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Horse of My Heart: The American Bashkir Curly

By Jay Hensley

7-week old "Red's Curly Jessamine" gets acquainted with new owner, Jay Hensley

Wilmore, KY—This unique and lovable breed, "strong enough for a man, gentle enough for a child," is steeped in mystery and history. But whatever its link may be to curly-haired horses in Russia, Argentina, ancient China, the Roman Empire, or early Spain, we know that, on this continent, the Curly was prized by early bands of Sioux and Crow Indians in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It has been the durable cowpony of choice on a handful of ranches in Nevada, Wyoming, North and South Dakota. It is very much a product of the American West and still turns up in its wild herds. Although a recent research project by the C. S. Fund Conservancy, a group dedicated to saving endangered species, failed to document a connection to the Bashkir breed from the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains in Russia, it did not have access to either the ABC Registry's files in Ely, NV or to independent research by Michigan Curly breed, Dale Woolley. Dale unearthed and documented the fact that an Irishman named Tom Dixon came to California in 1869, and soon thereafter claimed a 100-mile strip of rangeland in Nevada. He collected a group of wild mares and bred them to imported stallions. In 1874, he went to Bombay, India, and then through the Kyber Pass into the Afghanistan area in search of a very hardy, cold-weather horse. He had heard tell of such a horse, a curly breed that roamed those parts. He found the curly-haired Lokai and then, north of there in the Ural Mountains, another breed known as the Bashkir. It, too, had curly hair, although reportedly not as curly as the Lokai.

Dixon brought back two pregnant curly-haired mares and a curly-haired stallion to breed to his Nevada mares. While there is no record as to which horses Dixon actually chose, Dale thinks it was probably the Lokai, which had curlier hair and was more accessible.


Curls are a dominant gene. "Mac" is the result of a cross between a non-curly Appaloosa mare and a registered Curly Horse sire, The Red Baron.

Dale also found that a rancher named John Compacker was the first documented person to own a curly-haired horse from the open range. That was in 1880. His small cattle ranch was about 20 miles due west of Eureka, Nevada. About five years later, Compacker quit ranching, sold his cattle, and turned his horses loose. These included a few Curlies, who may well be the stock from which the famed Damele Curlies originated. Dale is writing a book on his Curly research and on the Damele ranching family of Austin, Nevada.

From Wild-and Wooly to User-Friendly

Stories abound of the wild-off-the-range Curlies who are docile and under saddle within a few short days of their capture.

"Why, he's just a big baby," Rhonda McQuinn of Urbana, Ohio said of The Red Baron, her three-year-old Bureau of Land Management (BLM) "wild" stallion. She was riding him within three days, while she still couldn't lay a hand on the mustangs she had adopted along with him.


The late American Bashkir Curly breeder, Benny Damele, and his Curly gelding, Shoshone, after a morning branding calves at Dry Creek Ranch in Nevada. (Photo courtesy of Jay Hensley).

Sunny Martin, 78, long-time secretary and now treasurer of the ABC Registry, has watched many a "wild" Curly "Fight that one good fight at the end of a rope," then settle down almost immediately into being friendly and tractable. "Curlies really do take to people," she said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Sunny acquired her first Curly, a 3-year-old stallion, in 1967. "He was wild off the range and as gentle as a kitten," she said. "That has to impress you. I'm sorry I didn't get him sooner in life."


Shan Thomas of the C. S. Fund fell in love with Curlies during the research project on the breed. (Photo by Jay Hensley, Wilmore, Kentucky).

In 1971, Sunny was one of the co-founders of the ABC Registry. It opened in her home, registering 20 horses who had curly hair and a long list of such similar traits that it convinced their owners this was an unusual and endearing breed worthy of preservation. Today, close to 2,000 horses have been registered, thanks in part to a run on Curlies caused by an article I wrote for the November-December 1983 issue of "The Mother Earth News." This one-page feature acquainted a million subscribers with the breed. Over the years, Sunny estimates that it was responsible for many contributions of money and 6,000 letters of inquiry.

