Reviews of Teaching Safe Horsemanship and Teaching Safe Horsemanship, Second Edition

A review of Teaching Safe Horsemanship, Second Edition 2003, has appeared in the February 2004 issue of Equestrian, the official publication of the United States Equestrian Foundation (USEF).

From Equestrian:

Teaching Safe Horsemanship was originally published in 1997 and author Jan Dawson recently undertook the task of revising and updating her important volume. Dawson's efforts have taken a wonderful book and made it even better. And, at under $20. it is a tome that should be on every tack room shelf. From the nature of horses to the teaching of high-risk activities. such as riding, Dawson expertly and generously shares her advice.

The president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety. Dawson is also an attorney and riding instructor, giving her a unique outlook on the intricacies of teaching horsemanship. Emphasizing safety concerns every step of the way. Dawson leads the reader through the basics of English and Western instruction. Due to her thoroughness in covering all bases, the American Medical Equestrian Association endorses this book. and the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Instructor Certification Program lists this volume as required reading.

The author knows the ground she covers.

From class management techniques (something often overlooked by those eager to become riding instructors) to lesson plans, and onward to choosing a suitable school horse. Dawson serves as a pleasant and sensible guide. The numerous clear photos and illustrations provide excellent background and support for the text.

Most importantly. Dawson is not afraid to tackle the thorny issues involved with accidents and lawsuits. She has straightforward advice about equine activity statutes, releases from liability and insurance. Oftentimes, a hopeful riding instructor doesn't want to contemplate the things that can go wrong when teaching. But. as anyone who has worked around horses for many years finds out eventually horses are unpredictable creatures and accidents do occur.

Personally, I was very happy to see she included a section devoted to the emergency dismount. The steps she shares. along with the matching photos, paint a vivid picture of how to perform this crucial maneuver. So many riding instructors skip this essential step in the development of their students. A true horseman needs to know how to get off quickly and safely, just as he or she needs to learn how to softly and safely mount.

Dawson also doesn't quibble over the safety helmet issue whether you ride English or Western. She advises that all riders wear an ASTM/SEI -approved riding helmet while both working around horses AND riding them. This advice is important for all riders. not just novice and beginner equestrians.

My favorite line in the book, and it is written in boldface, reads "if you permit riding without helmets at your facility or in your lessons or on a trail ride that you are guiding, and there is an accident resulting in a head injury, some lawyer will winter in the Bahamas at your expense." I think that sentence nicely sums up the issue. I highly recommend this volume for riding instructors and students of all levels. Written by a true expert. there is something for everyone to learn within the covers of this excellent book.

Hallie McEvoy
Hallie McEvoy is the author of three books including Showing for Beginners, Horse Show Judging for Beginners, and Genuine Risk. Additionally, she is a USEF licensed judge in hunters and hunter seat equitation and serves on the Breeders' Committee. Hallie is currently at work on two more equestrian volumes, one on horse racing and another on riding instruction.

Reviews of Teaching Safe Horsemanship (1997) have appeared in Practical Horseman, Gaited Horse, The Quarter Horse Journal, Western Horseman, Equus, The Equestrian Athlete, Horse Professional and The Horsemen's Voice. All are reprinted here.

From Practical Horseman:

"Teaching Safe Horsemanship: A Guide to English and Western Instruction"

This Guidebook is specifically designed for one person teaching another to ride. Originally put together as the handbook of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety, Inc., it is part instruction manual, part horsemanship textbook, and part explanation of negligence law with an eye to enabling riding instructors to protect themselves from potential litigation. It is endorsed by the American Medical Equestrian Association and is on the recommended reading list for the United States Pony Club HA candidates. Author Jan Dawson is a lawyer who has taught, trained, and competed in a variety of disciplines, ranging from hunters (both field and show) to reiners to gaited horses to dressage.

Our tester, a professional coach of hunter and dressage riders, lives in the Northeast and is an American Riding Instructors Association affiliate. She and her barn manager reviewed the hardcover book from their several perspectives -- as instructors, caregivers, stable managers, and dedicated horse people -- and from all those angles found this publication to have more informational value than they'd ever expected to find packed into a single 144-page volume. So enthusiastic are they that they recommend that every instructor, regardless of whether she or he teaches English or Western, beginners or advanced riders, get a copy -- and that most of us "just riders" would benefit from getting our own copies, too.

