Spend any time talking about horses or surfing horsey internet forums and fairly quickly someone will say – usually in response to a horse doing something undesirable – ‘All the good ones are quirky.’
I can’t say I’ve ever seen a consensus on the definition of the word. To me, it means a horse that acts in an unusual or unexpected way without an obvious cause. By definition, this is relatively rare!
To lots of people it seems to mean a horse that isn’t behaving how they want it to behave. This is not particularly rare! In fact most good horses, by definition, are very good at doing what is expected of them! If they are doing something undesirable they usually have a good reason for it, even if it isn’t an obvious one.
The term is also sometimes used synonymously with ‘high maintenance’ or ‘difficult to ride’. But these conditions often have their root in the horses being athletic and energetic and sensitive – all bonuses in a successful competition horse! Far from making them quirky, this makes them pretty much what it says on the tin. These attributes may make them unsuitable for your novice grandmother to hack but it certainly isn’t unusual or unexpected!
In fact, having spent a great deal of time at various high level competitions I can say that the vast majority of those horses participating are not ‘difficult’ at all. It’s not unusual for them to load and unload on crowded roads or hack through rush hour levels of activity. They often live in tiny stables, accessed up ramps or in the middle of fields. They get tied in busy wash racks, stand to be braided in heavily traveled hallways, and generally put up with a lot of quick, businesslike handling. They get ridden in tiny rings with ceilings the riders can virtually touch and compete in arenas that are lit up like rock concerts. Some of them can be electric in these environments but they are there precisely because they have proved their ability to cope while being managed, albeit it carefully, but within very narrow parameters. Most of them, in fact, have very accepting temperaments! They may have the occasional hairy moment borne from tension but if they are regularly bogging off/standing up/causing drama, they won’t stay long. Again, they may be different than the average horses in people’s back yards but that hardly makes them unusual. They aren’t quirky, they are competition horses.
Every horse is an individual and, within reason, needs to be treated as such. Different situations will suit some better than others. All riders will not get the best out of all horses and sometimes this has a much to do with temperament as talent.
Don’t get me wrong, some horses do have odd little habits. Horses that show above average abilities are also more likely to be allowed to indulge them. If the habit interferes with the ability to do a job or if the horse is only suitable for a job that requires very easy, predictable behaviour then there is a good chance the ‘quirk’ will be trained out if at all possible. It’s not that horses have to be quirky to be good, it’s that only the very good ones will be allowed to be quirky!
I do get that many people are heavily invested in their horses being unusual, or even unusually difficult. The reasons for this might be a musing all its own! But I think the danger with the ‘good ones are quirky’ defence is it allows people to excuse unacceptable behaviours and even to accept those behaviours as desirable. Many people defend that idea by saying if they are able to deal with it, what is the problem. Fair enough, to a point, but good behaviour is health insurance for horses and, especially in leaner times, there are fewer places for difficult horses.
The longer a habit goes on, the harder it is to fix. If you are happy to accept your horse’s foibles, have at it. Sometimes it’s best to compromise! But if it’s interfering with your safety or enjoyment then maybe it’s not a quirk, it’s a plain old problem.