Rhythm and beat perception – how horses and music can improve learning

Dr Caren Hession has two passions: singing and horses. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when she came to study her for her masters degree her two loves featured prominently with remarkable and inspiring results.

Pursuing a Masters by Research investigating the benefits of equine therapy seemed like a good idea at the time. My aim was to show how horses help children learn better. Perhaps a daring premise, but one I believed to be true. And I suppose not realising how daring it was helped somewhat; until I left a full-time job to pursue my studies only to discover there was very little scientific research to support this novel field.

So I did what anyone else would do – I started looking at pretty pictures of horses. Having a degree in Fine Art, I had always been fascinated by them and, in particular, the swirling patterns of dust and breath they leave behind as they move.

Then I remembered a picture I had taken (it’s the black and white image featured with this article). I remembered when I took it the horses’ breath had lingered in the air, forming lines of waves that looked a lot like musical bars. And so sparked my investigation into rhythm and beat perception; an element characteristic of equine motion and music, turning my two year Master by Research into a five year PhD.

The truth is music has always been my first love – my obsessive hobby, as I called it. From attending every single training event or master class available, to setting up Mad About The Voice Ireland with Joshua Alamu and offering mentorship to aspiring singers, music and singing has always held a prime place, even throughout my PhD.

However, I never foresaw the possibility of marrying these two interests together, until now. 

When I began my research in the field of music, I came across countless studies supporting the premise that children who learnt music, were smarter, brighter and more emotionally stable than those who didn’t. However, having been already burnt by my previous idealistic beliefs, I wasn’t quite so quick to maintain this theory.

You see, one thing none of these studies seemed to recognise was the common denominator between all the different kinds of musical training – the fact that western music (like the horse’s gait) is rhythmical and beat based.

The human body naturally like to move in time to the regular beats and rhythms that it perceives; as evident daily when we tap our foot in time to music. This is called Beat Perception Synchronisation – an innate instinct, which is not only noticeable in toddlers who “bob” to music, but also by the foetus as it develops in utero.

From conception, the foetus is exposed to regular beats and rhythms within the womb; the mother’s heart beat, her locomotion and her breathing. This perception stimulates the vestibular system, which consequently plays a major role in the development of all our other senses. For those of you who are parents, you will know that “hand-clapping” is a fundamental milestone in infancy.

Now in the classroom, much of our learning takes place by following teaching instruction. This requires our brain to pay attention, to process information in real time, in sequential order and to respond accordingly. For many of us, this is not the most difficult task. However, for someone with a physical or cognitive impairment, it can be quite a different story. Although, it is widely accepted that we learn better when we learn through rhythm, children with learning difficulties often have poor rhythm timing skills.

Music consists of a series of beats and rhythms which unfold over time. Perceiving regular beats and rhythms, either physically or acoustically, stimulates memory, attention, performance accuracy, performance velocity and learning ability. As such, listening to music helps our brain to stay “on-line” so it can predict, process and piece information together in real time – exactly what one needs to keep up in the classroom.

More specifically, exposure to rhythm and beats in the form of music learning, has been shown to increase connectivity between the left and right side of the brain by stimulating the corpus callosum (part of the brain which links both hemispheres together), thereby making it work more effectively. Incidentally, this part of the brain is often undeveloped in children with social and behavioural learning deficits. And this is only the tip of the iceberg!

Knowing how the brain works, how it reacts to rhythms and beats, and how we can manipulate that to promote social, emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive development in those with special needs through a singing lesson, forms the heart of my practice and the marriage of two unique fields; music and equine therapy. Perhaps my initial premise wasn’t such an unbelievable concept after all.


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