Jan Dawson

50 Years of Experience Working with Horses

Secure Seat by Jan Dawson

A Teaching Method for All Disciplines of Horsemanship

A method that anyone can learn - Not just for the experienced instructor but a true technical advance for the instructor just starting out.  It can also be used for self-teaching.

The basis for a skill-driven program - The instructor will always know when the student can safely canter, jump, or go out on the trail.

Reduce the length of time that the beginner is so vulnerable to a fall - One of the goals of Secure Seat® is to teach a deep, balanced seat as quickly as possible.  Although it initially appears that the method is slow, the students will have a correct, secure, harmonious seat much more quickly than with traditional methods which involve telling the student where to put his/her body parts in space, which always results in stiffness.  Stiffness means the student is at risk of a fall.  “Put your heels down” usually results in an incorrectly placed leg as well.

Teach riding by teaching exercises - Each exercise represents a particular skill.  When the exercise is learned the skill is learned.

Skills are taught in the necessary order - Eliminate the student plateaus that slow down teaching/learning.

Eliminate the guesswork - Because the skills must be learned in a certain order, the exercises are taught in a certain order.  The instructor will know when the student is sufficiently prepared to progress, or not.  Now the instructor will have an answer for, “When can I go on the trail.  Why isn’t my child jumping?  May I canter today?”

Eliminate many accidents due to falls from horses - Secure Seat® will eliminate a substantial amount of riding accidents, greatly reducing the instructor’s and facility owner’s exposure to liability.

Students will retain what they have learned - Because the students have learned a series of exercises, they can recreate their lessons and start up quickly where they left off last year.  They won’t have to start over every time they change instructors at the stable or camp.

A defensible method in the unfortunate event of an accident - No longer will the instructor have to depend on the history or good nature of the school horse.  The instructor will have a written procedure that will reliably demonstrate why the student was prepared to attempt the current activity

Secure Seat® is the teaching method used in Teaching Safe Horsemanship (Second Edition 2003) by Jan Dawson, President of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety. It is also the subject of the book Secure Seat: The Art of Staying on Your Horse and Learning Feel (2004) by Jan Dawson with Carole Chiles Fuller.

Three articles from Caution: Horses summarize Secure Seat®

and explain the basics:

AAHS to Introduce “Secure Seat ®“

A Preview

By Jan Dawson

[Reprinted from Caution: Horses (Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1998)]

Over a decade ago I represented a client who happened to be a world champion junior bull rider. I had several occasions to watch him ride horses and although I was not impressed with his philosophy of riding or his methods, I had to admit that he sat a horse better than I or any of my friends did, He rode with the deepest, most relaxed seat that I had ever seen. His legs were never out of position and no matter what the horse did, he just followed with his seat as if he were on the nicest pleasure horse or perfect ladies hunter. How was he able to do this? We all had dedicated our lives to learning to do what he took for granted.

I began to think and I began to go to rodeos and watch carefully. I had two I questions: first what had to happen for a person to fall off, and second, how does one avoid failing off. What follows here is a brief explanation to what I discovered.

In order for the rider to have the best chance of staying on and to always be in a position to communicate clearly with the horse the following must always be detectable:

The feet must always be as close to the ground as possible; the spine must always be relaxed: and the weight must be evenly distributed on both seat bones or in both heels for jumping. (There are times that weight will change to communicate something to the horse.) The weight of the rider must cause the seat to easily follow the horse without any stiffness appearing in the rider's spine. In order for the feet to remain as close as possible to the ground, the legs must fall directly under the mass of the rider's weight. For a seated rider this results in the body alignment seen in all the books: The ear, shoulder, point of the hip, and the back of the heel must be in a line vertical to the horizon.

In order to accomplish this I discovered that there are certain skills that are indicators of a exceptionally deep and relaxed seat. These skills will only lead to the "Secure Seat"® if they are learned in one order. If they are out of order, the rider will be loose and will never attain the tight, deep seat desired. This is what is happening when riders "plateau" and do not seem to progress for a while. There is a problem in the progression of skills. In fact, the rider will be completely unable to gain the skills if the underlying ones are absent or have been inadequately learned. What makes the "Secure Seat"® System especially useful is that if one goes slowly, it is possible to learn this on one's own in your own back yard. An instructor is always better, but we do not all always have that advantage.

It is also necessary for the rider to ride with the reins in two hands, but most modern western trainers ride two-handed at home anyway.

