Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An open letter to Buck Brannaman

In the interests of greater harmony...
Like many who dwell outside the rarefied world of horses and horsepeople, I only recently became acquainted with Buck Brannaman's life and work through the beautiful documentary film Buck that was released last year and is now available on DVD. Buck gave a Q&A at the showing I attended in Portland early in the summer, and made good in person on the charisma so evident on film. It struck me immediately how much his training approach had in common with that of the clicker/marker trainers I most admired, and despite my great ignorance about horses I knew it would be worth my while to attend one of his clinics as a spectator. In late October, I traveled up to Spanaway, Washington with a firm cushion and a warm blanket and planted myself in the bleachers of the arena where Buck taught three separate horsemanship classes every day for four days. (He followed with two more for three days; his dedication and stamina are remarkable.)

I spent most of three days happily lapping up just about everything he had to say and to show about training horses, though I couldn't help remarking that he was somewhat less effective as a trainer of people. But at the end of his second session on that third day, one of his students asked what he thought of clicker training, and he could not have been more contemptuous or less measured in his response. He said he found it worthless at best, exploitative at worst. Good for nothing more than tricks. He recounted a recent encounter with a dangerously spooked steer and joked that a clicker trainer "couldn't click fast enough" to handle such a situation.

Well, that got me riled. And when I'm riled I write. A few days after returning home from Buck's clinic, I sent him an eight-page letter detailing all the reasons I was convinced that a) he was already a "clicker trainer" and b) he could be a better one. I would probably not post it here if I had heard back from him, and I am hesitant to do it now, but I don't know whether he's still trashing the people with whom he should be making common cause, and I'd love to jump start the dialogue that might bring us closer to mutual understanding. As I think I make clear in the letter, I admire Buck a great deal, but I think in this instance he's using his influence to real potential harm. I also realized that this letter represented my own most focused attempt to articulate the power and promise of clicker/marker training. (I regret that my summary of its history contained a couple of significant inaccuracies. I have let them stand here in the interests of fair representation of my own fallibility, but apologies are due to the memory of Keller Breland.) Anyway, here it is:

November 4, 2011

Dear Buck,

First and foremost, I want to thank you. I attended one of your recent clinics in Spanaway as a first-time spectator. Even from that remove, I learned more than I could have hoped, and I left powerfully inspired to put that learning into practice. I should say that I am not a horsewoman in either the casual or the proper sense of that term. I came to your clinic because I have a passion for clear communication between individual creatures who may not be of the same species, a passion I have so far exercised primarily as a writer and as a teacher of humans and dogs. I’ve spent about fifteen years teaching the first (high school, college, and adult students), only about two teaching the second (that is to say, only two with focused intent and the least little bit of efficacy). I guessed that I could learn a great deal from you in spite of the gap in our immediate interests, and I did.

One of the things that impressed me most during the clinic (and contributed immeasurably to your credibility) was your frequent reference to the limits of your own knowledge, your insistence that you still have and will always have more to learn. On a few occasions you expressed your well-founded disgust for people who get ahead of themselves, people who speak in tones of false authority on subjects about which they know next to nothing. (In my experience, next to nothing is often more dangerous than nothing at all when it comes to degrees of ignorance.) I would not have taken you for such a person, when you have generally been so careful to build your authority on a solid foundation from the ground up. So I was sorely disappointed and more than a little angered by your casual and insulting dismissal of clicker training in response to a student question on the third afternoon of the clinic. You made it clear from your comments that you know next to nothing about it, and yet you felt entitled to use the authority you have earned in other ways to trash the devoted work of people who might otherwise be your natural allies. You know only a caricature of clicker training, only the crudest sketch, and that’s the picture that may now persist indelibly in the minds of some of your students because you momentarily and uncharacteristically abdicated your responsibility as a teacher to know whereof you speak.

Imagine that someone who’d seen the film The Horse Whisperer considered himself competent to judge your methods and principles, to get on his mike and tell an arena full of people, “Oh that Buck Brannaman, what a load of mumbo jumbo. If you want to whisper to your horse, you go right ahead, but if you actually want to get something done...” Hell, you probably don’t have to imagine it. I’d bet you’ve heard it many a time, and I’d bet it pissed you off every time. I’d further bet that you’d hate to expose yourself for the same kind of fool, so it pains me to be the one to tell you that your pants were on the ground the other afternoon. But I’m hoping that this is what we both might call a teachable moment. I hope I can teach you enough in a few pages about clicker training that the next time someone asks you a similar question you don’t get yourself caught in a cranial-anal inversion but maybe pause long enough to say, “You know, I need to learn more about that before I can really judge whether there might be something to it.”

Here’s the caricature you passed along: treats, tricks, exploitation, inefficacy. Here’s the reality in its ideal: seamless communication across barriers that might otherwise appear insurmountable. Across barriers in perception, expression, motivation, etc. Across barriers between species and between individuals. Maybe you notice some overlap between that ideal and the one you’re after. I wouldn’t have come to your clinic if I didn’t notice it. The real irony in your trashing clicker training lies in the fact that you already use it. And it’s been used on you by at least one of the teachers you most respect. If you only knew that and didn’t shy from it, you might use it more effectively. That sentence probably made you brace, but there’s nothing that should scare you there apart from your own blind prejudice. Please hear me out.

