Spatial awareness is a persons ability to be aware of their body in a space and how it relates to other things in that space.
When your new student comes to his first time experience, riding lesson, he doesn’t come with spatial awareness as it relates to horses, automatically built in. This is one of the reason riding instructors have to have safety rules in place both for in the barn and for how the lesson will be conducted. Developing a new student’s spatial awareness is an important first step in their lesson. Your safety rules will govern how your student moves around the horse. When you teach safety rules you are teaching spatial awareness.

Don’t Walk Behind the Horse

Before they take their first lessons most beginners have heard that you don’t go behind a horse because he might kick you, so your student may be very wary of the horse’s hindquarters. When you teach them how to move around the horse and stay out of the kick zone, you’ll also need to dispel the idea that the horse is laying in-wait to lash out at them. Explain why some horses kick and that the rules they are learning are to help develop good habits that will apply to being around all horses, and yes, some do kick. (If by the way your lesson horse kicks he needs to move out of your beginner program.)

To a beginner there is some measure of security in walking way around the horse to circumvent it. This proves to be fairly impractical, especially if you have a group of riders grooming. The same child who makes the huge circle around the horse will then stand in the kick zone to answer a question, or contemplate their next move. At this point you are teaching a concept. It will probably take a lot of repetition for your beginner to take ownership of the concept.

Going Through Openings

Spatial awareness comes into play when the student leads the horse through an opening, such as a stall door or an arena gate. Just because the student has the door open big enough for their body to easily walk through, it doesn’t mean the opening will accommodate their thousand pound partner. You are teaching spatial awareness when you have a rule that stall doors must be all the way opened before horses can be led out.


And what about not getting feet stepped on? That involves spatial awareness. That’s you teaching your student about his surrounding and the objects that are in it. You’re teaching your student to be aware of the horse and to understand how the horse might react, or where he might put his feet. Say the child is cleaning a hoof. Let’s say the horse’s left forefoot. In his effort to keep this heavy object off the ground and to manipulate a hoof pick, the student has widened his stance. Now his left foot is right where you know the horse will put his foot down. (Sometimes my lesson ponies think it’s great to pull that hoof away and slam it to the ground.) You teach spatial awareness when you show the student (or remind him) to keep both of his feet to the side, out of the horse’s way.

Just Big Words

Spatial awareness might seem like a fancy name for ordinary teaching but it is a legitimate part of the development process. Younger children are less spatially aware than older children. Children and adults with certain disabilities have difficulty with spatial awareness.

Who Has Issues with Spatial Awareness?

In my experience, new students are spatially unaware because they don’t know what to do. They need to learn your teaching and horse handling procedures. Nervous or distracted students are also candidates for lack of spatial awareness. This is because their attention is elsewhere. Teaching students to focus will help. The adult student who is pondering stress from work or the drive to the barn, or the social person who is concerned about who she sees, all have difficulty with spatial awareness. Teach your riders of all ages to come to their lesson with their “head in the game”.
I’ll share one more point about spatial awareness—this is actually a general point that applies in many areas of teaching. Your students will copy you. If you practice good spatial awareness, they will too.
If you’re interested in learning more about general spatial awareness check out this article:
About the Stages and Ages

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!

Barbara Ellin Fox


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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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