My Favorite Curly Stories

I visited Sunny in the spring of '86. Her files were stuffed with letters from Curly owners, telling stories about their beloved horses. I sat on the floor in her office and read them for hours.

My favorite is the one about Sunny's cousin, Herman Huff of Salmon, Idaho, now deceased. He was a mountain man who had worked with horses all his life and was a guide into the Idaho wilderness for many years.


"Kewpie," ABC-registered Curly, home again with her mistress, Sunny Martin, in Ely, Nevada.

When he visited Sunny in the early '70s, he fell in love with her Curlies and took home, in the back of his pickup truck, a four-year-old Curly mare and her foal, both wild off the range. When he saddled Babe a week later and rode her, he told Sunny, "She took two little jumps and that's all."

A few weeks after that he worked Babe on a cattle drive. The other herders were astounded, sure he would lame the unshod mare and finish off the foal, too. But Herman laughed and told them he'd brought along a spare, just in case.

When they came to a high, narrow bridge over the Salmon River, none of the other horses would set foot on it and had to swim the river. Herman dismounted, let Babe contemplated the bridge awhile ("Curlies like to think about things," Sunny says), then led her across with the foal following. Coming back, he rode her across the bridge.

He taught her to walk a 2" x 12" plank into his pickup truck. He told Sunny he thought Babe would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Another heartwarming story came from Joe Meade, who was an Alaskan wilderness guide for many years and now raises double-registered buckskin Curlies near Sequim, Washington. Joe still chokes up when he talks about his curly-haired buckskin gelding, Bishop, his partner and best friend during those rigorous wilderness years.


"Kewpie," the Curly mare loaned to the Kentucky Horse Park for six months by Sunny Martin, past secretary and one of the founders of the American Bashkir Curly Registry in Ely, Nevada.

The stories about Bishop were legend in that harsh territory. His unusual, often-ridiculed coat, his foraging ability and his survival instincts saw him through the cruelest of winters. Strong and tough, sure-footed as a mountain goat, he was also keen of eye and often spied game before Joe did.

Circumstances forced Joe to sell Bishop 13 times, but this was a one-man horse and Joe could always buy him back. Bishop's last owner told Joe, "You can have the fool horse for nothing if you can catch him!" When Joe hollered, Bishop raised his head above the other horses, took one look, and jumped the fence to get to him.

Bishop's tragic death at 25 from a hunter's stray bullet caused Joe much grief. Shortly thereafter, he heard about a breed of curly-haired horses in Nevada and sent for several. When they arrived, shipped to him by Sunny Martin, he was filled with amazement and joy. Bishop wasn't just "one in a million," he was one of a breed!

Usually a shy man of few words, Joe became almost gregarious. "You just have to tell people about Curlies," he explains.

Countless other tales extolled the virtues and unusual traits of Curlies. Some of them sound outrageous, but "Believe them," said Ed Brice, former horseman at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. "Curlies are so unusual you really need to be around one for a while before you can truly appreciate the breed."


Velvet's Red Riches in action; Candi Torgeson up. Owner Jay Hensley.
Ed claimed that Kewpie, loaned to the park for six months about 10 year ago by Sunny Martin, was so endearing that she spoiled him and his coworkers on the breed. Now the park (which displays about 40 different equine breeds) has its own Curly, Mel's Lucky Boy, to show off!

Breed Characteristics

Sunny says, "Curlies are tough as boot leather and terribly smart. They may have a sleepy-time look, but they're alert and they don't miss a thing."

They come in all sizes, from 14 hands to over 16, and in all colors, but sorrel predominates. They have divided manes, often very thick, or thinner and corkscrew-curled. Some Curlies shed their manes and even their tail hair in summer. Gorgeous Josephine in the winter months can turn into Hairless Jo during the hot weather.

Curlies give a good account of themselves in competition against all breeds. They have won trophies in all sorts of Western and gymkhana events, on the endurance trail, and in hunter, jumper, English equitation and country pleasure classes. Naturally high-headed, a curly is not the horse to take into a Western Pleasure class where a low head carriage was required until just recently in all the Western horse shows. Curlies are shown "natural," without brimmed or braided manes and are never shaved. Every year the ABC Registry sponsors a national Curly horse show in Ely, which gives folks a wonderful opportunity to see Curlies in action. This year it will be held June 19-21.


