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Locks of Curls: the Curly Horse Demystified

By Lilli Bieler

The American Curly horse. This is a colorful breed marked by mystery and lore. Even their very name is a source of confusion. People wonder: is a Bashkir Curly the same thing as an American Curly? What's the difference? The questions abound. Some are easy to answer. Others are less clear but no less evident. This is an attempt to set the record straight and highlight a fascinating, new breed at the same time.

American Bashkir Curlies are the same type of horse as American Curly Horses. They are simply the two different names given by the two official breed registries, the American Bashkir Curly Registry and the American Curly Horse Association. However, there is an evolution leading to the naming of the horses and the formation of the organizations themselves. A brief history lesson will help elucidate.

The origins of the Curly breed are a mystery even to this day. But, we do know that horses with curly coats are most definitely an ancient breed. They have been depicted in Chinese art as far back as 161 AD, and there has been evidence of their past presence in Europe and South America.


Photo Sidebar: Curly Stallion

Fortunately, the modern-day US Curly breed history is much more clear cut. In 1938, a young Peter Damele and his father made an interesting discovery the day they first spotted curly-coated horses high atop the mountain range in Central Nevada. Naturally, they were intrigued, but equally dumbfounded. They wondered what these horses were and where they had come from.

Coincidentally, a photo of the so-called curly-coated Bashkir horse from Russia was printed in the March, 1938, Nature Magazine. Later, the horse's picture was drawn by John Hix and featured as a cartoon called, "Strange as it Seems." This clipping was found in the Damele family's scrapbook and is one of the factors ultimately determining the name, American Bashkir Curly.

From their original sighting forward, the Damele family name became closely associated with Curly history. Peter Damele's son, Benny, continued on breeding Curlies for his ranch work, and the Damele ranch hasn't been without curly-coated horses since then. Many of the curly horses in the US are traced to the Damele herd.


Photo Sidebar: Curly Stallion from North Dakota.

In 1971, the first official registry was born and christened the "American Bashkir Curly Registry." Its founders set out to save the rare breed at a time when far too many were being bought at auction by "killers." Fearing extinction, a handful of breeders organized with the purpose of preserving, propagating, and promoting the breed. These initiatives remain the Registry's focus to the present day.

As time went by and more information surfaced, it became apparent that the chosen name breed, Bashkir Curly, might not be an accurate one. Extensive research proved that there was actually no curly-coated horse from the Bashkir, as was originally believed. The Russian Lokai breed, on the other hand, does sometimes exhibit curly characteristics. Once again, though, careful analysis disproved the Lokai's likelihood as the American Curly's originator.

Countless theories were raised and tested, but all failed to explain the nagging question of who these horses were and from whence they came. By now it is widely accepted that these may never be known. However, there are two facts about which we can remain confident. First, of course, that Curlies have no real connection with the Bashkir, and second that, for whatever reason, they have existed in North America for a long time.

There is evidence that the Sioux and Crow Indians possessed curly-coated horses as early as 1800. A significant number of today's Curlies trace back to Indian reservations in North and South Dakota. Regardless, many Curlies then and now have been captured from free-roaming wild herds in the United States. How they got there is anyone's guess.

From Damele's time forward, the Curly's scarcity necessitated outcrossing in order to propagate the breed. Largely in keeping with early Damele practices, the American Bashkir Registry initially continued to allow registered Curlies to be crossed with Appaloosas, Foxtrotters, Arabs, and Morgans. The resulting curly-coated offspring could be registered.

Other breeds do show up in their lineage, including Quarter Horses and Standardbreds. Consequently, serum blood typing did not produce any findings that could identify the Curly Horse as a genetically unique breed. The rare and unusual genetic traits that did appear from the testing are found only in wild horses or those breeds based on wild herds.

For that reason, Curly Horses take on all different colors and sizes. Looks and type will vary as well. Strangely, however, curly-coated individuals consistently exhibit the same basic traits over and over again. These include some particularly notable characteristics for which they are best known and most loved—for example, temperament, bone and hardiness. Like so many other things about the Curly, this cannot be definitively explained.

Wendy Sauersmith, secretary of the American Curly Horse Association (ACHA), offers one plausible explanation. She believes, as do many, that there is a complex of linked genes that are passed on together along with the Curly gene. Practical evidence supports this "in the field," but perhaps one day it will also be scientifically proven.

