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Native American Curly Horses

By Martin Neidhardt

The history of Curly Horses and Native Americans goes back many, many years. The Curly horse, which has gained recognition through the American Bashkir Curly Registry, started as a breed preservation project over 25 years ago. Through the foresight of Sunny Martin of Ely, Nevada, and other folks who she encouraged, this unique horse was sought out and recorded one by one

The recorded horses were of many different types and colors. Thus there are several mysteries involving Curly horses. The curly gene has appeared in many breeds, including draft horses, ponies, Arabians, Foxtrotters, Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, Pintos, etc. Now we are back to the old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" In other words, do all horse breeds have a possible curly gene, or somewhere back in their lineage, was there an infusion from a curly line that only crops up from time to time?

One thing that we do know is that Native American Curly horses had become an even more rare commodity than the Curly horses that were found and recorded by the registry.

Breed Traits

They appear as the "pure" curly in that they follow very distinctive characteristics and are extremely consistent in reproduction of their type. Curly horses completely shed out the main hair and tail hair each summer, to grow back during the winter. Even though the mane hair is usually so fine and soft as to resemble a child's hair, it is quite kinky, and this ability to shed the mane is perhaps nature's way of coping with the corkscrew curls, as it would become quite impossible to manage if it became matted through years of growth.

Their body coat also sheds out in the summer, and they become wavy or fairly straight haired with their curly coat returning in late fall. Several winter coat patters have been observed, from a crushed velvet effect to a perfect parcel wave to extremely tight ringlets over the entire body. It has been tested and proven that flat hair is curly, yet when the hair of Curlies was tested, it was found to be round! One other thing about their hair should be mentioned, and that is that a number of owners who are allergic to horses find that they are not allergic to their Curlies! Hypoallergenic horses!

Outcrossing produces color, and since Curlies have necessarily been crossed with other breeds due to their own scarcity, they come in all colors, even with Appaloosa and Pinto markings. However, we have noted that most sorrels have flaxen legs, which is rather unusual, and this seems to be the basic color of the Bashkir bred in Russia.

Curlies are of medium size, somewhat resembling the early day Morgan in conformation and a number of traits have been found in this unique bred that links them to the true primitive horse. Many individuals have been found without ergots. Some have small, soft chestnuts. Their soft, unexpressive eyes have an unusual Oriental slant to them, which gives them a sort of sleepy look, but which also tends to give them a larger range of vision to the rear. The sleepy look is very deceiving, as they have a proud carriage, are very alert, and not lazy.

Their unusually tough, black hoofs are almost perfectly found in shape. Many Curlies with white legs will have four black hoofs. They have an exceptionally high concentration of red blood cells: stout round-bone cannon; straight legs that also move straight; flat knees; strong hocks; short back which indicated five lumbar vertebrae; round rump without creases or dimple; powerful rounded shoulders; V'd chest and round barrel, all of which contribute to their strength and endurance. The foals are born with thick crinkly coats, even inside their short, broad ears that sometimes tip back at the top, and also have beautiful curly eyelashes. They have an unusually affectionate disposition. When excited or at play, the foals move at a bold trot with their tails absolutely straight in the air.

Last, but not least, is their calmness and gentle disposition. They will, of course, struggle frantically when first roped or haltered, but their gentleness willingly responds to kindness and affection.

Performance-wise, Curlies are a no-nonsense horse that have an uncanny ability to do what is asked of them.

The Ancient Legend

The Native American Curly horse legend goes like this: "They first appeared to the people as a group of large, curly, red dogs." The color preferred was the sorrel (red) and chestnut, which is believed to be the correct coloration for the breed.

It appears that the Indians had not seen horses prior to the sighting of the "large, curly, red dogs," as they were called for lack of another term.

It is known that the Russians came across the Bering Strait traveling by horse and sled on ice. Curly horses believed to be the Bashkir Curly, native to Russia, were used. The people stayed and trapped fur-bearing animals, and in spring they returned with boats laden with furs and left the horses the horses behind. It is theorized that this is where the horses originated.

These horses would then have migrated from the north into our country instead of from the south as the Spanish horses did.

Some time after the legend of the curly dogs, it has been found that the Curlies were described by the Native Americans as the "horses before there were horses," which would seem that the Curlies were apparent prior to the arrival of the Spanish horses in North America.

We have recently found that the Curlies were known as "mystery or Mystical Horses" by the Sioux. As an old chief stated, there were "never many."

The Native American Curly horse is shown in "Winter Counts" (Indian calendars) and writings that date back beyond white man. Our Curly horse information comes through the Northern Sioux tribes, only having friends and acquaintances on these reservations.

When the white man started his aggression and takeover of the Indians, the Indians reverted back to old Indian religions for security. These rituals were known as the Sun Dance, Horse Dance, Ghost Dance, and others. The performance of those rituals struck fear into white men, who retaliated by forbidding their performance and further oppressing the Indians.

The largest action against the Indians in the Dakota territory was the final one which took place at Wounded Knee (now Southern South Dakota). Here the white men killed Big Foot's band of people and most of their horses were killed also. Under the United States Constitution, the Indians were guaranteed freedom of religion, but they found that it had to be one of the white man's religions.

After this time, it is our belief through research that there were only a few Curly horses left on the Standing Rock and Fort Berthold Reservations in the Dakotas.

The Curly horses of Rare Breeds Ranch are derived from those two lines, plus some of the Ernest Hammerick line of Mobridge, South Dakota, which are also Standing Rock stock. The Standing Rock horses were remnants of horses that were not with the people at the massacre at Wounded Knee. They were among the "turned out" horses belonging to those peoples, thus they were saved.

The Fort Berthold horses were discovered in a continued search for Native American Curly horses in an effort to find outcross bloodlines to keep the Standing Rock stock strong. Fortunately, we discovered these horses through inquiries as to who knew of any curly horses that might remain at Fort Berthold. This "find" turned out to be a very small group of horses that belonged to an Indian family who had possessed several curly horses and then traded for two curly mares from Sitting Bull's band when they were en route back from Canada after fleeing the whites after the Custer massacre.

This family related the acquisition of two mares from that band of people and how they nurtured them and had used those horses through many years. These horses were incredibly gentle in nature. We acquired the mare, which we call Miss Fort Berthold, and her yearling daughter and her baby filly that summer. This family had already sold several of the oldest of this stock through the sale barn (stock that had grown too old to survive another winter). That left them with one old favorite stallion that was buried with the father of the family when he passed away, according to tradition.

Further Native American use of the Curly hose denotes them as being sacred and for the possession of chiefs. It also showed them to be used as buffalo running horses. Possibly because of their sacred status they were felt to have the power to carry their chief to a successful hunt, which apparently they did.

Rare Breeds Ranch Curlies

The American Bashkir Curly horse registry has grown in numbers through the years, but the Native American line of the curly is extremely rare. They appear to be the "purest of Curlies." At Rare Breeds Ranch, we have tried to preserve the Native American Curly and have a herd of 25+ head that we have raised.

These horses follow the strongest of Curly traits—they are all sorrel in color, many with flaxen legs, mane, and tail, typical to the breed. One more trait that is unique to the Native American Curly is the fact that many of them have "Medicine Marks," which are roan spots or small black spots. These horses are 100% Curly and produce 100% Curly foals.

We now find that due to press of workload, we are unable to continue with this breeding program and wish to find new breeders who will continue to preserve these rare and interesting horses.

For further information please contact:

Rare Breeds Ranch
Marlin & Maureen Neidhardt
PO Box 66
Crawford, NE 69339

(308) 665-1431 days
(308) 665-1836 evenings

 

 

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...