The Turning Seat… Reconsidered?

I have posted before on the position known as the “turning seat” and its necessity for balance and positioning through bends and in turns.
The theory, in a nutshell, is that the rider’s hips and shoulders should be parallel to the horse’s hips and shoulders respectively.   Prevailing wisdom tells us that, while bending, the horse’s inside hip comes forward and inside shoulder comes back.  Therefore, the rider’s inside hip should be positioned slightly forward and inside shoulder should come slightly back (and outside shoulder slightly forward) to match those of the horse.
It sounds like a perfectly reasonable theory, and in practice it seems to work.  But it may be based on a false assumption.
Jean-Claude Racinet (among others, I am sure) makes the point that, when flexed laterally, the horse’s inside shoulder does not come back, but forward!
Most assume the horse’s shoulders and hips remain perpendicular to the spine no matter which way it bends.  Apparently, this is not necessarily the case.
He explains:
“…[T]he horse has no collarbone.  This allows the horse a freedom of movement in the shoulders that humans do not have.  Bending brings a constraint on the inside shoulder.  The horse’s natural reaction is to move the shoulder on this side forward in order to alleviate it, all the more as the shape of the ribcage, reminiscent of the bow of a canoe, is an invitation to this movement.” (Falling for Fallacies, Jean-Claude Racinet, pg 142)
He suggests experimenting by standing on a mounting block or stool with a hand on each shoulder while someone on the ground bends the horse’s head to the side.  The shoulder on the inside of the bend should move forward.
Because of this positioning, Racinet proposes the rider bring the outside shoulder back rather than forward, to match this actual positioning of the horse.  In addition, this necessitates a lengthening of the outside rein to maintain proper contact.
This is where I would disagree.  Is it really necessary for the rider’s shoulder, far above the horse’s shoulders and connected only through the seat, to parallel the horse’s?  I have always thought in terms of the upper body “riding” the head and neck and the lower body riding everything from the girth back.  The shoulder falls in a grey area in that it can be controlled by both leg and rein aids, though they are predominantly controlled with the reins.  There are exceptions of course, such as in a forward use of the leg, inclination of the upper body, weight aids, etc..  But for the most part, everything from the shoulders on up is managed by the upper body of the rider through the reins.
If the rider is going to be doing more than simply riding on a continuous circle, it makes sense to me that one would want to keep the reins at an even length and simply rotate the shoulder forward or back to add or subtract rein length as necessary.  In this way, the outside shoulder would still come forward in the bend to accommodate the increased distance to the outside corner of the horse’s mouth (or whatever the rein happens to attach to in the case of bitless riding) created by the bend.  Regardless of where the shoulders of the horse end up, the outside of the horse’s body will still have to lengthen and the outer neck muscles in particular must lengthen as the inner ones contract.  I still believe the best position for the rider is to allow the inside shoulder to come back and take the slack out of the inside rein as the inner neck shortens, and the outside shoulder should come forward to allow the outside hand to give and follow the stretch without restriction or loss of the reins.  This allows the rider to make more fluid adjustments between changes of direction, bends, straightening, etc, without continually adjusting the reins.  
Perhaps it is more useful to think of the shoulders of the rider paralleling the poll or the mouth of the horse rather than its shoulders.  After all, our shoulders never directly contact the horse the way our hips do (hopefully!) – they don’t influence the horse directly at all.  Their main influence is through the hands.   Perhaps their best position is wherever they best serve the needs of the hand at the moment? 
In other words, the theory behind why we use the turning seat may be flawed, but the practice is probably still good.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience with this.


  1. There is a lot of wrong information about how horse mechanics actually work - did you know that there is very little bend in the horse's ribcage, due to the way the ribs attach to the spine and each other? So the idea of "bending the horse's body around your leg" is actually incorrect -the bend is behind the ribcage and in front of the shoulder, for the most part.

    Very interesting stuff. I think using your shoulders and hips that way is really overdoing it - horses are much more subtle than that - just slightly turning your head or lifting, or pushing forwards, a hand a fraction of an inch, or resisting the movement slightly, for an instant, with one seat bone, are more than enough - a horse can feel a fly land on its skin and most of our aids are way overdone - no wonder you see so many swishing tails and unhappy looking horses. We often "yell" at our horses with our aids when all they need is a whisper. That said, a lot (many) horses are dull to the aids (due to our own bad practices in over-cuing or failing to give the horse a release), although the solution to that isn't to up the aids but retrain the horse (and especially the rider).

