SUMMARY We currently know little about how animals achieve dynamic stability when running over uneven and unpredictable terrain, often characteristic of their natural environment. Here we investigate how limb and joint mechanics of an avian biped, the helmeted guinea fowl Numida meleagris , respond to an unexpected drop in terrain during running. In particular, we address how joint mechanics are coordinated to achieve whole limb dynamics. Based on muscle–tendon architecture and previous studies of steady and incline locomotion, we hypothesize a proximo-distal gradient in joint neuromechanical control. In this motor control strategy, (1) proximal muscles at the hip and knee joints are controlled primarily in a feedforward manner and exhibit load-insensitive mechanical performance, and (2) distal muscles at the ankle and tarsometatarso-phalangeal (TMP) joints are highly load-sensitive, due to intrinsic mechanical effects and rapid, higher gain proprioceptive feedback. Limb kinematics and kinetics during the unexpected perturbation reveal that limb retraction, controlled largely by the hip, remains similar to level running throughout the perturbed step, despite altered limb loading. Individual joints produce or absorb energy during both level and perturbed running steps, such that the net limb work depends on the balance of energy among the joints. The hip maintains the same mechanical role regardless of limb loading, whereas the ankle and TMP switch between spring-like or damping function depending on limb posture at ground contact. Initial knee angle sets limb posture and alters the balance of work among the joints, although the knee contributes little work itself. This distribution of joint function results in posture-dependent changes in work performance of the limb, which allow guinea fowl to rapidly produce or absorb energy in response to the perturbation. The results support the hypothesis that a proximo-distal gradient exists in limb neuromuscular performance and motor control. This control strategy allows limb cycling to remain constant, whereas limb posture,loading and energy performance are interdependent. We propose that this control strategy provides simple, rapid mechanisms for managing energy and controlling velocity when running over rough terrain.