A Horse’s Association Span

Question: I am a Level 2 student and Savvy Club member and I realized this weekend that I did not know the association span of the horse. For a dog the association span is 3 – 5 seconds in which you have to attach a positive or negative action to the dog’s action. This is a really important part of timing and overall training, too. How long is the association span in a horse? – Pamela R.

Answer: Hi Pamela! This is an interesting question, and given its scientific nature I have sent it to Dr. Miller for his thoughts.

In the meantime, here is a perspective from me: I think that the very next thing you do will let the horse know if he was right or wrong. Even people who do it a little slower get the right response from their horse eventually, but of course the quicker you can let the horse know he was right, the better.

Letting the horse know he was “wrong” is not the game, they don’t understand that – not in terms of punishment anyway. Punishment is not a constructive method with horses (prey animals). So in that case, if the horse doesn’t ‘do’ what you expected, you should either slow down and reiterate (making sure you were giving the right message), or stop and start again, take a fresh start.

But here’s the best thing to do – the moment, the MOMENT a horse tries to do what you want, give him a release. Some different ways you can give a release are: stop the stimulus, relax your energy for a moment, smile – your horse will read the change of energy, open your hand/hands on the rope or reins, or go to neutral (there are many ways to do that! You don’t always need to “stop”).

So timing is a big part of this – the sooner you can let a horse know he’s right, the sooner he will shoot for that. And the longer a horse is wrong, the more he thinks he’s right. But that does not mean you should punish him, it just means you should do something about it – such as maintain your original objective, stop and take a fresh start, or redirect his energy and focus on that until he finds what you’re looking for.

Yours Naturally,

EDIT 4/20/10: Dr. Miller did get back to me about the length of a horse’s association span. He believes it is about 1 – 3 seconds for a horse.


Filed under Horsemanship, Q & A

15 responses to “A Horse’s Association Span

  1. Leona Welch

    I have loved what i have read so far..going to my first show with yall soon..I have a fear of my horse. I was bucked off a stallion a couple of years ago. I ended up in the hospitle for four days with collapsed lung, 2 broke ribs, and a dislocated hip..I have rode since then but the fear is sometimes too much to take.. i love riding, I grew up riding horses and dont want to stop.. So i know i want to overcome this fear. I am hoping i will find this answer at your show..

  2. JipLee

    Speaking of picking up the stick–I am new to this and doing level 1 for about 4 weeks. I try to balance the stick on my side while doing the yoyo. Since Pat is about a foot taller than I am, I can’t tuck the stick under my belt like he does. Invariably it will fall on the ground, and when I start to pick it up, my LBI horse starts to circle or come in without being invited. I think he is laughing at me saying — haha, you messed up and I am taking advantage of it. This horse is definitely smarter than any 3 year old. And lazy too — when I send him out in a circle, he could not possibly go ANY SLOWER. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    Thank you, Linda and Pat. Hope Lexington goes great. From the barn in Brandon, FL we love you!!


  3. Back to the original question~ if you have to think about adding a positive or negative stimulus to a horse’s action, you’ve probably waited too long.
    I’m sure scientifically it’s got to be microseconds… that’s why physical punishment is a useless tool in the hands of most people.
    I spend countless hours just watching my horses and the herd. I use respect & trust to establish my Alpha position and yes some of it is physical to reinforce my pecking order.
    I use repetition, kindness, release & reward to reinforce my training now. I’m excited about adding the Parelli Levels to my horse tool box!

  4. positive thinker

    Given this explanation I would really like to understand therefore the intention behind “don’t make me pick up the stick”. If this is not punishment – what is ?

    • @positive thinker – The definition of punishment is a penalty or reprimand. Horses, as prey animals, do not understand that. But they do understand consequence (outcome or end result). If you study horses in the herd environment, they play dominance games and assert themselves to defend their personal space, first by laying back their ears or swishing their tail. And if the other horse doesn’t pay attention to that, teeth or feet follow in a bite, strike or kick. When we say “don’t make me pick up the stick” it is more for training the human to not be too quick to go to the stick! You try everything before you have to go to phase 4.
      The only time you would get to the stick faster is if you need to quickly and firmly defend your space. You would never be strong when you are teaching your horse, it’s only if they are out of control and you are in danger of being run over.