  2. You should get on the classical dressage list - they discuss this kind of thing at great length and with lots of experience and insight. My eyes start to glaze over at some point, not at all out of boredom but because it is simply over my head!

    The only thing I can offer today on this is that I have been riding bareback out of desperation - trying to do some spring cleaning, once again doing a feed tweak to get all that NRC Plus class info into play at a tighter level, and generally feeling like the time it takes to tack up is time I don't have! So buoyed by my daughter, who does everything (including jumping) bareback, I decided it might be a way to get some riding time in w/o pushing myself over the edge.

    Aside from the comedy/drama of my actually getting on the Big Bay without s stirrup as the starting point, I am finding it incredibly instructional to ride bareback with dressage theory in mind.

    All the movements of the horse's shoulder and back that are hidden by the saddle are suddenly visible. And when MY body gets crooked or out of balance I am not saved by the saddle, but have to rebalance immediately in order to avoid sliding right off his back.

    I suspect some of what you're writing about here is also illuminated by riding bareback... but alas, I am not quite there yet when it comes to articulating it! :)

    However, I am fascinated by all this stuff and am happy you are posting about it.

    One thing I have noticed that I have not quite made sense of: the reins that are nearly too short when I am in the saddle are fine bareback. (I need new reins - but can't find the kind I really want in 64" so for now am doing with what I have)

  3. hi kate - you are so right about the bending in the ribcage. so little bending actually comes from the leg, but rather from the total positioning of the horse beginning with the poll (imho.) actually, most bending doesn't happen in the spine from the wither back at all - what appears as lateral curvature in the horse's body it's 90% movement of muscle mass rather than actual flexion in the spine...

    and i also agree that aids are way overdone by most riders. my take on the turning seat is that it is a subtle shift that puts the rider in position to better follow the horse and his changing balance through certain movements, and actually eliminates the need for more forceful aids. i have found that just the slightest change in my hip position (i'm talking less than an inch) and very slight weight aids can signal directional and bend changes to my horse without any leg pressure, and it often works even on a loose rein! as you say, a lot of it is even done unconsciously simply by looking in the direction of the bend, as any jumper rider will tell you - horses feel the change in your body position and weight even if you think you just turned your head!

    it can also encourage the horse to naturally engage under the correct point of balance naturally without 'asking'. so for me it's a way of using a subtle shift to communicate without direct, often more forceful, aids...

  4. billie - what classical dressage list?!? sounds interesting...

    i love riding bareback and i benefit from if for the same reason as you. i have noticed, particulalry on blue who has a broad, flat back that doesn't hold a saddle well, that my balance is off these days. since i haven't ridden consistently for so long, i have developed a bad habit of leaning to the outside of my turns when he gets resistant and doesn't want to bend into them. when i do that, his saddle slips. so i decided to get rid of the saddle, the security or stirrups, and ride bareback. it was a reality check for sure! it definitely forced me to be aware of my balance, and i realized just how bad my problem was - i got tired even just at the walk!

    i think it's a great idea for everyone to ride bareback - or at least without stirrups - a few times a week just to keep a check on that kind of thing. it's so easy to get into a bad habit, and if blue had a better wither, i might never have realized i was doing it!

  5. There are many interesting points in this discussion. I'd like to try the exercise at the mounting block just to see what happens. I'm still of the opinion,though, that following the horses movement with your body seems more natural and the less aids the better. I've been trying lately with Dusty to use more subtle seat aids and very light contact on the reins. She seems to naturally go better when less riding from me occurs. I know I'm not a natural rider by any means but I just don't seem to think of all this technical positioning when I'm riding. It's just easier for me to react to a situation and go with what I think works for us. I'm not ready to try her bareback yet, but I'm thinking that if I did I would surely get a better feel of the way her movement could help me help her with her balance issues and mine too of course. I wonder if no stirrups would help our balance issues?

  6. GHM - it isn't so much something you consciously strive for, but something to be aware of in case you happen to be tense or unbalanced somewhere, which could make it more difficult for your horse to so what you want. you'd be surprised by just how much of this 'technical' riding is actually a natural and instinctual by-product of good dynamic balance and posture on a moving horse.

    once you have that, is seems the aids can be much quieter - and in some cases, you don't need some of them at all!

    i tend to think that the more unnatural, forced postures (arching your back, and especially that leaning back dressage position i hate!) make excessive aids necessary because they are so out of sync with what the horse is doing!

    i'm thinking i probably shouldn't jump right into bareback at the moment, either - at least until i get back in shape a bit! but no stirrups gives the same basic effect with a little more security in case things go wrong :-\

  7. Boy, I love reading all of this! Comments your neat article..all of it!
    I tried to leave a comment last night and just could not...tonight the blogger powers that be are allowing me in!
    I am going to try to put you o my Blog roll so I remember to come by and get the good stuff!

