A committed clicker trainer friend posted this (not her content, just a link she liked) on Facebook this morning.
An Open Letter to Buck Brannaman
I really encourage yall to go read it if you have time. It’s long, but it’s really good – I especially like the point she makes about using clicker-type training to teach riders how to ride. In her open letter to Buck, she suggests that he break down the rider’s movements and mark when they’re doing it right.
For example (I’m making this one up): tell the rider that to steer the horse to the left, she should turn her head left, pick up contact on the left rein, support the horse with the right rein, and use her legs to ask the horse to walk. Then have the rider just concentrate on the head movement, and say “there” whenever she remembers to turn her head. Then add in the inside rein, then the outside rein, etc. “There” is the marker sound to reinforce the behavior, and by breaking it down into component body movements it should be easier for the rider to piece it together.
Sounds familiar, yes? It’s similar to how we teach horses. We ask for some component and keep asking til we get it, then we ask for more. Trot in a circle. Ok, good, now trot in a circle with a little actual bend. Good! Now slow that trot down (or extend it, or collect it – whatever you’re looking for in your discipline).
Now, the two points I think Gretchen, the blog author, got totally wrong:
The practice [of clicker training] is relatively simple in broad outline, but in detail as complex as the teacher’s knowledge and creativity can make it. Mark and reward what you want, block/ignore/wait out what you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat again. If you’ve ever shaped another creature’s behavior using those simple steps, you’re a clicker trainer, whether or not you’ve ever touched a clicker. Whether or not you’ve ever given an animal a food treat. Guess what, Buck. You’re a clicker trainer, insulting as that might be for you to hear.
When you artfully channel your green filly’s longing for peace, when you dole it out to her in tiny sips with every well-timed release, would you call that exploitive? I wouldn’t.
Clicker training, by every definition I’ve ever read, uses positive reinforcement. (Click that link – I go back to it several times.) Positive reinforcement means that the trainer gives something to the subject in order to increase the frequency of a behavior. You give the dog a bit of kibble when she sits. You give your husband a kiss when he loads the dishwasher. You give the horse a treat when she walks calmly past the scary trash can. That’s a great tool, and it’s extremely effective in all kinds of situations if you use it right, but it’s not what most horse owners do most of the time when we interact with our animals.
I might get this wrong – and if so, I hope the clicker nerds who read this will correct me – but I think most human/horse interaction is negative reinforcement (“the taking away of an aversive stimulus to increase certain behavior or response.”) An aversive stimulus doesn’t have to be harsh to be effective – it just means pressure and release. We all know to release the pressure as soon as the horse does what we want, right? I think that’s pretty fundamental to every effective non-clicker form of horsemanship. If you’re tapping your horse’s butt with a lunge whip to encourage her to load in a trailer, you stop tapping as soon as she starts moving toward the trailer. By taking away that aversive whip stimulus, you’ve showed her that yes, that’s what I want.
Now, look back up at that quote. “When you artfully channel your green filly’s longing for peace, when you dole it out to her in tiny sips with every well-timed release…” Release is not a reward. Rewards are positive reinforcement; releases are negative reinforcement. I’m a big fan of negative reinforcement – but it’s not clicker training.
Two. (Emphasis in original.)
The moment in your brief anti-clicker tirade when your ignorance was most glaringly exposed was when you scoffed that a clicker trainer “couldn’t click fast enough” if you put her in a dangerous situation. It would make as little sense to say of one of your students that she couldn’t yank on the bit often or hard enough to survive such a test. The problem wouldn’t lie with the bit, it would lie with the unprepared rider and horse. A clicker trainer uses the clicker to nurture a feel and to establish, refine, and then occasionally maintain specific cued behaviors. If a trainer hadn’t worked hard and long (possibly with the help of a clicker) to get the feel of her horse and to get the behaviors she would need in such a situation solidly on cue, if she hadn’t already established that she could bet her life on her horse responding as he needed to in order to keep them both safe, she would be a suicidal idiot to get the two of them willingly into such a fix. As would any student using your methods.
Um, I actually can’t ask for a behavior that’s incompatible with the horse trompling me (such as “head down” or “feet still”) and click to reward it faster than the horse can run over me (or buck me off, or spin and bolt). Especially if I’ve only used clicker training – meaning, I’ve only used positive reinforcement of the behaviors I want to see. I haven’t yet met a horse that was exclusively trained using positive reinforcement – and to be honest, I don’t ever want to be on the same side of a fence as that horse.
You know what I can do? Scream and wave my fists, for trompling on the ground. Yank the horse’s nose to my knee with my
instruments of oppression reins. It might not save me – horses are dangerous! – but it’s more likely to save me than asking for a behavior that’s incompatible with splattering me.
Let’s go back to operant conditioning terms for a second. My panic reactions to my horse trying, inadvertently, to kill me are all positive punishment methods: the adding of an aversive stimulus to decrease a certain behavior or response. If my horse walks right into my bubble like she’s forgotten I exist, I will absolutely add an aversive stimulus (yelling, thrashing about with the lead rope, flailing with my arms) to decrease that behavior.
In contrast, if I’m trying to train her to stand in a slightly different spot, I might use pressure/release negative reinforcement: jiggle the lead rope til she backs up with her head at my shoulder. Or I might use clicker training positive reinforcement: when she’s standing exactly where I want, make a marker sound that she associates with something pleasant, to indicate that that’s where I want her to stand. Both of those methods take repetition, and they’ll both get you a horse that’s interested in leading and standing in exactly the way you’ve trained – but I just don’t know if that horse wouldn’t leap into you to get away from a plastic bag blowing across the yard. That’s what positive punishment is for.
Additionally: you only become prepared for your horse by doing shit with your horse. I do not know how to get behaviors on cue 100% of the time without exposure to different scenarios, and no one else does either. That’s why endurance riders are prepared to eat dirt at the first start line. It’s why your barrel horse runs differently away from home. It’s why dressage people start out at lower levels than what they train at home. It’s why eventers practice jumping so many types of jump – it takes exposure to get the cues right, whether you’re using positive or negative reinforcement. Yes, I’m sure a committed and gifted clicker trainer could get the cues right to perform well in any of those scenarios – but positive punishment is there to save you from a world of hurt if it all goes sideways.
What do you think, clicker and traditional people?