      Yours Naturally,

      • Kristi

        Can I interject a story here that [to me] seems like a form of punishment?
        I had my mare turned out with six other horses. To make a short story of this there was a pony that ran my mare around all the time. One time, during feeding time, the pony was running my mare off from the hay piles. The alpha mare let this go on for about 15 minutes then she chased the pony outside the feeding area and made her stay out there for at least 30 minutes before she allowed the pony back. That seems a little like a penalty/reprimand, doesn’t it?

        • Hi Kristi,

          I can see why you might think that, but actually it is just dominance. When humans use punishment they want to make a horse wrong for what he is doing, but it doesn’t work. The horse just sees it as a threat because he’s a prey animal and we’re a predator. But when it’s horse to horse, it’s dominance and they use the Driving Game to move that horse away, then they hold that ground. If the other horse is able to come back, then the other horse proves its dominance. And it’s most natural and common for these dominance games to be played around feed, water or horses they are bonded to. Between horses and humans, that’s usually not the case – it’s usually about something we want the horse to do and he’s not doing it and that’s when the human gets forceful or uses punishment to scold the horse for doing it wrong.

  5. I ussually don’t have problem with the “release as soon as the horse tries” part, but more with the “when the horse doesn’t understand, slow down and reiterate” thing. I’m always afraid that if I stop asking him for the right answer when he is tense or doesn’t understand, he will think that I released the pressure and he did the right thing. I don’t want to teach him to struggle with me or to be tense when I put pressure, so I always try to get at least SOME answer before I release. But I know that it sometimes causes even more problems, because horse gets more and more tense and so do I. Maybe I do it wrong somehow? What’s your advice?

    • I know what you mean Kasia, i would like some clarification on this too.

      Thanks for the blog Linda.

    • Hi Kasia, great question! :) Remember that nothing positive can be achieved when the horse is tense. You have to help him be calm before he can respond properly or learn. That’s why you should release when he tries anything, that will encourage him to try. As he gets more confident, you can release more precisely. Think about the horse getting more trusting of you, this will help you not be so concerned about getting it perfectly right.

      When a horse is tense, you need to slow way, way, WAY down. Think about when you are tense and somebody is trying to make you do something like answer a question! It feels like a lot of pressure. If they wait patiently for you, and ‘reward’ your try, you’ll relax and try more.

      Yours Naturally,

  6. Thank you for the response to Pamela’s question as this has neatly dealt with an issue I was having today . Interestingly my minor frustration stemmed from an unrealistic expectation of the horse. This has prompted me to stop, rethink my understanding of what I want to achieve and where we both are on the learning curve.

  7. 4H&H

    but here’s the best thing to do – the moment, the MOMENT a horse tries to do what you want, give him a release. Some different ways you can give a release are: stop the stimulus, relax your energy for a moment, smile – your horse will read the change of energy, open your hand/hands on the rope or reins, or go to neutral (there are many ways to do that! You don’t always need to “stop”).

    Adding to what was written in the answer – a try can be as simple and subtle a thing as a thought or almost imperceivable movement. For example, you might be asking for movement and you may notice the horse lean in the direction. Immediately stop and reward and do it again.
    The tinier the steps, the faster the progress.

    Today I worked with a young horse of mine, who is pretty much left alone to grow at the moment. Since I had to worm her anyway, I decided to take a moment to work on backing up. I applied a wee little bit of pressure on the lead rope towards her chest and when she simply shifted her weight back, I stopped and praised her. Then I did it again a few times and in about 30 seconds she was backing several steps with her head low & relaxed & super soft. The last time I did it, I didn’t even apply any pressure, just the movement of my hand back cued her to back up.