What has them so excited? For starters, the book's foundation is the principle that correct horsemanship leads to safe riding. With that in mind, the author sets out to give readers a thorough understanding of the diverse elements of horsemanship, common sense, legal issues, and psychological considerations of horses and humans that make up a successful lesson program -- and by "successful," she means a program that is safe and effective and that teaches horsemanship, not just equitation,

'Teaching Safe Horsemanship' has well-illustrated chapters and sub-chapters on everything an instructor or potential instructor needs to understand before giving a lesson. The subjects range from the nature of the horse (what he fears, how to touch him, his herd mentality) through the basics of both a Western and an English seat, to how to construct a lesson plan, issues of safety and control (the emergency dismount, why/what to do when a horse won't stop), stable vices, retraining horses, dealing with sour school horses, and much more. It also addresses such issues as how to deal with accidents when they happen, how to handle accidents involving minors, coping with a lawsuit, and insurance needs and limits. And it gives this wealth of detailed information in a way that's both complete and easy to read, with step-by-step instructions on topics as diverse as how to teach two-point position and how to draw up release forms for litigation protection.

Our tester recommends reading the book one chapter at a time, with pencil in hand and giving oneself plenty of lime for reflection and note taking. She sums it up as a "terrific presentation of what safe horsemanship is, why it's important, how to achieve it, and what happens if you don't learn it."

From Gaited Horse:

"Teaching Safe Horsemanship: A Guide to English & Western Instruction by Jan Dawson
... is a wonderful resource for riding students, as well as instructors and would-be instructors. Even with 30 some years of experience working with and around horses, I still found a lot of valuable "gee, why didn't I think of that" information.

While the focus of the book is obviously safety, it also stresses the point that it often the people involved that ultimately make horseback riding an inherently dangerous activity. In our litigation conscience society, this book is a real eye-opener.

List after list, of everything you thought you had already thought of, a chapter on constructing a lesson plan, as well as several pre-planned lessons, clear, carefully explained emergency procedures and solid, safety practices, all written in an interesting and engaging style and wrapped up with a review section at the end of each chapter, make Teaching Safe Horsemanship a fun, valuable lesson in itself.

From The Quarter Horse Journal:

Teaching Safe Horsemanship: A Guide to Western and English Instruction By Jan Dawson

The primary instruction is taken from the philosophy of John Lyons: Human safety is first, horse safety is second, everything else is third.

This book covers in detail the best ways to teach horsemanship.  In an age where the risk of being sued for the most inconsequential thing is universal, the risky sport of riding must be handled especially carefully. Liability issues can be serious.  Every goal is broken down into a series of skills that must be mastered in order to achieve that foal.  From planning lessons to keeping your lesson horses from getting sour, sample barn rules to general horse management, Dawson covers the business of teaching horsemanship from nose to tail.

From Western Horseman:

Teaching Safe Horsemanship: A Guide to English & Western Instruction By Jan Dawson

In Teaching Safe Horsemanship, Jan Dawson addresses a number of considerations that affect safety when it comes to riding instruction, including the instructor's attitude and competency and the instinctive nature of the horse. However, she takes instruction far beyond the basics, which are described early on as "hard-line, bold-face, black-letter safety rules" for handling and riding a horse.

Much of the book is, in effect, a training manual far riding instructors, using American Association for Horsemanship Safety guidelines and suggestions, and each chapter contains review questions emphasizing pertinent information. The book, according to the accompanying press release, has been field-tested and endorsed by both the U.S. American Medical Equestrian Association and the Pony Club's Safety Committee.

In the book, riding lesson plans and goals are considered at various levels of skill, and each is presented in well-thought-out, "doable" increments. Lesson plans include an introduction to the maneuver or skill being addressed, a review of previous work, a thorough how-to explanation or demonstration for the. new maneuver, and an allotted time for practice work, followed by a summary of the day's accomplishments.

Additional chapters address emergency stable procedures and what makes a safe school-type horse. The appendix includes a sample staff manual, accident and lawsuit information, and other recommended reading.

From Equus:

Teaching Safe Horsemanship, by Jan Dawson is aimed primarily at instructors but has plenty to offer the average rider, too.  Dawson is an instructor herself, as well as a dressage and western ring competitor, an attorney and president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety. Topics include equine behavior, safe lesson plans for all levels and choosing the right horse.

From The Equestrian Athlete:

Secure Seat(sm) introduced

"Everyone always thinks it's a joke, but all you have to do to avoid falling off is keep one leg on each side of the horse."* Not only has Jan Dawson, president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety (AAHS), taken a simple concept and put it into words, she has used this concept to develop a safe, systematic method of teaching beginners - and the instructors who teach them - how to do just that.