The most common "curly" gene is dominant and will normally produce the trademark hair coat fifty percent of the time when a Curly is bred to a straight-haired horse. Curly-to-Curly breeding increases curly-coat probability to seventy-five percent unless one parent is homozygous (100% dominant). In that case, the foal will be "curly" even if the other parent is not.

There is a more recessive curly gene that will crop up, even sometimes in other breeds. As support to the aforementioned hypothesis, when this does happen, the affected horse shows typical Curly characteristics when its parents do not.

Again, a Curly's look depends on its breed heritage, but several types can be observed and some generalities can be drawn. Curlies are of average height and range from 14.2 to 16 hands high, with most being 14.2-14.3, but some also come in pony and draft sizes. As to be expected, their diverse heritage predicts the full spectrum of color and markings that they display.


Photo Sidebar: Gaited (1/2 Missouri Foxtrotter) Gelding.

Some Curlies roughly resemble the old-style Morgans, perhaps those with Morgan, Arab, and/or Mustang influence. Some are taller and more refined with a fuller mane and tail. They have been referred to as the "gaited" type. "They do come in gaited and non-gaited.) Others, still, are closer in type to the American Quarter Horse. They have been described as "Native American Curlies."

Photo Sidebar: A day-old colt.

Nonetheless, Curlies are typically rugged individuals with stout, straight legs, short backs, strong hocks, powerful shoulders, and rounded rumps and barrels—all factors contributing to their strength and endurance. Many display the characteristics which link this unique breed to the primitive horse. They have been found without ergots and some have small, soft chestnuts. Their soft, calm eyes have a slant which provides them with an enhanced scope of vision. Their perfectly round black hooves are unusually tough. And, interestingly, their concentration of red blood cells is exceptionally high.

Even the Curly's one constant, that they have curly coats, is not uniform from one individual to another. Their signature curly coat is their wintertime coat. Various winter coat patterns have been observed, from a crushed velvet effect , to waves, to tightly curled ringlets. In summer, their body coat sheds out anywhere from wavy to flat (normal coat). Those shedding smooth may only leave curly eyelashes, ears, fetlocks, manes, and tails as reminders that they are indeed "curly." Foals are especially interesting looking, being born with thick, crinkly coats from head to rump (see photo).

Although their mane hair is soft and fine, it usually grows plentifully in long, curly ringlets on either side of the horse's neck. Some, although a small percentage, completely shed out their manes and tails each year.

While outsiders focus on their standout coats, Curly owners consider the horse's disposition to be their most cherished quality. As often as the curls are passed along, so is their temperament. It seems to come as part of the "package." Curlies are remarkably calm, friendly, and gently almost to an oddly extreme level. Nothing seems to ruffle them. Within a matter of days, even full-grown animals taken from the wild are described to be gentler than other horses that have been handled for years.

This is not to suggest that Curlies are dead-heads, unintelligent, or sleepy. Not at all. They are proud, alert, intelligent and incredibly desirous to please. Coupled with common sense and athleticism, Curly Horses make versatile and easy to train riding and driving companions. They have the courage and stamina to attempt any task that is asked of them. Curlies are being used in just about all disciplines from Dressage to Hunter/Jumper, Endurance, Competitive Trail, Western Pleasure, and Roping and Reining, to name just a handful.

For those looking for an all-around pleasure riding mount, Curlies are ideal. Besides their "do anything for anyone" attitude, owners will appreciate the Curlies' interest in seeking out human company. They have an intense curiosity and most especially for what their owner might be doing. And they are not easily scared off.

Sauersmith of the ACHA related an amusing story about her three-year-old filly and a weedwhacker. One day, when she was out trimming the fenceline with her weedwhacker, she decided to put the implement down for a moment but left it running. She never expected that her filly would amble over and pick the noisy thing up in her mouth. It was only when a nervous Sauersmith began yelling loudly that the filly got distracted and dropped the machine! This kind of activity is typical of them, says Sauersmith. They want to be your friend and they want to be part of your life. So if you are in need of a friend, it really is possible to buy one!


Photo Sidebar: 14-year-old boy with a 24-year-old gaited mare.