The first thing you should know is that “clicker training” is a bit of a misnomer, given that it often doesn’t involve a clicker. “Clicker training” is convenient but misleading shorthand for a set of principles; those principles give rise in turn to a set of practices that are infinitely adaptable and potentially very powerful. As with any method, the practice is vulnerable to misuse in the absence of the underlying principles. I already noted an overlap in ideals between your aims and those of clicker trainers: effective communication. It’s not so surprising, then, that there’s a significant overlap in foundational principles as well. I’ve listed below some of the things you emphasized explicitly or implicitly during the clinic, all of which are also at the heart of clicker training when practiced well:

  1. Recognizing and channeling (even liberating) an animal’s inborn gifts, whether they be of intelligence, power, quality of movement, motivation, etc. Recognizing and responding appropriately in the moment to distinctions among species and among individuals.
  2. Patience; incrementalism; breaking skills/challenges down into manageable steps; being ready to have something take an hour, a day, a year, five years, a lifetime.
  3. The power of repetition.
  4. The importance of accuracy, precision, consistency.
  5. Setting the animal (human or otherwise) up for success; closing off unproductive options.
  6. Offering a good deal; always asking what’s in it for the animal.
  7. Efficacy; not asking questions you don’t know the answers to.
  8. Discovering how little you need to do.
  9. Maintaining calm, focus, and life (or reviving it in a dull or anxious animal).
  10. Adapting to circumstance, dealing with what is rather than a fantasy of what ought to be.
  11. Using smarts in place of power.
  12. Teaching the animal to teach you.
  13. Building awareness of your own physical, mental, and emotional states. Building your own capacity for equanimity and self-control as a means of building it in the animal and increasing your ability to communicate clearly.
  14. Building trust and respect through competence and informed leadership.
  15. Striving to be an enlightened monarch; taking responsibility for the well-being of an animal who has entrusted him/herself to your judgement.
  16. Finding a “feel” (what I understand as a live current of connection and communication, whether it passes through a rein or across an open field).
  17. Learning from the animal even as you teach him/her.
  18. Timing, timing, timing.

The practice 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. A predatory animal’s primary hunger is more likely to be literal. Lots of people will set down a full dish of food for their dog and then disdain treats as bribes. My three dogs work for some of their food every day, one tiny bit of kibble at a time. If I were working as hard as I should with them, they would work for it all. Not because I want to be a hardass but because they hunger for more than food: they hunger for engagement, for challenge, for mastery. They love to learn, whether it’s something silly, something that helps keep them healthy and comfortable (like getting their nails clipped without a fuss), or something that could save their lives (like a rock-solid recall). Would you call that exploitation? Not in any negative sense, not if you could see the light in the eyes of my girl Barley, a supremely independent-minded ten-year-old husky mix who was my happy guinea pig when I first started clicker training two years ago. She learned more in two weeks than she had in her previous eight years (which says a lot about my unenlightened leadership to that point), and I’ll never forget the look she gave me early in our first session: “Why the hell didn’t you tell me what you wanted before?” Of course I had, but never in a way that she could so clearly understand. When I taught my cat Hops to target her nose to a ball or give me a head butt on cue, was it useful? Not in any strict sense. But she purred everytime I got out the clicker, something she’d never do for food alone. There’s a great German word I just came across, funktionslust: the joy in doing something well. We all have it, as long as we haven’t learned to shut it down. We want to have that joy exploited.

And that story leads me to one of the most powerful things about clicker training: it can open a path of communication and forge a fast connection even between a novice teacher and a novice learner. It is difficult if not impossible for a clumsy and inexperienced trainer to wreck an animal if he or she sticks to that simple formula: mark and reward what you want, block/ignore/wait out what you don’t. I work as a volunteer with “behaviorally challenged” dogs at the Oregon Humane Society, the castoffs from people who have tried “everything” with their inconveniently self-directed animals. Everything except what works, if one only has the patience and fortitude to see it through. I work with dogs whose owners were too busy trying (and failing) to control them ever to teach them self-control, dogs whose strength and intelligence were totally appealing when they were puppies and totally unacceptable when the myth that the human owner was stronger and smarter fell to pieces. We adopted our youngest dog from OHS when he was ten months old and had already exhausted the patience of three other families. It’s easy to see why -- he’s a kelpie mix, a tightly-wound, anxious, prey-driven, and whipsmart dog. Two years later, he’s still a pain in the butt, but miles better than he was. I remain a rank beginner as a trainer, but when I’m at the Humane Society now, I can safely spend a half-hour with a pit-mix who’s launching his seventy-five pounds four feet in the air every time his next door neighbor makes a peep and convince him in that time that there might be a better response. Like sitting quietly with his eyes on mine. You could probably accomplish the same more quickly, but could your students?