The skills are as follows:

 1. Correct alignment - if this is lost at any time, it must be regained or the rider will not go any further:
 2. Lower center of gravity to drop the weight as low as possible.
 3. Unlock the lower back to give flexibility to the spine and softness to the seat.
 4. Leg must learn to protect upper body position, not the reverse; the rider must learn to move the upper body over a correctly placed leg and not use leg movement to compensate for an out of positions body. THIS IS HOW MOST FALLS OCCUR.
 5. Moving with the horse at the trot.
 a.  posting trot.
 b.  2-point position
 c. lateral motion of the trot carried to sitting trot
 6. Stabilize lower leg

If each of these skills is learned to the point that is becomes a natural, and confirmed part of the rider's position on a horse, the rider will not only have a "Secure Seat"®, but will also have an elegant seat that is correct in any discipline. The basic position will be there so that the trainer or instructor will not have to make the rider re-learn everything as, unfortunately, usually happens. Each of these skills can be self-taught by using a series of exercises designed for that purpose.

It has always sounded funny. Everyone always thinks it is a joke, but all you have to do to avoid falling off is to keep one leg on each side of the horse. Learning these skills in this order will help one do just that.

What "Secure Seat" can do for you. JP Paddock's story of his daughter.

Well known bullrider James "JP" Paddock told the following story at all four workshops on the Navajo Nation:

JP and his youngest daughter were out riding one day. It was the little girl's first day on a big horse instead of the pony she had been riding. The horse walked down a dry arroyo, but cantered suddenly up the other side. The little girl lost her reins and her upper body at one time was almost flat over the rump of her horse, but "her legs never moved and she was stuck like glue until I could reach her reins," says JP. "If this had happened six months earlier, before she had done the exercises she would have fallen off for sure," And, yes, she was wearing a helmet.

Next issue:  How to learn the skills.

AAHS Previews Secure Seat® Method of Teaching


Jan Dawson

AAHS President

[Reprinted from Caution: Horses (Volume 3, No. 3 Fall 1998)]

In the last issue of Caution:Horses we began to introduce the Secure Seat® method of teaching a beginner to sit securely on a horse. The method came about from watching bull riders on bulls and on ordinary horses. We were looking for a way to teach that depth of seat.

What we found was that there are several skills that, when learned in a particular order, will result in the deepest possible seat, which is also the most secure seat. The key is understanding that the skills must be learned in a particular order. If the order is changed, or if a skill is incorrectly or inadequately learned, everything stops. The rider hits a plateau and nothing progresses until the necessary skill is in place.

Learning the skills is relatively easy if the instructions are followed exactly. And here we might add, it is easier to teach this to a less experienced instructor who will just accept it rather than to an experienced instructor who will probably edit it.

All the skills are taught by means of exercises. The reason is that few have ever learned to ride by being told where to put their body parts in space. Not only is the learning difficult, but without the instructor it is relatively difficult to put oneself back together if something in the position goes awry. Learning by exercises eliminates those problems. When the student can do the exercises he has learned the skill. Further, when the position ceases to feel right, the student can go back to the list of skills and put himself back together. It is not necessary to have the instructor do it again. The skills that accompany the exercises are as follows:

1. Correct Alignment - The ear, shoulder, point of hip, and back of heel must be in a line perpendicular to the horizon. To accomplish this, ask the rider to stand up in the saddle. If he must move his legs to do this they are in the wrong place. The rider can move his legs around from the hips until he finds the place to put his feet where they will support him. He should be able to stand and sit effortlessly at any time, at any gait.

2. Lower the center of gravity - We say center of gravity; we could just as easily say weight with the same effect. We need the rider to become acutely aware where his weight is. He can now sit and stand and while doing so can raise up on his toes; sink down into his heel (without moving his lower leg away from the horse). He can also pinch with his knees and thighs and the back of calves so that knowing and noticing where his weight is at any time becomes second nature.

3. Unlock the lower back - This is a critical skill because without it the rider cannot sit the trot, cannot move with the horse, and will interfere with the horse at all gaits. We begin by showing the rider that the horse never uses both hind feet at the same time but uses one then the other (except to kick you). We begin at the walk but telling the rider to check his alignment (skill #  1) because if the alignment is wrong it won’t work.  Then we tell the rider to imagine himself on the seat of a bicycle with his feet on the pedals.  Then he just pedals his bicycle backwards. This is the motion of the horse’s back at the walk. I have run into this exercise in numerous places both with English and Western instructors. It comes second nature to kids, but it is miraculous what it will do for adult amateurs, especially the late-in-life rider. Beginning to move with the horse at this stage eliminates much stiffness later. From a safety perspective, a stiff spine is often what gets a rider launched into space.