Velvet's Red Riches in competition. Rider, Candi Torgeson. Owner, Jay Hensley.

People allergic to other breeds of horses don't have that problem with a Curly, whose coat is definitely different inn more than its curl. Sunny and I both have talked to and heard tell of many people who have given up on horses because of allergic reactions, but now blissfully own Curlies.

Curlies thrive in cold weather. They have been seen playing happily in 50-70 degree F below zero temperatures which a less-hardy breed would not survive.

Sunny said, "We don't box stall, grain, or shoe our Curlies. They can just about go out and take care of themselves and there's no sense in pampering them." Where upon she related the story of a Connecticut gelding named Fazie, who, whenever swaddled in a blanket, took it off. He undid the surcingles under his belly with his teeth, then caught the blanket in his teeth and pulled it over his head. Spying on him one day, his owners got the message and stopped coddling him.

Sunny also told me about a stallion named Q-Card, who liked to play with 2x6's and tires. Once there was a Shetland stud on the other side of the fence from him who as just plain mean in spite of all Q-Card's friendly overtures. Finally, after putting up with the pony's nastiness for several weeks, Q-Card lost his patience and threw a 2x6 at him as Sunny watched. "Why, he just grabbed it with his teeth, reared up, and flung it over the fence at him."

Curlies really are easy to train, but if you've had little or no exposure to horses, it's best to hire someone for the job. Otherwise, that Curly could outsmart you.

A Visit to Dry Creek Ranch

Sunny and I ate dinner one day with the late ABC breeder, Benny Damele, and the morning's calf-branding crew at his ranch near Austin, Nevada. His family has carried on a serious Curly breeding program ever since a harsh winter in the 30's and then again in the 40's killed all their non-Curly horses out on the range. They rounded up and brought in the surviving Curlies, who became the cowponies of necessity and then of choice on the Damele spread.

After that one good fight, the Curlies were cooperative and quick to learn. Ranging in size from about 14.2 to 15.3 hands, they could soon work cattle with the best of Quarter Horses and even outlast them. They were easy keepers, could be worked at high altitudes without lagging and weathered the harsh winters without coddling. They carried an extra layer of insulating fat on their bodies, and their small round nostrils limited the intake of frigid air.

Benny ran at least three different stallions with his band of Curly broodmares—an Arab, an Appaloosa, and a Morgan. Every fall, the Dameles rounded up the range horses, branded the weanlings and sold a few of the young Curlies. Nowadays, the Damele brand can be found on Curlies and half-Curlies throughout the country.


Curlies love to be groomed. Nick Nichols grooms Velvet's Red Riches as a cold.

A quiet man, Benny was not one to volunteer much information that day. When I pressed him for his opinion of Curlies, he finally said, "I'm not like sunny; I don't say they're the most wonderful horses in the world…but they're a damn good using horse. I can hammer a Curly down through these rocks…it's an all-around horse. When a Curly outshines the rest is in cold weather and soundness for hard use. They've got good bone…I can use them day after day after day.

"One thing about 'em," he mused, "you can cross them with about anything and they throw back pretty much to being an original Curly…kind of like them Highland cattle."

He said that Shoshone, the Curly he rode that morning, "Will outpull any of these horses out here today. Curlies are good, game pullers. They'll pull a calf slow and steady."

Neighboring ranchers at the branding had each brought along and used two horses, but Benny just saddled Shoshone for the morning's work.

He showed us two "wild" half-Curlies he had brought in from the range the day before. "They're awful gentle little horses," he said. "I just roped them, held on for a while, and put a halter on them."

"Half-Curlies," ABC registered as "Half-Bashkir," are straight-haired, but are from Curly stock and carry many of the Curly traits. (The Registry closed on January 1, 1992, and all horses registered from that date must have an ABC-registered sire and ABC-registered dam. Half-Bashkir mares and geldings can be registered, but not stallions. About 300 have been registered thus far.)