Let me tackle your prejudice against clickers head-on. A clicker (or a light pen or any of a thousand things that could be used in its place) is nothing more or less than a simple mechanical tool for communication. It’s a marker in the “mark and reward” sequence. Like a bit, or a flag, or a leg, it’s only effective when artfully employed. A rope only becomes a true lead rope in the hand of someone who knows how to use it: with good timing and good feel. The same skills are vital in the effective use of any marker. In clicker training the marker always means the same thing: “Yes. There. That was it. Good things are coming.” Clicker trainers will often use “yes” and “there” as markers. The same way you do with your human students. The same way Ray Hunt did with you when he taught you to see a horse in balance. “There... there... there.” But a marker doesn’t have to be auditory or visual - it could be tactile. You have the good fortune to work with an animal with whom you are in near constant contact. Even in ground work, your connection is often literal, and certainly needs to be with a green horse. You have unusually ample sensory means of telling your filly, “There. That’s the stuff,” and then of following through with your promise of peace. I don’t have anything like the necessary knowledge to imagine how the use of an actual clicker would improve your communication with a horse. It would almost certainly be redundant, when you have so many other tools at your disposal, and know how to employ them so skillfully.

But I can readily imagine some ways that a clicker might improve your communication with your other students. I have enough experience (i.e., accumulated mistakes and self-corrections) as a teacher of humans to recognize from the outside when another teacher is less effective than he could be. It became clear watching you that you’re aware of a significant gap between your efficacy with horses and your efficacy with humans. It was just as clear that you find that gap frustrating, also that you’re sorely tempted to blame it on the slowness and blockheadedness of humans relative to horses. But at one point I heard you touch on the real problem, when you talked about needing so many words with your human students because you can’t speak to them in the way you can speak to horses, with physical immediacy. It’s no coincidence that probably the most effective bit of teaching you did with a human student took place when you had a rope around Ryan’s ankle. He understood something in his body that no verbal description was going to communicate to him. But it’s just not practicable for you to put a lead rope on twenty different people careening (well, only some of them, to be fair) around an arena on horseback. What to do?

This is exactly what clicker training was made for. I suspect you don’t know much about its history, but it’s not totally newfangled, just semi-newfangled. It was developed about sixty years ago by Bob and Marian Bailey, a couple who had studied behaviorist psychology with B.F. Skinner and (contrary to the callous, mad scientist stereotype) thought they could apply it in a way that would improve animals’ lives, specifically by replacing the methods of brute domination that were pretty much synonymous with “training” at that time (and sadly remain so in many quarters today). They had a lot of incentive to develop new methods because they were working with animals like dolphins who simply couldn’t be dominated. The question “what’s in it for the animal?” rose inevitably to the forefront, and they adopted an approach that was oriented as purely as possible toward reward/reinforcement (with punishment being the simple absence of reinforcement). So they had the motivation question addressed: a dolphin will happily work for a herring, and stay happier and healthier working for it than having it given to him for free. But they ran into the same issue with dolphins that’s slowing your progress with your human students: how to communicate in a precise, timely, and effective manner with an animal who might be a hundred feet away (and maybe underwater)? How to make the reward as immediate as it needed to be without slinging fish willy-nilly through the air? From their background in the laboratory, they knew that a totally meaningless stimulus could become meaningful through repeated association. By initially pairing a loud whistle with immediate reward, they gave those markers meaning to the animals and thereby created a bridge across distance and time between the desired behavior and the reinforcement.

You’re ahead of the game with your human students because you already have a couple of markers that carry across distance and mean something to them: “There.” “That’s the stuff.” Furthermore, those markers hold their own reward. Your students have that vital funktionslust -- the pleasure in doing things well -- and they clearly crave your approval. So there’s no need to fill your pockets with m&m’s or steak bites, thank goodness. You have the tools to communicate what you want but seem to lack the awareness to do it most effectively; you have the ability to reward what you want but seem to lack the will to do it generously.

At one point during the second session of the third day of the clinic, you talked about the importance of maintaining the horse in a learning frame of mind, of keeping its ears soft and its expression relaxed. You wisely noted that this was the key to the horse’s being able to retain anything it was taught. I wanted to ask you whether you followed the same principle in teaching humans, but I showed unusual restraint (unusual for me) and kept my mouth shut. I knew it would only be a smartass rhetorical sort of question, because I’d seen how much less successful you were at keeping people in a learning frame of mind. Ten or more times, I’d seen Reese flush beet red with embarrassment and frustration. I’d seen Trent get progressively more flustered as he shot multiple blanks into the flanks of his poor horse. They were learning, but learning slowly and sometimes in spite of you. How much would they retain when the tide of stress had washed out?

Consider that prolonged exercise with Trent. Here was someone who had no native sense of what position three should feel like. No internal sense of stillness at all. Looking back on it, how helpful do you think it was to him to hear “no!” twenty times? He got lots of “you did it again,” and a couple of times “relax!!” (Especially helpful.) He got “there” and “that was a little better” on a bare handful of tries. Are you so afraid of relaxing your standards, so wary of “spoiling” your human students, that you’re willing to abandon the principles of incrementalism, of setting them up for success, of working from what is rather than what ought to be? That’s how it looked from the stands. And the price of your impatience is that your students learn much more slowly than they could.

I bet you that, even with my near total ignorance of horsemanship, I could have gotten Trent settled in his saddle in about five minutes. And he’d remember it the next day, because he never would have gotten so riled. I could do it with nothing more than my eyes and the word “there.” I would break the task down into two steps: pelvis and legs. I’d tell him first that he didn’t need to worry about anything but getting his weight back on his tailbone. Not to worry about his reins, his legs, nothing but his butt. And if he accidentally started his horse, just to return to a stop as calmly as he could and try again. Every time I saw his weight settle totally back onto his tailbone, I’d say “there” and have him shift it forward again just enough to set himself up for a fresh try, ideally not enough to send his horse forward (though if that subtle shift was enough, how wonderfully lively his horse would suddenly be!). Shift it back to a settle. “There.” It might take ten or fifteen repetitions before Trent had a much better idea of how it felt when his weight was where it should be. Then I’d move to the legs. Tense the leg. Release it. “There.” Again. Again. Again. I know what it looks like, and he’d quickly learn what it felt like. Then try both. There. There. Wait for it... there. No fuss, no embarrassment, greater retention.