4. Moving the upper body around over a correctly placed leg - The reverse is to teach the leg to protect the upper body position, not the reverse. The beginner or novice reaction is to use the leg to offset an out-of-place upper body. If the horse moves suddenly throwing the beginner's body sideways, the usual reaction is to move the leg out to balance the upper body. With the leg out of place, the rider is vulnerable to a fall. What should happen is that the leg should act as an anchor to bring the body back into position. To teach this skill, we use the familiar "stretching" exercises and put the emphasis on a stationary leg. The rider has already checked his "alignment" and now must maintain his leg position while he touches the horse's ears, tail, and the rider's toe on both sides with each hand. It is best if the rider figures out how to do this himself, but if the instructor must help, usually it requires showing the rider how to keep the mass of his weight balanced over his feet. He must bring his nose to his knee when toe-touching. If he leans out beside the horse he will pull the horse out of balance and possible fall off. The rider should not step into the stirrup on the side to which he is leaning. That is a beginner reaction guaranteed to put the rider on the ground. For that reason, it may be necessary to tell the rider that he must shift his weight to the opposite seat bone before leaning over. He should shift his weight to the right seat bone before leaning left.

5. Moving with the horse at the trot - "Moving" is the operative word here. This skill is quite different from "sitting on top of a trotting horse". It depends on correct alignment, low center of gravity, an unlocked lower back, and a stable leg. It has three parts:

a. Posting trot (Western riders, too).
b. 2-point position in lateral motion with the horse.
c. Lateral motion of the trot is carried to the sitting trot.

It must be remembered, before anyone gets frantic, that we are building a secure, basic, and correct seat. We are not there yet and parts of this exercise will seem bizarre, but it is part of a process.

The posting trot will be easy enough if the rider has learned to stand and sit easily to check his alignment. Do not permit the rider to lean forward at the trot or hold on to the front of the saddle. If the alignment is lost the exercise is impossible.

Once the posting trot is learned one may add the vertical 2-point position. The rider simply stands in his stirrups. I would not worry about the heels at this time, only the balance. The rider can only learn one thing at a time. If the rider is permitted to lean forward in a jumping position he might as well get off because it won't do him any good. He will be out of balance and the position has nothing to do with moving with the horse. In the 2-point we need the rider to allow the horse to shift the rider's weight from side to side. If it is necessary, and it will be with adults, the instructor may call out the weight shift.

[The instructor should know that the weight shift is caused by the movement of the horse's hind leg and that the rider's weight shifts to the right just before the right hind leaves the ground or as the right hind toe breaks over. The instructor can, therefore, call "right", "left", "right", "left", to assist the rider.]

When the rider can shift his weight with the horse at the trot without falling forward or backward (he will be leaning slightly forward) it is time to sit. This part initially looks weird.

In order to sit the trot, the rider takes the lateral motion of the horse at the 2-point, bends his knees and sits keeping the motion going. At the beginning it looks sloppy and it is certainly easier on a lunge line. It may take several tries before the rider is able to sit without losing the motion, but he will get it. If the rider has difficulty it will be due to one of three causes. The rider has not brought his shoulders back over his seat bones when he sits and is leaning slightly forward (skill # 1 alignment). Or the rider has stiffened his lower back in preparation, or fear, of the trot (skill # 3 unlock lower back). Or the rider is pinching with his knees or thighs (skill # 2 lower center of gravity).

While learning these three skills practice of all combinations of any two of the skills will be beneficial.

NEXT ISSUE:  The finale, the Secure Seat ®.


The Goal - Part III

by Jan Dawson

AAHS President

[Reprinted from Caution: Horses, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter 1998]

In the last Issue of Caution Horses we explained the first five skills involved in developing a Secure Seat ®.   Now we will finish it.

