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Why Do Horses Balk and What Can You Do To Stop It?

Even the calmest of horses balk, shy, nap, and spook from time to time. Some slam on the brakes when you ask them to leave their stablemates. Others shoot sideways at the sight of their own shadow or refuse to walk past a flag in the arena, acting as though it’s a scary monster rather than an innocent piece of cloth. 

What causes this kind of behavior, and what can we, as riders, do to overcome it?

5 Reasons Your Horse is Balking


There are different causes for different types of balking so, let’s tackle each one in turn:

1. Is Pain Causing Your Horse to Balk?

Pain often causes bad behavior, whether it is expressed through balkiness, rearing, bucking, or just a general reluctance to engage with the rider.

Before you start focusing on retraining and problem solving, have a veterinarian or other expert rule out the following:

  • Is an ill-fitting bit preventing your horse from moving forward? 
  • Is the saddle pinching and giving your horse a sore back?
  • Does your horse show signs of a stomach ulcer or hind-gut discomfort?
  • Is your horse sound?
  • Does your horse have dental issues such as unerupted wolf teeth? 

2. How to Correct Balking in the Herd-Bound Horse

Horses are sociable creatures and, just as some humans hate being alone, so some horses will fight tooth and nail rather than leave their herd. The only real way to tackle this is to become the herd leader and gain your horse’s respect and focus.

The best way to start is by doing groundwork exercises, asking your horse to move away from pressure. Start with simply asking your horse to back up a few steps and then walk a few steps forward. 

Make sure your horse’s attention is focused on you rather than the herd and maintain a positive attitude. 

Ask your horse to follow you and move away from his comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to keep repeating these exercises until your horse is fully engaged and resounding to the lightest touch. 

Once you’ve achieved the foundations in the ring or field, it’s time to head away from the herd. Take your horse just a few steps at a time, making sure “he can maintain his focus and an even pace.” 

Increase the distance each day until you’re confident that he’s happy to “be ‘with you’ regardless of where you are.”

3. How to Boost Your Horse’s Confidence and Eradicate Balking


Some horses refuse to move or balk because they fear something in the distance and lack the confidence to deal with it. 

My one horse, for instance, balks at rocks, thinking they might be rhinos in disguise! My approach is to gently but consistently encourage her to approach the rock, sniff it, investigate it, and then, having ascertained that there really are no rhinos in sight, we’re able to move on. 

Patience and timing are central to this approach – the moment you have a positive movement towards the object, remove the pressure, and let the horse relax into its new comfort zone. 

Keep doing this and, little by little, you’ll manage to pass that troublesome flag or rhino-shaped rock. 

Once past, go back again and walk your horse past the same object until there is no sign of balking, in fact, until there’s not even so much as a twitch of the ear. 

The rider needs to convey a confident attitude to the horse, so he trusts your judgment and your leadership. 

4. Common Rider Errors to Avoid with a Balking Horse

Even professional riders make mistakes, especially when confronted with a balky horse that refuses to move. The temptation to micromanage the balking horse is hard to resist, but resist you should. 

Pestering your horse with constant kicking will only tire you out and make your horse more resistant to your commands. 

The more pressure you apply, the more likely your horse is to shut down. It’s crucial to stay patient and consistent and resist the temptation to rush the process.

Read more: Slow Feeders – Yay or Nay?

5. How to Tackle the Water Balker


Lots of horses are frightened of the water or, more specifically, a lot of horses I know are willing to throw themselves into a dam but will balk at the smallest of puddles. 

Groundwork and desensitization techniques are the best way to approach a horse with a water phobia. Use a tarp on the ground to simulate the water and then use a light pressure halter to encourage him over it. 

Alternatively, use natural horsemanship techniques, like Monty Roberts’ join-up, and then use your newfound leadership status to encourage your horse to follow you onto the tarp. 

Not only will this help him deal with his water phobia in more manageable, bitesize chunks, it will also build your horse’s confidence and his faith in you as a leader.

Read more: The Original SleekEZ horse grooming tool review

Creating Improvement in a Balking Horse

A horse that balks at every opportunity is no fun to ride and could be potentially dangerous. Those with some experience in problem-solving and groundwork should be able to use the advice above to create an improvement in their horse’s behavior.

If, however, you don’t feel you have the expertise to apply the advice above, please contact a professional horse trainer to help you. And let us know how you get on!


  • A horse-mad redhead with a passion for the outdoors, Nicky lives on a 6ha small-holding on the Wild Coast of South Africa. She spends her time rearing goats, riding (rearing) horses, and meticulously growing her own chicken food. She has a witch’s knack with herbs and supplements everything, from her beloved Australian Cattle Dog to the occasional passing zebra with the fruits of her labor. Nothing is bought unless Nicky fails to MacGyver it out of scraps of broken bridles, baling twine, or wire. She loves baling twine (and boxes, oddly enough).