And no clicker necessary. But I’d probably use one if I had it, and if I were you, I’d definitely use one. The reason that clicker trainers often do use clickers (and other similar tools) is that they are much more precise and consistent than the human voice. I can say “there” with an infinite variation in my inflection, tone, and tempo -- in fact it’s extremely difficult for me or anyone to remove all “color” from a word marker and make it perfectly consistent. So a clicker can bump up the efficiency of my teaching significantly, because the message is perfectly clear and always the same. Never more or less enthusiastic, never loaded with any emotional baggage or doubt. The reason a clicker would be more useful for you than for me in teaching Trent how to find position three in his body is that Trent doesn’t know me from Eve. He doesn’t have any great respect for me, any desire to please me in particular, and he doesn’t need it for me to be effective. He only needs to trust that I know what his butt and his legs look like when he’s relaxed. Anyone in the arena or the stands who could observe that much could teach him just as well (and while teaching him become better aware themselves of the physical signals they might be sending their horses unintentionally).

With you, on the other hand, he’ll have a hard time not getting distracted by his desperate desire to please you. Your praise paradoxically means too much to him to keep him receptive and learning. A click is emotionally neutral in a way that a word cannot be from you to one of your overawed students. Shayne and Randy have been around you long enough to shake off some of the weight of your mystique, but I saw that even they would glow like little boys when you told them, “Now that’s looking a little better.” And that may be one (very sound) reason that you’re so much stingier with people than you would ever dream of being with a horse. A horse won’t get fluttery when you give it a rub, won’t run out to tell all the other horses what a hotshot he is because Buck Brannaman said so. A human might. So a clicker could come in very handy if you were able to overcome your prejudice against it. But if that proves a bridge too far, you could still lighten your burden as the sole locus of authority and the sole source of reward by enlisting your students (or even spectators) as fellow teachers. This would only require that you break skills down into more manageable steps.

I dare you to try this. Just once -- unless God forbid it actually works. Say you want to teach everyone where the hand with the leading rein ought to be positioned when bringing the horse’s front quarters around (this was a stubborn challenge throughout the clinic). Gather your students around you and demonstrate a few times, asking them to look carefully for the moment that your hand arrives where it should be, out from your hip. After a few repetitions, ask them to verbally mark that moment every time they see it: “there.” Once you heard “there” become a unified chorus, you’d know they all knew what that hand position ought to look like, and they’d all be prepared to see it and mark it in someone else. Then have them partner up, with one partner just watching the other and saying “there” every time they saw the hand arrive in the proper position. The rider wouldn’t have to worry about anything else (though they’d soon discover how far they needed to slide down on the rein in order to get where they needed to be), and in a few minutes they’d achieve the beginning of a feeling for that precise relationship between the hand and the body. And they might discover -- lo and behold -- that it improved the turn. Then they could work on the position of the hand with the supporting rein, return to the leading rein when it fell apart again (as it is bound to do for a while). Similarly, a partner could mark the lifting of the horse’s leading foot. “There... there... there.” And maybe the rider would begin to feel it. What does a float in the rein look like, feel like? How about a soft feel? Maybe I was just flattering myself that I could see both the float and the soft feel from across the arena, because I practice them all the time with my dogs on their leashes, but the only rider apart from you who appeared to my untutored eyes to return to them habitually, without thinking about it, was Randy. It was obvious from a glance that he trusted himself, he trusted his horse, and his horse trusted him in return. Many of the rest were so intent on maintaining “control” or keeping their horses’ heads prettily elevated that they continually pulled their horses off their stride.

My point is that you simply can’t communicate your body’s knowledge to other bodies anywhere near as effectively through description and demonstration as you can by marking what’s right when you see it -- marking it immediately and repeatedly. All while blocking/ignoring/waiting out the mistakes, instead of saying “wrong, wrong, wrong” after the fact. This would let you do with people what you do so effectively with horses: take small and isolated steps with them that lead to more complex awareness and skills, set them up for success, tackle some new but manageable challenge all the time. If you enlisted your students as fellow teachers, you’d have the happy side effect of accelerating their progress in competence (and confidence). Everyone might become a little more active mentally and a little more likely to look out for their horses and each other if they were a little less focused on you.

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.

As for your underlying message that clicker training is only good for dumb tricks, that it’s inherently worthless for someone like you who might face dangerous and unpredictable animals on a regular basis in his working life, I’d like to call your attention to the uniquely effective use of clicker training by a growing number of zookeepers around the country. To take one example, elephants have killed enough keepers in recent years that most zoos have adopted “protected contact” policies, which dictate that keepers can never enter the pens of their charges and so must find creative and utterly noncoercive means of getting elephants’ wills to coincide with their own. I wonder if you could -- using no more than a couple of words or hand gestures -- persuade a six-ton African bull elephant to stroll over to a gate and lift his foot so you could check it for infection. I wonder if you could get a rhinoceros voluntarily to lie down, then roll on its side and stay there calmly while a veterinarian takes a blood sample? Clicker trainers have accomplished these things, and maybe you could, too. The difference right now is that none of them would mock you and call you stupid to an arena full of people. They’d be impressed and want to know how you managed it. They might even think they had something to learn from you.

