Winter is always a difficult period for equestrian folk, waterlogged fields, horses that have to be stabled more than usual, lack of daylight to ride and train. So many negatives but also a lot of positives.
If we can’t ride then a little groundwork goes a long way. Set up some horse agility type obstacles, weaving, poles, tarps, umbrellas and numerous other things can be used to desensitse horses to novel objects.
Clinics, lectures and demos at indoor venues are a good way to keep up the enthusiasm, choose a trainer/clinician whose ethos you share. I have just been to a talk by Alison Short, a well respected dressage trainer, on goal setting and rider strategies.
Of course there are always literature searches to do, I found this paper on the Psychology of Equine Performance
This quote is of particular interest to me:-
“The majority of training is based on the use of aversive stimuli in the form of either punishment to discourage undesirable behaviour or negative reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior . For the latter, it is the removal of the aversive stimulus which provides the reinforcement for the correct behavior and which, with consistency, leads to early anticipation and avoidance of the training aid so the animal becomes responsive to the most subtle cue from the rider. Timing is therefore critical and poor timing may lead to the learning of unanticipated and inappropriate responses . Although employed to a much lesser extent, training can also be achieved through positive reinforcement. Because responses are associated with reward acquisition, they are much more variable as, evolutionarily speaking, it pays an animal to explore the limits of what is required to obtain a reward so it can maximise efficiency through minimal effort . However, the key issue with positive reinforcement (and where it contrasts most with negative reinforcement and punishment) is that emotional responses to the training situation are often entirely positive rather than largely or wholly negative [42,43]. This may be extremely important in shaping the horse’s perception of being ridden and the relationship which develops between the horse and rider, as a result (which may be particularly important when the rider and the trainer are the same person).”
Plus this also:-
“Firstly, long-term inappropriate application of negative reinforcement schedules may result in a chronic stress situation for the animal, potentially leading to reduced health , high reactivity to acute stressors , or, for some individuals ‘learned helplessness’ (behavioral depression) . ”
As part of my equine behaviour course I am studying stress responses in horses and the impact excessive use of negative reinforcement and forceful training has on the immune system (immunosuppression is implicated in many equine illnesses) as well as the overall psychological well-being.