"Curlies can do three times the work on half the feed of an ordinary horse."
Sunny Martin of Ely thinks her curly-coated horses are just about the greatest things on four legs.
"They're tough, they're exceptionally intelligent, they have good memories, and they're so gentle it's ridiculous. They have exceptionally strong bones; they can do three times the work on half the feed of an ordinary horse."
Ordinary horses they certainly are not. The curly or Bashkir horse grows an extra coat of curly hair during the winter that can get from four to six inches long, and a special layer of fat under its skin makes it peculiarly able to live through the sometimes-cruel winters of central Nevada, where the breed was first recognized. It has black hooves, soft eyes, and small nostrils. Its history and genetics are still being investigated by horse fanciers. Its qualities, however, are evident to anyone who owns one, according to Mrs. Martin, who was instrumental in forming the American Bashkir Curly Registry, of which she is secretary.
Curly horses were first recognized as a breed by the Damele family, ranchers near Austin in central Nevada. After particularly hard winters, the Dameles noticed the only mustangs to survive were a few with curly hair. Needing hardy horses, they broke and bed the Curlies, discovering in the process that they were admirably suited for ranch work. Shaped much like Morgans, the horses stand up well under rough riding and are exceptionally gentle.
The Dameles got their first Curly horse in 1936, but they had noticed them before. Although they have other horses, they rely mainly on their5 stock of approximately 25 head of Curlies. Benny Damele explained: "We probably do as much horse work as any rancher in the country, more than most. We rely on horses to operate. The Curlies are better keepers, especially in cold weather. They have a gentle disposition and better legs. They don't get ringbone or get stove up like other horses, and we have to run our horses around in the rocks a lot. And besides, they're more suited to our needs, and I like 'em better."
Sunny and Sarge Martin discovered the same characteristics when they acquired their Curlies, including a stud captured off the range in eastern Nevada. The forebears of the Bashkir are supposed to have originated on the eastern slopes of the Urals in Russia, where they were raised by the people of Bashkiria for riding, driving, food, milk, and clothing. "There are two theories on how they came to North America," said Sunny. "One is that the Russians brought them with them when they settled on the West Coast." Russian settlers colonized Alaska in the early 19th century, and flourishing agricultural settlements were established in California by 1812.
"The other theory is that they came across the Bering Strait when there was a land bridge there in prehistoric times. Some researchers believe Indian legends indicate the presence of wild horses in the Pacific Northwest for more than 700 years." The horses would not have become widespread, because the horses bore very few foals, a natural birth control insuring there would never be an overpopulation problem. Even today, according to Sunny, Curly mares are not noted for their fecundity.
"The Curly may represent the oldest form of horse," says Sunny. "The Curly characteristics show up in many breeds, but were considered weird and ill-bred, so Curly foals were usually killed."
To be registered, a Curly horse must exhibit Curly characteristics or be of such parentage to indicate it carries Curly genes and show itself capable of breeding Curly foals. There are 83 registered Curlies in the United States and Canada, including six in Ely. Slogan for the registry is, "Gentle enough for a child, tough enough for a man."