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.