I have a lot of nerve writing you like this. I know it. If you’ve read this far, I can offer only one defense for my bumptiousness, and that is my commitment to the well-being of animals who have been thrust -- through no fault of their own -- into the human world and then have to make the best of that deal. The Oregon Humane Society fortunately has enough success placing animals in new homes that it takes in dogs from overcrowded shelters as far away as Los Angeles, and it only euthanizes those who are judged to be incorrigibly dangerous (I have known the behavior department to work for months with a dog before making that painful decision). This is not the norm, as you probably know. So I view the training of people as a life or death matter for the dogs I work with, and clicker training is far and away the most effective and efficient method I’ve encountered for getting a bumbling human into some kind of workable synch with an animal who depends on that human’s goodwill for its own survival. I’m writing in the animals’ defense. And in defense of a host of people who work as devotedly as you do to make animals’ lives better. Some of them have been working to that end even longer than you have, and I really hate to hear them get verbally spit on by someone who ought to know better.

You have a well-earned and growing power of influence, which is all the more reason you should take care not to abuse it. I think you’re a good king, Buck. (Sounds like the title of a new Christmas carol. “Good King Brannaman looked out...”) But you’re not perfectly enlightened, not on this subject. I beg you not to say another public word about clicker training until after you’ve taken a few big bites out of your own ignorance. If you ever want to learn more, just say the word. Karen Pryor has been putting these methods effectively to work for nearly fifty years. I’ve quoted a couple of paragraphs from her excellent (and nicely compact) book Don’t Shoot the Dog below, just to give you some idea of the alliance in your thinking. If you’d like, I would happily buy and send you a copy. I can also pretty well guarantee that Karen would be delighted to talk with you if you ever thought that would be worth your while. She’s extremely generous with people who are committed as she is to improving communication between human and non-human animals.

Thank you again for all that I learned (or began to learn) last week, for the great charge of inspiration I took from your example, and especially for your devotion to the dignity and flourishing of horses and other underestimated creatures. I hope I’ll have another opportunity soon to learn more of what you have to teach.

With sincere gratitude and all best wishes,
Gretchen Icenogle

From Don’t Shoot the Dog, pages 8-9:

Sometimes, I think, we reinforce children too soon under the misimpression that we are encouraging them (“Atta girl, that’s the way, you almost got it right”). What we may be doing is reinforcing trying. There is a difference between trying to do something and doing it. Wails of “I can’t” may sometimes be a fact, but they may also be symptoms of being reinforced too often merely for trying. In general, giving gifts, promises, compliments, or whatever for behavior that hasn’t occurred yet does not reinforce that behavior in the slightest. What is does reinforce is whatever was occurring at the time: soliciting reinforcement, most likely.

Timing is equally important when training with negative reinforcers. The horse learns to turn left when the left rein is pulled, but only if the pulling stops when it does turn. The cessation is the reinforcer. You get on a horse, kick it in the sides, and it moves forward; you should then stop kicking (unless you want to move faster). Beginning riders often thump away constantly, as if the kicking were some kind of gasoline necessary to keep the horse moving. The kicking does not stop, so it contains no information for the horse. Thus are developed iron-sided horses in riding academies that move at a snail’s pace no matter how often they are kicked.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, it's very well written and your insights on the subject of clicker training are fantastic.

    Far too often I hear "Your little box won't stop a truly aggressive dog", my explanations sometimes hit the spot but other time receive a harsh recoil. And being as I'm 16 it seems my age immediately puts me at a ignorant level in the eyes of most.

    I've been a volunteer trainer of sorts (not official due to my age)at my local humane society for a few years now and have had the pleasure of working with dogs of many colors, so to speak. And I've always had the best success using clicker methods. (Prior to being involved with the society I was into corrections, prong collars, and dominance theory. To me a dark past I'm glad to have left behind me, but to many they'd say. "Where did you go wrong?" Maybe I just meet less open minded people than usual.)

    I do love reading things like this and seeing that there are educated people out there striving to make a different despite not being world renowned.

    This makes me want to write a journal entry, keep up the fantastic work!

    1. Thanks, Elementary! And kudos to you. I'm impressed that you already have the independence and strength of mind to honor your convictions in the face of opposition and disrespect. Most of us need a lot more time to develop that kind of gumption. It's strange, and may speak to a peculiarly American brand of machismo, but we often draw the most flak when we take a firm stand for gentleness and compassion - even when they get the best results. To his great credit, Buck Brannaman has taken such a stand, and that's why it was so disheartening to hear him insult other, similarly courageous trainers. Write that journal entry, and share it! Your age is clearly no barrier to wisdom!

  2. Thank you for the kind words, I was referred to your blog through someone I work with. He visited the humane society you volunteer at and only had wonderful things to say.

    I forgot to ask in my previous comment, did you ever hear back from Buck? I haven't seen him in person but watched the popular film and he seems like the sort that would at least take in the information.

