Balking solution: controlling the feet

I’ve written about Z’s tendency to balk. This is her natural response to being asked to move forward when she doesn’t want too. You could also call this a physical brace. I wanted to get this worked out on the ground as this is a common evasion with her when I’m in the saddle.

I decided to return to Dorrance’s book True Horsemanship through Feel. This is not an easy book to digest and personally, I take issues with some of the photos which are your typical Cowboy roughness masquerading as something finer. Pulling and yanking on a horses’ head as “feel?”; there’s an in-congruence there between text and photos (examples are the photo sequence on pp. 100-101, and p. 173).

This in-congruence is a typical fault with the Western Natural Horsemanship training methods. There’s a bit too much of “do as I say, not as I do.”  In contemplating Z’s balkiness, which is due to non-moving feet, I decided it was time I re-evaluated some of my prejudices.

One common denominator you will see in Western training is control of feet placement (the horses). Cowboy trainers are obsessed with moving feet and hips. For a taste of what I’m writing about check out anything by John Lyons.

Specific areas of True Horsemanship that I’m covering here include Parts 1-5 which deal with adjusting the head position, backing and leading one step at a time, teaching the horse to stand, and stepping the hindquarters over (pp 79 – 171). In the book, this work looks simplistic and it is. However, JMO what is not pursued enough in the text is how this can help solve greater problems.


Back to simple: the first thing I wanted to do was free up Z’s feet by having her lift individual feet at my command. Moving one foot at a time is discussed by Dorrance on pp 145-148.

With your “normal” horse, leg lifting is generally not a huge hullaboo, but with the horse that balks or the horse that freezes when faced with new things or when frightened, re-focusing on the individual feet can pay off later in training when the horse returns to his typical resistance (i.e. balking or freezing).

I use a long dressage whip (especially if you have a horse who loves to retaliate by kicking or lifts too vigorously) tapped on the leg I wanted her to lift. When the leg was lifted, a click and a food reward (clicker training) was given.

I prefer to use clicker training. It gives a clear message as to what I want and a clear reward to do it. I find clicker training the fastest way to get to yes – and within about two sessions, Z understood what I wanted and was giving it to me. It also gives more buy-in for the horse to do the desired behavior and if you have horse, that through strong will or fear is hesitant/reluctant to do the activity, food can re-focus the horse onto a positive outcome rather then a negative “I don’t want too and you can’t make me” attitude.


To Move Forward, I use the Dingo cue (Linda Tellington-Jones Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training p 235) by getting the horse to stand square, asking for shifting the weight to the hindquarters with the cordero (balance rein), stroking the back and then a tap on the croup. Using Russell’s Lightness principles, I want the horse to move forward with nose below the shoulders and the jaw relaxed (asking for head down see the previous post about alternately jigging the reins as my cue).

Moving Forward can also be the reward when doing backing. Going back and forth between forward and backing can also build responsiveness in the horse.


On Backing, I want both legs to go in a diagonal pair. You don’t want one foot to lift (i.e. foreleg) and then, a moment later, the other (i.e. hindleg) in the backing sequence to lift. You want them to lift at the same time. The handle of the whip across the chest serves as the block to moving forward. You can tap it on the chest and walk towards your horse. Generally, this gets the horse to back.

If your horse is very new to backing, take it one step at a time – literally. When starting the backing (or the rein-back) sequence ask for only one step. Look for quality over quantity. Reward a good step sequence by letting the horse stop or move forward (whichever one the horse prefers as a reward).

An alternative method would be to use the cordero (balance rein) to shift weight backwards and then continue to ask for another backward , diagonal step by tapping the leg to move with the whip and tilting the nose over the foreleg you want to lift.

More thoughts on backing:

If the horse’s head is high, the back is inverted, which teaches an incorrect and weak way of moving backwards (Mark Russell Lessons in Lightness pp. 40-45). I often see beginners train their horse this way to back – they are using the reins and bit to shove the horse backwards so in pain the horse raises the head while the person continues sawing the reins, and drops the back. This produces a sore back, poor use of the hindquarters and a ewe neck.

Instead, I want to bring the nose down softly so it is below the shoulders when the horse is backed. I also want to look for a relaxed jaw and a tension free neck (jerking down with the leadrope will not provide this).

If you want the left front leg to move back, tilt the nose to the left and vice versa if you want the right foreleg to move. By alternating the nose tilts you can achieve a fluid backing step sequence (Dorrance pp. 121-122).

To help a horse back straight, you can do this exercise against a fenceline or between two ground rails.

If the horse is reluctant to back, drags the toe of the feet when backing, or routinely backs crookedly in the same direction, I would consult a chiropractor before asking for the horse to do more or to do it more snappily. When I first started backing Z about two years ago, it was clear she had chiropractic issues; now she backs easily and straight.


Dorrance has an excellent photo sequence of Stepping the Hindquarters on page 177. However, in procedure, I prefer Mark Russell’s flexion exercises in Shoulder-in (Lessons in Lightness pp. 45-50). The jaw is relaxed, the nose is down past the shoulders (not high headed like the examples in True), and the nose tilted to the inside of the hindleg that will be crossing over.

You are looking for the inside hindleg to step (or cross) over the outside hindleg. No cross, no cigar.

To achieve this, I bend the nose to the inside (the side where I am standing), at a point lower than the shoulders, and tap the whip on the fleshy part of the hindquarter’s loin (again, on the side where I am standing).

This was a very hard exercise for Z to do a year ago. I’m seeing a lot more improvement and strength this time around.


From Stepping the Hindquarters over, I move into the beginning of Shoulder-In work, where the horse moves away to the outside – and moves forward – laterally with both the hindquarters and forehand. This I’ll go into in another post.

In less then a week, Z was moving far more fluidly when we working together. We’ll see if this translates to under saddle work — time will tell.

All the information above, is shown in a video that I’m working on to further illustrate what I’m writing about… right now I’m trying to come up with a graphic intro that I would use for all the future videos. For example, this lesson above, is going to be in the Take 2 series – Two minutes to show a horse training concept, with a voiceover to the video explaining what you are seeing vs as well as a supporting blog post. In the past I used subtitles and I just don’t feel it explains enough.

I was thinking of using a Knight from a chessboard in a stop motion sequence….? Do you have some ideas?

This entry was posted in Bill Dorrance BD, Linda Tellington-Jones TTEAM, Mark Russell RIL, neckrope, Training, Z. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Balking solution: controlling the feet

  1. Patricia says:

    Great detailed post. Exactly what I’m also working on with my horse – resistance, balking etc.. Again thanks for sharing your perspective and experience with a variety of training methods. I’ve struggled through the “True Horsemanship” book and wondered about the pics which did seem overly aggressive compared to what Dorrance had to say which seems more about following a soft “feel”. I’m still coming to terms putting the different training methods in their place in my head – taking and digesting the bits that are good and leaving the bad behind. You’re helping me on this journey. Thanks.

    • horseideology says:

      Yes I hope the post wasn’t confusing… the video sorts it all out so hopefully I’ll get that pulled together over Thanksgiving.

      RE: Dorrance… Leslie Desmond has some videos on Youtube. You might find those interesting to watch. IMO the work doesn’t match the talk. JMO.

    • horseideology says:

      I did a little editing and I think it reads a bit easier now. 🙂

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