Correct riding is safe riding.  If we pay attention to the rule books for the various associations we see that each suggests “the seat” as it is to be judged at the various shows.  The seats described are essentially the same and they are not the equitation whim of a few show ring zealots.  The body alignment is the ear, shoulder, point of hip, back of heel in each one.  This is the classical “balanced seat.”  This is the only way to sit on a horse and be in perfect balance so that the position is maintained by balance and the legs and hands are free to communicate with the horse - or to fight off the hundred guys in hot pursuit with sabers drawn as in times past.

The balanced seat not only allows the rider total communication with the horse but it also allows the rider to make the horse comfortable, and a comfortable horse never hurts anybody. This is true because we communicate with the horse by means of slight interferences with his balance.  In the optimum situation, in a properly functioning horse-rider partnership, we change our balance slightly and the horse re-positions himself in response.

Yes, it is possible to teach nearly anyone to ride with a soft natural seat.  It is also possible to teach nearly anybody to teach the soft balanced seat. It can and should  be taught to beginners from the very beginning. It can be as easily taught to experienced riders.  It is our belief that in order to achieve the most subtle communication with a horse one must first be able to sit without interfering with the horse.

The Secure Seat® method of teaching will not only result in a soft balanced seat but also in the seat least likely to be lost due to the sudden movement of the horse, hence the name “Secure Seat”®.  The most efficient seat from which to communicate with the horse becomes the safest because it is the seat least likely to allow the rider to fall.

Secure Seat® is not a seat in itself or a way to ride.  It is a way to teach or learn a soft balanced seat that is effective and comfortable for the horse.  It eliminates the guess work  on the part of instructors and allows the student who has learned a balanced seat this way to go back through the exercises and skills he has learned and tune himself back up on his own.  With this base the student can be trainer-independent for most of the basic things and the instructor can concentrate on teaching riding rather that having the lessons often marred due to position faults.

With the first five skills well in place, the most important being the alignment, the rider can move with the horse at the trot while in a fairly vertical light seat or galloping position.  He can post at the trot.  He can also take the lateral movement of the horse at the trot and sit the trot while allowing the movement of the horse to move up through his body.  He may have already developed the ability to keep the movement of the horse in his pelvic girdle while leaving his shoulders still.  The important thing is that the rider does not shut the movement of the horse down when he sits by either locking his lower back completely or mistakenly translating the movement of the trot as an up-and-down rather than a side-to-side movement.  This, along with the loss of alignment, are the most common teaching faults that we see across the country.  They are serious faults and one only has to watch a horse at the trot when the rider does not move with him correctly and then begins to move with him to see the effect.  The difference is often amazing.

You can test this yourself just by standing and letting the horse rock you from side to side then stop the rocking. (Hint:  Some horses have been locked for so long that the rider will have to begin the rocking by stepping into one stirrup and then the other with the motion of the horse.  The difference here will be great.)

The last step is to put all three positions together and rotate them with each seven steps of the horse:

Seven steps rising trot, seven steps two-point (as vertical as possible), and seven steps sitting.  This is done over and over, without regard for diagonals,  until the exercise can be performed indefinitely and through the school figures as well.  By that time the rider and the instructor will know when the legs are out of position and in which direction.  All unnecessary upper body movement will be gone and the horse will be moving freely.  At this point the rider will be unsatisfied with any other position as other positions will cause the rider to feel out of balance.

Also at this point, the instructor knows that the student is ready for a cavaletti, the trail, and cantering.  If any of the preceding is done before the 777 exercise can be performed the instructor should know that he is putting the student at risk as the position is not stable enough.  The legs are not stable and the upper-body is not quiet.  To proceed anyway saying that that is just a stage that beginners must go through is to admit to teaching by guesswork.  If this is not accepted the beginner will have to do what most do, which is learn the wrong way over and over and then correct it.

It is easier to learn it right the first time.  It is faster and the instructor will find that it is more profitable for her as the rider will arrive at the point where he should have his own horse must faster.  Furthermore, if anything were to go wrong when the instructor had ignored these steps the rider would likely fall and the fall is foreseeable (the lawyer’s magic word). If the fall is foreseeable we must take steps to prevent it.  Not easy when one is sending a beginner over cavaletti before the rider’s leg is stable, let alone jumping.

The Secure Seat® method is so easy and reliable that it has been used successfully for several years at many children’s summer camps where the teaching situation is not always the best.  Camps participating in the testing are reporting that the kids are learning to ride correctly and are advancing in much the same way as kids taking lessons at  better riding schools.  If  it works at camp, it will work anywhere.