    1. I have yet to hear back from him, or I might not have made the letter public. He's a busy guy, but I hope he'll get back to me one day. (If not, I'll likely introduce myself the next time I get a chance to attend one of his clinics.)

      I'm guessing Woody sent you this way. He's pretty terrific.

  3. Hey Gretchen - I was linked to this post this morning, and I really liked it! I wrote half of a really long response in my head, then decided to just write a whole blog post instead. It's here, and I hope I don't sound too negative. I loved the post, especially your suggestions about clicker training the riders; I just had more to say about the bits I disagreed with. I hope your open letter sparks some discussion among us horse bloggers!

  4. Hi Gretchen,

    I find your blog very interesting and well written.
    I was at that same clinic and in fact the question was asked by an aquaintence of mine in order to spite me. I stayed for all 7 days and in fact, i just got back from auditing another clinic in California. (I'm from the Salem Oregon area)Here is my blog post from after I returned home. www.emmakline.blogspot.com and actually a few days later, he and I got a chance to chat a bit about it. Without the label of clicker training we were able to have a perfectly enlightened conversation. To be fair, I have seen a lot of horse people get themselves into very dangerous situations with a clicker and a half baked idea. (perhaps this is partly why he just tells people to forget it. with horses, those kind of mistakes can lead to grave injury and death for folks who don't want to truly study learning theory.) Anyway, I find it interesting that you would have seen what I saw. I didn't think anyone else in that building did. :)emma oh, ps. email me if you'd like to chat more. chowpela@hotmail.com

  5. I sure hope that Buck hasn't responded to you because he is taking the time to learn a little about clicker training, first. What a shame that he would make such a judgement in public. He is such an influential person--I'd like to have he watch my horse, Cole, for 5 minutes. I think he would sing a different tune.

    I have never seen a horse with such enthusiasm for training--talk about a joy to ride. He learns quickly and always tries to do well. He is so doglike, it is amazing. He is also so safe for one reason. The word "whoa" means stop everything and stand until further notice. Just the word--no pulling the reins. I don't even have to be riding him. Someone else can be riding, I can say "whoa" and he will stop.

    Sure, he will try to match his steps to mine as I lead him--often lifting his legs high in a dance step, and he will pick up things I drop when I ride him, but he likes these tricks, and we do them as a reward when we take a break. But, it is so nice to have him so focused on me--a willing partner. I will never have another horse that isn't a clicker horse. (My older horse can't have treats, so I just praise him, but it isn't the same)

    My cat jumps through a hoop. If you can train a cat, you can train anything.

    Author of "Trail Training for the Horse and Rider" and "Trail Horse Adventures and Advice"

  6. Lots here that I want to respond to in time, but much of the debate seems to center on the R+/R- question, so that's the one I dug into in my newest post. Many thanks for all the illumination!


  7. I just read your open letter to Buck. Where I would respectfully disagree with you is that nothing Buck does is about positive reinforcement.

    Pressure and release from pressure is a negatively based model of training. Really, Buck's method about learning avoidance of stimuli, which isn't what clicker training is about.

    Say I'm trying to teach you to back up by dangling a spider in your face, and you happen to be a little freaked out by spiders. What are you doing when you're backing up? Learning to take a step back or avoiding the spider? And what are you going to recall about this exercise? That backing up is the desired behavior or that you'll get a spider dangled in your face if you don't do it?

    So what horses trained in Buck's method are doing is backing up to avoid pain and/or pressure. He may say "Good boy," but that's not positive reinforcement.

    Anyone can get into a dangerous situation with a clicker, I suppose. I had to teach my horses "table manners" before I went into the round pen with a bag full of treats. If I hadn't taught them to be patient and emotionally self-controlled, yes I would've been mugged. But the point is that I don't intentionally put myself in unsafe situations. I wouldn't get into the same space with a terrified horse, a clicker and a bag of treats. I'd start from outside the fence and take my time building trust. What's the rush?

    Buck strikes me as the kind of person who doesn't understand fences or safe boundaries (phsyically or emotionally) and mistakenly believes that chasing a horse around results in respect. That's not partnership. It's domination. I don't dominate my partner. In fact, domination and partnership are truly mutually exclusive terms.

    In my experience, control is an illusion. My preference is to work cooperatively with my horses.

    Nora Morbeck

  8. Hi, Nora

    Thanks for the comment! I've been chewing for a while on some of the questions you raise, and I'm sure I'll need to chew a lot more before making a meal of them. ;-) But I hope you'll take a look at and give me your thoughts on a post from February titled "Rethinking Negative Reinforcement" and the one I just published on dancing.

    One of the puzzles that fascinates me no end is the relationship/distinction between pressure that's pleasurable (more usually called touch) and pressure that's not (casually and often technically defined as punishment). This distinction gets especially fraught in a training relationship, or any relationship where there's some significant imbalance in knowledge and/or power. Even those of us who view our relationships with our significant non-human others through a primary lens of partnership and cooperation have to acknowledge their deep and often non-reciprocal dependence on us. Marker/clicker training is a great way to shift things away from coercion and brute domination toward two-way communication and true partnership, but it can't entirely resolve this moral difficulty.