And there's more. This is another one of those Curly "mysteries," but like the others, it is a commonly reported phenomenon. Time and time again, Curlies are showing themselves to be truly hypoallergenic through real-life trials and examples. Sauersmith and the ABC Registry recounted numerous stories of people afflicted with mild to serious horse allergies, but who were mildly to non-affected while working around Curlies.

Sauersmith recalled a badly hypoallergenic woman who mingled with her Curlies for three hours without symptoms. It wasn't until she happened to brush up against the whiskers of a non-curly that her arms blew up as if she'd been scratched by a cat. And her story is only one of many. Suffice it to say that for those allergy sufferers who are traumatized by an empty or limited horse life, Curlies represent an interesting new possibility.

Back to politics. In the recent past, the American Bashkir Curly Registry voted on two particular issues which would ultimately divide members and spur the formation of the American Curly Horse Association in 1998. The ABC Registry is now a "closed" registry, only registering the offspring of Curly-to-Curly matings.

The ACHA registry remains "open." However, in line with the ABC Registry's concern that the special curly traits should not be diluted, most ACHA breeders still breed mainly Curly to Curly. They consider outcrossing to be a nice option to help accentuate certain characteristics or for people without access to many Curlies in their area. There are only about 3,000-4,000 registered individuals throughout the country.

Additionally, since it was determined that the word "Bashkir" was not historically related to the Curly, ACHA members wanted to eliminate it from the breed name. Thus, their horses became American Curlies rather than American Bashkir Curlies. The ABC Registry acknowledges the lack of a "Bashkir" connection but as not able to get the number of votes needed to change the name. On the other side, "Bashkir" is a name that has been used for many years and it is publicly recognized. So for them and plenty of others, the name stuck. Such is the history of why there are currently two Curly breed organizations, the bottom line being that both groups cater to the preservation, growth and promotion of the same remarkable equine. They simply do it in their own style.

The breed may be young and their numbers still relatively small, but their popularity is catching on. Sauersmith explains that once people discover the Curly Horse, they become hooked. As she puts it, "They may be hypoallergenic, but they are addictive!" She is a Curly addict herself. In 1991 she bought one Curly colt, but within six months, her entire barn had curls. She had replaced her four other horses with Curlies. They are just that special, she says.

If you want to buy a Curly, the problem these days is locating one, Sauersmith cautions. Only 25-30 broke-to-ride Curlies typically come up for sale each year. The good news is that if you can find one, Curlies are not expensive. You probably won't have to pay more than $2,500-$3,000. Curly breeders admit that they do it for fun and they want to keep the horses affordable so others may also enjoy them.

More good news. There is usually a much better supply of youngsters available for sale and they are even less expensive. You can expect to pay anywhere from $1,500-$2,500 for weanlings through two year olds. Sauersmith suggests that due to the Curly's exceptional good nature and today's supply of good trainers, "people can consider buying young with a Curly." She advises that this is a breed with which your average person can easily get involved. By way of example, Sauersmith sells most of her Curlies as weanlings. Interestingly, 90-95% of her sales are through the Internet. American Curlies are certainly a New Age horse!

Myth and mystery will follow the Curly Horse wherever they shall go. But maybe it is in part their fantasy that captures our imaginations and wins our hearts. For they are a unique combination of down to earth sense and fanciful magic. They are for here and now, and they let us fly. If you are feeling a little too ordinary, enliven your life with a Curly.


Photo Sidebar: 2 year old registered ½ Arabian and ½ Curly stallion.

Many thanks to both the American Bashkir Curly registry and the American Curly Horse Association for providing the information in this article.

American Bashkir Curly Registry
PO Box 246
Ely, NV 89301

PH: 775-289-4999
Fax: 775-289-8579

E-mail: secretary@abcregistry.org

American Curly Horse Association
PO Box 167
Whitesville, KY 42378

PH: 270-275-9347
E-mail: amcurlyhorse@aol.com

www.curlyhorse.web.com

From Horsemen's Yankee Pedlar May, 2000

 

 

Tamea C. Denault

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Tamea C. Denault is the founder of Dreamswept Farm and coach of the MountainWind Vaulters in Kettle Falls, WA. She is a certified CHA multi-discipline riding instructor. While earning her degree in psychology and education at Mt. Holyoke College, she also learned vaulting and has continued vaulting and coaching ever since. More...