There are several different types of Curly because they do "pop up" in other breeds, particularly the Appaloosa and Missouri Fox Trotter. Before the registry closed, these pop-ups could be ABC registered as long as they exhibited acceptable conformation and other Curly traits.

Gentle Stallions

Curly stallions have a reputation for being exceptionally gentle. In Ely, Nevada, I went right into the corral with Dayle Johnson's unhaltered Peter Paint, a young Curly stallion who had been very recently been in a wild herd. There were several mares in an adjacent corral, but he was calm, sweet-natured, and friendly, and obviously very fond of Dayle.

In Sunman, Indiana, Linda Strickland, a 98-pounder who ha never been around horses before reading that article in the Mother Earth News, doesn't have a lick of trouble with 16.1-hand Baron, the BLM stallion she bought from Rhonda McQuinn. She and her equally inexperienced husband, Bill, have bred him to a whole string of mares.

Up a Creek with Four Curlies

After my visit to Nevada, I was hooked on Curlies and soon had two of my own. One was Velvet's Red Riches, a lovable, super-curly weanling colt, sired by "Baron," out of a Curly mare. I bought him from the Stricklands. The other was Sunshine Kyzyl ("KZ") an 8-year-old Missouri Foxtrotter "pop-up" Curly gelding. With fear and trembling, I ordered him sight-unseen (something lots of Curly owners do!) from Kansas, and he turned out to be a wonderful trail horses, so wise, so easy-gaited, responsive, and energetic. He packs a proud, high-headed presence into that sturdy 14.2 body. I give him only a handful of sweet feed a day, just as a treat to bring him running in from the pasture in the early evening. He has never been shod and never turns up footsore, even after a long day of walking the creekbeds.

Benny Damele said that when Curlies are worked many hours day after day and ridden hard over rocky terrain, they need both grain and shoes. I do notice that if I ride KZ very much on the blacktop roads near my farm, his feet start to wear down.

Now I can tell Curly stories of my own!

The second day I had KZ, after my first long ride on him, he opened his lips wide and startled me with a huge soft, "kiss" that covered my whole face. That established our relationship and he hasn't done it since.

We put KZ and "Little Red," in a paddock by the house at night. One evening when I was bringing them in from pasture, I led Red and KZ followed,. He stopped in the yard to nibble clover and I called to him from the paddock, "KZ, get in here, right now!" He lifted his head, gazed at me for a long while, then broke into a canter and rushed into the paddock.


Linda Strickland and Blazing Velvet, Sunman, Indiana.

I also bought from the Stricklands an Appaloosa mare, Comanche, in foal to "Baron." She presented us with a big, strong colt that following June, Comanche's Curly Mac, the first Curly born in Kentucky. Little Mac fought that one good fight at the end of a lead shank, then accepted it. He was and still is, at 6, very friendly and loves to be scratched.

One evening, while playing with Little Mac, I noticed KZ watching us intensely. Later, when I went into the paddock to make a fuss over him, too, KZ clamped his teeth on one of my long braids, gave it a hard yank, then sulked like a resentful child.

When Little Mac was about a week old, a friend with two small sons stopped by. Mac trotted up to the electric fence right away and sniffed at the children, mesmerized. He stayed right there for a long time, poking his little nose out, trying to reach them, as if saying to himself, "Why, they're little, just like me! Aren't they cute?"

"Little Red" grew up to be a beautiful and gentle stallion. I raised both him and Mac without grain and neither one has ever been shod. All of Red's fur offspring from non-Curly mares are good-looking Curlies. His trainer, Candi Kreigh Torgeson, piloted him to the Curly Performance Horse East of the Mississippi trophy when he was only three, and I am now raising one of his daughters, Red's Curly Jessamine, a '91 foal out of an Arabian mare owned by Candi. "Jess" is a lot of fun to work with and a real darling.

This little farm on the Jessamine Creek near Wilmore, Kentucky, is getting crowded. Curly owners have a way of overdoing it. Like popcorn or peanuts, one Curly is never enough, and pretty soon we have a whole herd and must reluctantly sell a few.

From Rocky Mountain Feed and Livestock Journal May 1992.

 

 

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...