    I can't agree from my direct observations that Buck depends entirely or even primarily on frightening his horses to motivate their learning (indeed, he appears to be extremely effective in his counterconditioning practices, teaching them how much less they have to fear from the world or from him than they'd instinctively guess). However, I'm totally with you on the "what's the rush?" question, specifically when it comes to his teaching of humans in his clinics. What struck and dismayed me as an observer was how little power Buck apparently felt he had to insist that his students follow his own slow and steady approach. He clearly perceived that many or most of them were pressing their horses much too hard and too fast -- I would have loved to see him tell five or six of them to get off their horses' backs and not to remount until they'd done two or five or ten months of groundwork, whatever it took to earn the horses' trust.

    That said, I've seen some renowned clicker instructors make similar errors of judgement in their clinics. We're all vulnerable to this kind of lapse when we're on the spot.


  9. Hi Gretchen,

    I love this blog entry. I'm glad you had the courage to speak up to Buck in a letter. And I love your ideas about working with people and your stories/descriptions of clicker training.

    I am a professional horse person, and a clicker trainer. I have been to Buck's clinics in the past, participated in Ray Hunt's and Tom Dorrance's clinics, and studied extensively with like minded trainers such as Dennis Reis. I have great respect for all of these men as horsemen. I practiced and applied these methods with many horses, and shared their principles with clients successfully, for many years.

    However, over the course of the past ten years, for reasons too extensive to list here, I have become a clicker trainer. So I have a direct and very personal comparison. Buck's methods are effective. And you're right, there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to defining and applying negative reinforcement in the context of clicker training. But I would like to point out that what Buck (and most other trainers of his "genre") SAY about their training philosophy, and what they are actually DOING, are incongruent. My former self said and did many of the same things.

    I don't know if there is a good way to explain it without the experience of feeling the difference. But I do know that when I compare the feeling, relationship and the outcome of applying Buck's methods with my horses, to the feeling, relationship and outcome I have with my horses as a clicker trainer, there is a HUGE difference! My horses were fine and perfectly well behaved before. But now they have that extra sparkle, and are able to actively participate in our relationship so much more. And at this point on my path, I would never dream of sending a horse dashing around a round pen to work through fear and emotion, or create a solid wall with my reins or my flag for a horse to crash into, in order for the horse to learn how to respond appropriately to pressure.

    While it's true that Buck is much more gentle than cowboys past, or even some other trainers present, and it's also true that he can take a wild mustang and be riding it in a matter of days (which I could not do with my current level of experience as a clicker trainer), I would like to point out that:
    1. "Gentler" doesn't mean "as gentle as it could be."
    2. I don't see any reason at this time in history, when our survival is not dependent on "riding that wild horse and getting that cattle drive done," to start a horse under saddle in one weekend. Carrying a rider is an advanced behavior, and to do it well and safely, requires appropriate physical and emotional preparation, which can not be done in three days.
    3. After studying and applying both methods, I wish people were more aware of how much pressure Buck is actually applying, physically and psychologically, and how much stress the horses are actually experiencing, instead of seeing the speedy outcome, and the fact that there is not usually any blood being spilled, and calling it gentle and miraculous. And I wish that trainers like Buck would stop calling their methods kind, positive, harmonious, and all about partnership, and just call it what it is - The precise and effective application of negative reinforcement.

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak my mind. There are many paths, and many ways to relate to and work with animals. I am not in a position to judge, and have many mountains to enjoy climbing when it comes to my own education. And I am glad that there are so many people who are working hard, in their own ways, to improve the welfare of animals. And I am thankful for the internet, so we can all connect, share ideas, and learn from each other, even if we sometimes are on different paths or speaking different languages.

    Happy writing and clicking!

  10. p.s. By the way, I have recently learned that in the world of law enforcement, the use of negative reinforcement to keep both officers and offenders safe in dangerous situations, is called "pain compliance." The way it is applied is identical - gradually increase the pressure until you get a response, then immediately release. I can't make a judgement on the use of this method, because I am blissfully ignorant about the world of law enforcement. But at least they call it what it is, instead of "gentle training."

  11. I’m so glad that we can have this discussion. It feels great to share and give feedback to one another.

    You bring up so many good points. But I don’t think I can get to all of them in one post. This one is pretty long. But I really want to continue the conversation, so I guess we can talk about dancing and partnership next on here or in a personal e-mail; whichever you prefer.

    Since I wasn’t at the clinic that you attended with Buck, I’m not sure what it is that you saw or didn’t see. As I understand it, you’re not a horse person, and I’m not sure if you get much of an opportunity to just hang out in a pasture and watch horse behavior. Lots of people don’t, so you’re definitely not alone there. Even horse people don’t necessarily spend hours just sitting and watching their horses. I do. I guess that makes me a bit of a weirdo. :)

    My experiences may shed a different light – not better or worse. Just different. It’s very, VERY common to miss subtle cues in horse behavior, especially when you’re sitting at a distance or if you’re unfamiliar with what to look for. A horse being worked with at a clinic may seem to be acting in a cooperative manner from a distance. Yes, there he is, standing still beside the trainer. They’re partners, right? Maybe. Maybe not. On more detailed examination, the horse may actually be highly stressed, with clear signs that his stillness has nothing to do with relaxation and everything to do with fear and discomfort. But those signs are only clear if you know what you’re looking for. Everything going on with the horse’s body is information. They are constantly “speaking.” And often they’re misunderstood.