  8. Jen

    Hi Linda, thank you for answering Pam’s question. It leads into one I have also. I am brand new to horsing at 43, and recently purchased a 16 yr old, well-trained Morgan gelding. I have attended one clinic, so hide the hiney is about the extent of my Parelli training, but I hope to learn more. For now, I seem to be having a problem with Donner (horse) turning his backside toward me more and more, then running away, and find that I’m actually getting fearful that he will kick me. He always seems to have his head just barely turned away from me lately too, like he’s getting ready to run, and doesn’t seem to like me touching his face anymore. I do not strike him in the face, unless it’s an elbow bump to give me room, etc., when he’s being pushy. When he runs away, he kicks out, and the kicks are getting closer and closer to me. Is he responding to me or something I’m doing/not doing? I know he’s getting his cues from me, but I’m not sure what to do to calm down this increasing nervousness around him, and put better vibes out to him. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

    • Oh dear, you need to change this quickly – for sure it is dangerous behavior! There are two reasons a horse will do something like turn away or try to kick – fear or dominance. Have you done a horsenality analysis on your horse? This will tell you quickly which one it is. If the horse is more left-brain, it’s dominance and if it is more right-brain, it’s fear. Kicking is usually an introverted behavior.

      So let’s say your horse is a Right-Brain Introvert – the reason he turns away and kicks out is from fear and defensiveness. Rather than putting more pressure on, you need to back off. He would be reacting from too much pressure in the first place. You need to slow way down, be more gentle, and back off. Actually walk backwards and draw him towards you from the end of the 12′ line. You don’t want him close while he’s afraid or distrustful, and you don’t want to make him come to you. Just keep walking backwards and smiling until he can walk towards you with less resistance. Any time he seems to get tense or lose confidence and want to turn away, simply walk backwards and away from him. This will take the pressure off and help him feel less threatened.

      Then I would be learning more about the Seven Games, as soon as possible! Do you have our Get Started DVD? That will help a lot. In Level 1 you’ll get the full Seven Games education and that’s important because ‘hide your hiney’ is only the first step in getting a horse to face you rather than turn away from you. If that’s the only technique you have and you overuse it, like anything that is overdone, it will stop working. You need to know where to go next.

      If your horse is Left-Brain Introvert, then this is dominance. He sounds more right-brain to me, but without seeing him I could be wrong. When dealing with a dominant horse, you have to not get in a fight, firstly because that’s not good negotiation skills, but secondly because you won’t win! You have to slow down, and don’t be so quick with your elbows, try to read your horse’s intention give him the benefit of the doubt. Be kinder first, then teach him your boundaries without making him feel attacked.

      Left-Brain Introvert horses have an attitude of “what’s in it for me” and can get bored very easily, which is why they can cause trouble for their human and play dominance games on them. So give him a treat, make friends, tell him he’s wonderful (not that the words will mean anything to him, but he’ll feel it in your attitude), and ask for little things and reward big at first. Then you can reward with just a release, or a scratch in his favorite place, and pretty soon your horse will love to be with you more than anything else.

      Something very important to teach a left-brain horse is to back up (Yo-Yo Game). This is often the hardest game to accomplish with this kind of Horsenality because, being dominant, they want to approach and invade your space – make you move your feet. That’s how dominant horses operate. Being able to back him up will assert you as the leader (you don’t need to be rough, be as gentle as possible but then as firm as necessary) and make sure that he doesn’t start raiding you for treats. That’s why a lot of people think you shouldn’t give horses treats, because they will be all over you, but it’s not the answer. Having a language where you can communicate ‘come here,’ ‘not so close,’ ‘wait there,’ ‘back away a little or a lot,’ etc. is critical to a harmonious and understanding relationship between you and your horse. Horses are natural followers looking for natural leaders. It’s up to you to learn how to become a great leader for your horse using equine psychology and herd behavior rather than mechanics or punishment.

      Yours Naturally,

  9. Judy

    I look forward to hearing what Dr. Miller has to say about association span.
    I totally understand Linda’s comments that the sooner the release the quicker the horse knows he was correct….it’s all about timing. I have a LBE, so I always have to be thinking quickly. God, I love this stuff!!

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