (as well as other hormones like adrenaline). Because of the cortisol our ancestors were able to focus all their attention on getting away from (or fighting) the lion and therefore their chance of survival increased. In contrast if our ancestors felt safe and did not detect any potential threats then oxytocin would be released. This hormone had the exact opposite effect on their body to cortisol. It allowed them to broaden their awareness and thus search for another source of water or a new type of berry to eat. In other words it opened them up to learning. Even better oxytocin has also been found to counteract the corrosive effect of cortisol in the brain thus reversing the long term effect of cortisol (Neumann, 2008; Heinrichs et al, 2003).

In Horse Boy Method we use the rhythmic movement of the horse to stimulate the production of oxytocin. The theory behind this being that the more the child’s hips are rocked the more oxytocin they produce. In Movement Method we do not necessarily have access to a horse so we employ a wide range of other activities that promote the production of oxytocin such as deep pressure, rhythmic music, swinging and laughter (Medina, 2011).


The Science

Ever since No Child Left Behind was introduced in 2001 there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of physical activity that children across the United States have access to on a daily basis. Schools have become so focused on ‘teaching to the test’ that they have cut physical education programs across the board. This has not only led to increased concerns over childhood obesity but also to exactly what the schools were trying to avoid in the first place – increasingly poor academic performance particularly in the STEM subjects of science of math (Sattelmair & Ratey, 2009).

Whilst much of our evolutionary history remains a mystery there is one fact that every paleontologist on the planet accepts – we moved. Our direct ancestors, Homo Sapiens, were thought to have walked and run between 10 and 20 kilometers every day all the while constantly encountering new food sources, predators and physical dangers. And their offspring moved with them meaning that we are evolutionarily programmed to learn on the move (Leonard et al, 1997). Which is why this is how we learn best and there is a vast body of research to prove it. Imaging studies, for example, have shown that when we exercise there is increased blood volume in a region of the brain called the dentate gyrus which is a part of the hippocampus deeply involved in memory formation (Green et al, 2004). What’s more, studies also indicate that exercise stimulates the brain’s most powerful growth factor, BDNF, which is responsible for creating new brain cells and encouraging neurons to connect with one another, both essential components of learning (Vaynman et al, 2006).

But it goes so much further than this. Studies are also showing that the cerebellum, the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for motor control, directly connects to a region of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for higher level cognitive tasks such as decision making and emotional control (Bellebaum et al, 2007; Karatekin et al, 2000; Middleton & Strick, 1994). The research goes on to conclude that movement, and in particular the type of rhythmic movement that you get when riding a horse, activates the cerebellum and leads to an increased number of purkinje cells which are responsible for connecting information from the cerebellum to the pre-frontal cortex (Seo at al, 2010). What this suggests is that movement leads to the production of purkinje cells within the cerebellum which in turn activates the pre-frontal cortex and over time leads to an increase in flexibility and emotional control.

Luckily for those families that don’t have everyday access to horses it is not just the movement of the horse but movement in general that stimulates learning (Ratey, 2008; Summerford, 2001). The research shows that any type of rhythmic movement, such as riding a horse, swinging, rolling or bouncing on a trampoline has this effect on the brain. These types of movement also stimulate the vestibular system located in the inner ear which is critical for attention and learning (Wolfe, 2005).

Allowing a child the chance to explore in a natural environment is as important as the movement itself. So too is teaching a child through, rather than rewarding them with, their interests and obsessions. Babies are born with an intense and unrelenting curiosity and desire to explore the world around them. So intense, in fact, that some scientists describe learning and discovery as a drive, just as hunger and thirst are drives. Discovery brings joy. We never outgrow this desire to learn and our brain retains the ability to learn in this way throughout our lives BUT we can become anesthetized to the joy of discovery. Children learn that education means getting an A, and start to acquire knowledge only in order to get something rather than because it is intrinsically interesting (Medina, 2008). Children should be given the freedom to explore with no agenda other than discovery on a daily basis. If they are they will learn to love learning for its own sake.

The Application

In our equine therapy program, Horse Boy Method, we use the horse to provide the child with the movement that they not only crave but also need in order to be able to learn. We differ from most therapeutic riding in that we never lead the child from the ground and instead ride in the saddle (back-ride) with the smaller children and drive the horse from behind (long-line) with the older children and adults that we work with. The reason that we do this is that when you lead a horse from the ground, as most traditional therapeutic riding barns do, you automatically pull the horse forward so that their center of gravity is at the shoulder/head. This results in a horse that is off balance and therefore a child that is off balance. When a person feels off balance then their psoas muscle (found in the pelvic region) contracts sending a message to the amygdala that they are in danger which as we know causes the amygdala to trigger the release of cortisol which blocks learning. When we back-ride or long-line then we are able to produce a much more smooth and rhythmic movement as the horses center of gravity is underneath the rider. This allows the psoas muscle to relax which in turn allows the child’s hips to rock which has been linked to the production of oxytocin which promotes learning.

In our kinetic learning program, Movement Method, we use a wide variety of different movement based activities to provide the child with the rhythmic movement that they need. These activities can either involve the child themselves physically moving (bouncing on the trampoline, swimming, running) or the child being placed stationary on a moving object (swing, horse, wheelbarrow). The key is to ensure that the child feels safe otherwise you risk causing the psoas muscles to contract and the amygdala to activate triggering the release of cortisol.



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