The method is called the Secure Seat(sm), and, as Ms. Dawson says, it foregoes the old star, stop, and steer method of teaching beginners. Instead, it uses a series of exercises that focus on leg position more than hand and head position to help students develop a relaxed, balanced, and secure seat; a position that keeps one leg on each side of the horse.

The exercises teach students how to maintain a solid position, as well as detect and correct a faltering position. Students learn how to preserve correct alignment (ear, hip, heel), low center of gravity, flexibility through the spine, and stable lower legs at the trot. Once students master these basics and develop secure seats, instructors are free to refine their hand position, timing of the aids, and the like.

The Secure Seat(sm) probably works as well as its creator claims because it's grounded in solid, fundamental principles of how people learn physical skills. Students learn fast because the method:

  • Reduces knowledge of performance
    Students learn faster and perform better on their own when you only give them occasional feedback about their position (or knowledge of their performance). Given too frequently, it teaches them to rely on you rather than develop their ability to feel, make decisions, and move.
  • Prevents paralysis by analysis
    AAHS claims, and rightly so, that inundating students with directives can create perilously posed, rigid riders whose very stiffness puts them at risk of falling off. Although overactive thought processes rarely paralyze riders, the phenomenon is real and the consequences can be dire.
  • Negates part-to-whole transfer
    Although riders learn best when they learn the whole skill (how to ride a horse) in its entirety, sometimes it's safer to learn just a few parts first. It's safer to teach students how to maintain a stable leg and seat position than to teach them how to keep their balance, time their aids. and control their horse, all at the same time.
  • Develops ability to solve movement problems
  • Students have to learn how to move their limbs, digits, and seat bones so they can post, balance, and control their horse, all at the same time, They need to be given time to discover how to solve.: these movement problems since you can't direct every twitch and hop of every muscle fiber and nerve cell in their bodies.
  • Develops error detection and correction abilities
    Students must learn how to feel errors or mistakes in their movements (feet too far forward), decide what to do to correct it, and then make the correction (bring legs back). Students must learn how to feel everything that's going on in their bodies, as well as their horses', and make decisions about it. Constantly telling them what to do interferes with this process.
You can learn more about this method by reading Ms. Dawson's book, Teaching Safe Horsemanship (see book review in this issue). Although I never saw the term Secure Seat(sm) in the book, the author told me that it's outlined in the book through a series of lesson plans.

* "AAHS introduces “Secure Seat(sm),” Summer 1998 issue of Caution:Horses, the official publication of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety.

Teaching Safe Horsemanship
A youngster fell off and you rushed her to the hospital; she might have a broken collarbone. Did you remember to bring the Consent for Treatment medical form her parents filled out so that the hospital will treat her? Can you state the facts in an accident report without incriminating yourself? Do you know if Sonny's penchant for dodging jumps has slipped from an annoying habit to a dangerous pastime?

As long as horses act like horses and students have access to lawyers, riding instructors should keep a copy of Jan Dawson's book on their night stand, Teaching Safe Horsemanship--A Guide to English and Western Instruction. It is written by a woman who is an attorney, clinician, and president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety (AAHS). The book begins with the "hard line bold face, black letter safety rules" for activities such as leading and tying, mounting and dismounting, trailering and trail riding. She carries you through chapters about Emergency and Stable Procedures, Teaching High Risk Activities, and The Safe School Horse. And she ends by telling you about the legal ramifications of working with minors, what insurance can and cannot do for you, and what to do if you’re sued.

The meat of the book, however, is filled with lesson plans - how to construct them, why you need them, and how to safely accomplish them. One of the foundation exercises the series of lesson plans leads up to is the 7-7-7 exercise; a drill that makes students ride seven strides at the sitting trot, seven at the posting trot, and then seven while trotting in the two-point (galloping or jumping) position. Although any number can be used, the point is that how well a student performs these three movements, one after the other, can be a barometer for whether or not she's ready to move on to more challenging things. The author also states that this exercise is "self-diagnostic", because a student's own movements serve as feedback for her. She learns to recognize that when she keeps falling backwards it's because her legs are too far out in front of her instead of underneath her where they need to be.

From Horse Professional:

Teaching Safe Horsemanship

One Method for Teaching Beginners That Is Safe, Measurable and Defensible in a Court of Law

It’s a riding instructor's nightmare.