    The licking chewing response (a stress response in equines) has been misinterpreted for years by many practitioners of natural horsemanship methods. Here’s a great, science-based article on licking/chewing. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=6346

    So, I’m not sure what you were looking at during Buck’s clinic, or if you’re familiar with signs of distress. Maybe you just see things differently than I do. I haven’t been to one of Buck’s events, but I’ve been to see other trainers with methods similar to his. I was not amazed by saddling and riding a previously unridden horse. I was appalled. I saw horses run in endless, confusing circles with their heads tossing, their bodies forced to spin away from a whip or rope and eyes so wide I could practically see the whites from the bleachers. I could see abject fear and distrust in the horse being desensitized with a plastic bag. But even I let myself be fooled. I trusted the “expert.” I tried the plastic bag thing on my mare to get her over her fear of them. Here’s my experience with that disaster. (By the way … I’m giving credit where it’s due. My friend Meg Eades who posted above gave me the spider example. Full credit to her for sharing such a great analogy for avoidance of fear and pressure!) http://www.mothercreek.blogspot.com/2008/07/desensitize.html

    I use a clicker now. I can see my horses thinking their way to the “YES!” of the click. Food really isn’t the major motivator anymore – but who doesn’t like a reward for a job well done? They don’t lick and chew during training sessions. They’re not stressed. We laugh a lot. I’m teaching my gelding Smokey Joe to play with a huge Frisbee. Why? Is that just fluffy clicker training goo? Well, I guess if you call horses and humans having fun together “fluffy,” then yes. Guilty as charged.

    AND … I’ve taught Smokey emotional self-control by working with his natural instinct to lower his head when he’s relaxed. When I see him spook or get overwhelmed, he slows down, stops and lowers his head. He’s getting himself under control. I can visibly see the transformation from stress to relaxation. This is a valuable behavior that helps keep both of us safe under a variety of circumstances. He’s responsible for calming himself down and telling me when he needs to relax. It’s all information. It’s my job to pay attention.

  12. Hi Meg and Nora - please forgive the slow response to your thoughtful comments.

    The first thing I should say, since it's relevant to both of your comments, is that the clinic I attended only included Buck's Horsemanship I & II classes, not his class in starting colts. So you may well know more than I do about his methods with truly green horses. As I said in my earlier comment, some of the horses and riders in his horsemanship classes were clearly underprepared and unready for the work they were doing, and the resulting stress was obvious in the body language of both species. I haven't spent nearly as much time watching horses as I have watching people and dogs, but I've been an ardent student of unspoken expression for most of my life (it's central to theater work). I could see many gradations along the spectrum of anxiety at the clinic, and many were too close to red for my comfort. To his credit, Buck noted and remarked on this himself; maybe to his fault, he seemed to feel he had no choice but to work around or through it.

    Meg, your point about the historical moment is very well taken. Nowadays, there's rarely any real reason to rush training apart from the student's desire for instant solutions, and the teacher's temptation to supply them. I think there's *always* a danger, no matter the method at hand, that the pressure of expectation ("I paid all this money, went to all this trouble, and came all this way to have you tell me I'm nowhere near ready to do what I'm determined I need to do with this horse.. or dog.. or elephant?") will distort judgement on every side. I know I've fallen victim to this as a student and as a teacher - the fact that I was using a clicker and treats didn't negate the fact that I was putting undue strain on my dog (and myself), and thereby compromising the trust I thought I was working to build.

    What I want to say in Buck's defense is that I never saw him put this kind of strain on either of the two horses he was working with. When he demonstrated a bit of desensitization work with his own green-ish colt and a tarp, he was extremely careful never to push her "over threshold," i.e. to a level of anxiety from which she could not quickly recover on her own. I did not see him practice or hear him advocate the kind of "flooding" that you describe, Nora. And I did not see the kind of shut down demeanor that flooding often produces in an animal when it "works" (when it extinguishes the anxious reaction and much else besides). I have a highly anxious dog for whom the world is *full* of spiders; I don't consider that I have a choice but to expose him to the people, dogs, diesel engines, bicycles, etc. etc. that spark his fears, but by doing so in a controlled way, I can build his faith in his own internal resources, as well as his faith in my commitment to keeping him safe.

    (more below)

  13. Meg, I really appreciate your sharing your depth of perspective. I know exactly what you mean when you refer to the "sparkle" in your horses - it was seeing that same beautiful glimmer in my dogs' eyes and the extra lift in their movement that got me hooked on marker/clicker training in the first place, and it's "sparkle" that makes me champion marker training to others (including Buck).

    On that note, the reason I reached out to him (whether or not he heard me) is that I think we have enough in common in our ultimate aims that we should all be talking to each other a lot more. In the interests of promoting positive dialogue and understanding, I think it's essential not to lump trainers together under their respective labels, "traditional," "natural," "clicker," or whatever. Nora, I think it's unfair to state categorically that "nothing Buck does is about positive reinforcement" without ever having actually seen him work. (And unfair, too, to tell me what I would have seen if I'd been looking.) We all want to be taken on our individual merits, and we'll understand each other much better if we attend to what is rather than to what we expect.

    Like you two, I'm extremely grateful for the possibilities of dialogue here, and for your generous contributions to it.

    all best,

  14. Doh! says the horse-foolish blogger. Buck was working with a green-ish filly, not a colt. ;-)