    I have ridden 4 times now on the EASYWALKERS...
    I travel a very rocky service road for a mile and then ride an local arena,,then back again(just till I can trailer to lessons or another arena.
    I have noticed immediate pensive behavior at the trot or canter...My mare was always choking up...because of pain, I think now..even with the boots! I am LOVING these Sports medicine type of Horseshoes! My mare is longer and reaching now for contact..amazing!
    They have a web services that will locate a farrier that has leanred how to apply the shoes. The Co . also provides a free installation video and toll free tech support as well.
    Cool stuff!\KacyK

  8. KacyK - thanks for stopping by and the kind comment :-) i'll be adding you too!

    i'm really intrigued by the easywalkers and may have to try them just out of curiosity! i'm glad they're working so well for you. from what i've read on their site, they might work well for a few of mine. i have an odd theory (probably no farrier or vet would agree with ;-) that horses like mine, with enormous dinner plates for feet, must have more lateral stress on the foot over uneven terrain, and when the foot can't flex the stress must go straight to the pastern, which is maybe why so many of the big horses i know have ringbone... i wonder if something like the easywalkers could help or even prevent it...? seems worth trying! thanks so much for letting us know about them. and good luck!

  9. Interesting that you bring this up, jme.
    My thoughts: I believe that we here are dealing with one of those riding "truths" that might not be all that true in reality.

    The position of the hand is connected to the position of the shoulder.

    I feel that one of the most frequent things I have to correct when instructing is that the rider enters the circle with too much inside rein instead of weight aids, thus getting a horse that jack-knifes and falls out through the outside shoulder. Which equals a horse that avoids bending and engaging the inside hind.

    Another common fault is that the rider collapses in the waist and is displaced to the outside in the saddle when riding a circle. A consequence of this is once again that outside shoulder and outside hand is placed in front of the inside shoulder/hand - and again true bend and balance is not possible to obtain.

    When the rider learns to soften on the inside rein and instead use inside seat bone to turn/balance and inside leg to engage, the horse will bend correctly.
    Which supports one of the idioms that I do believe in: "to ride the horse from inside leg to outside rein"

    Interesting enough if you watch GP riders most of them have the outside shoulder slightly positioned further back than the inside one when riding turns and circles.

  10. horse of course - thanks for weighing in with your thoughtful comment. i appreciate your take on things and will have to do some experimentation and research for myself!

    i wonder, do you think the inside hand has any role in bending? if so, what rein aid should be used? and where should the inside and outside hand be placed in relation to one another? it sounds as if you are saying the outside hand should be well BEHIND the inside? i don't understand how this works...?

    also, i wonder, when the horse is falling out over the outside shoulder in the incorrect bend, do you think it could be a problem of the wrong rein aid being given that causes that, or simply that any use of the inside hand to create bend will create that effect?

    i love to learn about new perspectives on this stuff. one day if you've got time, i'd love to hear your thoughts on the rest of my rein aids series:

    thanks for stopping by and for the thought provoking comment! :-)

  11. jme - I have been thinking of writing a blog post on this for quite a while, because it is an interesting theme - riding the horse on a curved line.
    Not only the position of the hand, but also how we position the body.
    Maybe the time has come?
    I will see if I get enough time during the weekend.

  12. horse of course - that would be great! i look forward to reading it! :-)

  13. I think for me, it is all about feel. I don't consciously think about what part of my body is where. Instead I feel for unison with the horse. If I have that, I know my body parts are where they belong.

  14. rising rainbow - that's a really great point. most of this can be done through feel, which is always the best barometer of what works and doesn't on each individual horse. i like to be aware of the 'correct' way to do things, just so i can check myself occasionally so i don't get into any bad habits, but once i've checked my basics, i try to forget about them and just ride by feel.

  15. For me if I start thinking about what's going where I get into my head and it affects my ride. When I ride off feel I seem to respond appropriately when I get out of sync with the horse without having to think my way through it. I just feel my way into the correct position and it comes easily. If I try to analyze it, it takes much longer to fix.

    I'm not really sure how I got this way. Maybe I started off like this but on those days that I seem to be fighting my horse the resolution comes when I look for the feel of what is right.


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