The attorney rises from her seat next to the claimant, who is quietly in a neck brace and arm cast. She strides over to the witness, an instructor at a small riding facility where the claimant experienced a fall during a lesson. She addresses the instructor.

"Why did you allow my client to jump that day?"

"I thought she was ready," answers the instructor.

"What made her seem ready?"

"She'd been cantering over ground poles. Her seat was good. "

"So then cantering over ground poles is an industry-accepted standard for proceeding to jumping?"

"It's used to prepare the student for jumping. There is no industry standard. But I've been teaching for 14 years, and I know when my students are ready to jump."

"Based on what?"

"Based on my observation of the student, my knowledge of the horse and my experience. It's hard to explain. "

"And what did your experience tell you that made you think she was capable of jumping safely?"

"She had control of the horse. She had good balance. "

"But she didn't have control of the horse or good balance. If she did, the horse wouldn't have stopped at the jump and she wouldn't have been thrown. "

"Horses stop sometimes. Riders fall. It happens when you're learning how to ride. "

"Did you tell her that she might fall the first time she jumped?"

"Not specifically, but..."

'"Whose idea was it for her to jump that day?"

"Hers. She asked when she could start jumping. I thought she was ready. She had her balance. She'd been doing well in previous lessons.

I felt she had an independent seat."

"What, specifically, made you think that?"

The instructor gets flustered, feeling that she's answered this question three times already. The judge still has heard nothing quantitative or measurable come out of her mouth. In this all-too-frequent scenario, the instructor then goes on the defensive. Her entire riding curriculum, philosophy and methods are under scrutiny.

Most instructors teach and evaluate students by instinct, by observation and analysis based on a personal system borne of their own unique experiences. Every instructor's experience and background is different, and to attempt to explain how decisions are made during a lesson is nearly impossible. After the lawyer hammers away at the instructor for a while, doing her job of showing why the instructor should have known that the student was not ready to jump safely, the instructor is left bewildered, questioning her own methods, afraid for her job or her farm.

Jan Dawson, a riding instructor, lawyer and expert witness in equine liability cases throughout the United States, has seen this scenario many times. She explains: "If a lawyer wants to clinch his point that the instructor is guessing, he simply asks, 'How do you teach someone how to ride?"'

That's where a systematic method of not only teaching, but also measuring a student's capabilities is literally the best defense.

The Secure Seat

The American Association for Horsemanship Safety (AAHS) was formed to reduce the number of equine-related injuries, especially those suffered by minors, by means of better education of the public and of professionals in the industry. Dawson, the founder of AAHS, is the author of Teaching Safe Horsemanship and developer of the Secure Seat system of teaching one person to teach another person how to ride a horse. Teaching Safe Horsemanship is the instructor's handbook and the reference manual for AAHS certification.

Here's how it works. Secure Seat teaches riding by teaching exercises that represent particular skills. When the exercise is learned, the skill is learned. It teaches skills in the necessary order to eliminate plateaus that slow teaching and learning. It eliminates the guess-work by teaching these exercises in a particular order. And it reliably demonstrates—to the student, the instructor, a parent or an attorney—why a student is prepared to attempt the next step.

Measurable Progress

Having a systematic method of teaching comes in handy not only during depositions, but—as every instructor has experienced—when responding to an eager parent's questions about when Susie can ride outside the arena, when Johnny can canter, or when Mary can jump. Rather than fending off these inquiries with vague statements about the child not being ready, the instructor using the Secure Seat system can share with the parent how she determines readiness for the next level. Progression is measurable, even to the novice. "When Susie can do this and this, then she's ready to ride alone outside the ring," the instructor can say And that puts the parent in a partnership position—rather than an adversarial position—with the instructor.

Stable owners who employ several instructors, each with multiple classes at the beginner level, can rely on Secure Seat to assure that all students, no matter which instructor they're learning from, receive the same curriculum and complete the session with the same basic skillset. This eliminates potential confusion and time-wasting reschooling for the instructor of the intermediate class that enrolls any of those students. Another benefit for those instructors/employers who also sell horses is that Secure Seat system turns students into horse-buying clients more quickly than those who go from one instructor to another relearning personal philosophies rather than advancing their own skills. And let's face it: Selling horses is more profitable than giving lessons.

It Started With A Problem

Dawson, developer of Secure Seat, started with a problem. "I was giving so many lessons that I couldn't find the time to ride my own horses," she says. Dawson, also a lawyer, set out to find a competent instructor to whom she could hand off some of the beginner classes. She wanted an instructor who was knowledgeable, used safe practices, understood horse behavior, could communicate clearly to students with different learning styles and, above all, would provide her students with a balanced, secure seat that would reduce the chance of falling,

"I interviewed many people, some with instructor certification, others with impressive European training credentials, still others who had taught dozens and hundreds of students," recalls Dawson. "I couldn't believe the wide range of skill level in the applicants, or how others used unsafe practices, or how unprofessional some were." Dawson became frustrated at the lack of consistency among the instructors she interviewed. In the end, she sat down and wrote an instruction manual for her instructors to use when teaching her students. That original manual eventually became Teaching Safe Horsemanship, the manual that AAHS now uses to certify instructors in the Secure Seat system (several hundred to date).

"I wanted to know what these instructors would be teaching my students," says Dawson. "The only way to be sure they were methodical and responsible, in the end, was to simply tell them, This is what I want you to teach."'

When the book was published, it received rave reviews from the American Medical Equestrian Association, U.S. Pony Clubs and Practical Horseman magazine. Dawson and other AAHS clinicians now give clinics and certify riding instructors across the country. The five-day certification course includes lectures as well as ring practice. It includes riding assessment, textbook tests and mock lessons.

Instructors throughout the United States are now realizing the need for a comprehensive, safety-focused, methodical and measurable method of assessing students' progress and teaching them additional riding skills—many times before a lawsuit wipes out their livelihoods.

Lisa Kiser is Marketing Manager for EQUITANA USA, North America's largest international equine exposition. A former Thoroughbred farm manager and tack retailer, she is a freelance writer and book editor in the equine industry.

From The Horsemen's Voice:

Safety Guidebook Not Just for Teachers

Jan Dawson's Teaching Safe Horsemanship: A Guide to English and Western Instruction purports to be a handbook for riding instructors (and indeed it is), but riding students and, especially, parents of students will find it valuable as well. It provides the knowledge to evaluate the safety of the riding program one (or one's child) is in, to identify an instructor whose methods are not as safe as they could be, to understand the reasons behind a stable's regulations, and to prepare against the dangers inherent in equine sports. Dawson, president of the American Association for Horsemanship Safety (AAHS), presents a simple premise: correct riding is safe riding. As 80% of all equine sports accidents involve falls due to loss of balance, Dawson concentrates on exercises and lesson plans meant to develop a secure seat. And she explains how to determine when a student is ready to safely advance to a new skill. She begins with a clear and insightful look at the psychology and learning mechanisms of the horse. "We must recognize that the horse needs consistency and that he cannot tolerate frustration. Our behavior around and on the horse must be compatible with this 'nature of the horse,' because we cannot change what he is," she writes.

Within that context, she presents and explains safety rules that cover approaching and handling the horse, leading and turnout, tying, tacking up, mounting and dismounting, arena and trail etiquette, trailering, fences and gates, and facility standards—principles that apply not only to the riding instructor, but to anyone who deals with horses.

The chapter dealing with the attributes of a safe school horse should be required reading for parents selecting a first horse for their child. "The beginner horse should be as close to an equine saint as you can obtain," Dawson says.

She identifies vices that should disqualify a horse from a school string, while also providing guidelines for maintaining school horses so that they don't become "sour" and for additional training to make a horse suitable for students.

Dawson advises instructors on motivational techniques, the special problems associated with adult students, preparing integrated and useful lesson plans, and identifying those students who, for a variety of reasons, should be dismissed from the class for their own safety and the safety of others.

An attorney as well as a riding instructor, Dawson also covers liability issues and how an instructor and/or stable can protect themselves from lawsuits should an accident occur. These include a staff manual that details steps to be taken in the event of an accident, emergency procedures for both people and horses, the necessity of having signed medical treatment consent forms for all students immediately at hand, and recommendations for how to proceed if, in spite of all precautions, one is sued in the wake of an accident.

This book is comprehensive and would be useful to anyone who works (or plays) with horses. The first page says, "This is a book that teaches one person how to teach another person how to ride. It's about how to have an effective and safe teaching program."

But, riding teacher or not, who among us has not occasionally given just a moment's instruction to a friend?

Nancy Gage

Ms Dawson

I came across your book on the web when I goggled secure seat. I immediately order the book and it arrived yesterday. I just love it. It is so simple to follow and very explicit and structured.

Thank you.

North East, Maryland


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