Want a horse that stands out in the show ring or can pull a plow? Want a horse that is sturdy enough to virtually take care of itself? Want a horse that is sweet, intelligent, willing, and almost one of a kind? You probably don't know it yet, but what you really want is a Curly!
The American Bashkir Curly horse is a relatively unknown breed of horse that is currently experiencing a boom. As recently as five years ago there were only 200 registered American Bashkir Curly horses in the United States. This year the number is close to 1,000.
But just what is a Curly horse? Betsy Parillo of Top O'the Hill Farm in Springfield, Vermont, the only registered Curly breeder in New England, explains that it is many things. "Of course, the most obvious features is the curly mane and coat. But it goes beyond that. The Curlies have a distinctive history and a distinctive makeup."
Like many ancient breeds, the Curly has a complicated and difficult to trace background. Most people believe Curlies are descended from the Bashkir herds raised in the Russian Ural Mountains, and the breed's sturdy build supports this theory. It is thought that the herds came across the Bering Strait and were then raised by Native American Indians. Until recently, the largest concentration of Curlies is in central Nevada. The pictures found of Indian herd counts painted on cave walls often indicate a horse with squiggly lines over its coat and mane, which many think are illustrations of the curly coat. Some Indians referred to the unique horses as "buffalo horses" since they beli4eved the curly hair was the result of breeding between horses and buffaloes. One account appears of the famous explorers Lewis and Clark bringing a curly-haired horse back on their expedition and settling it into Massachusetts.
Part of the difficulty involved with establishing the breed recognition is the ignorance existing about it. "Some people have Curly horses and just think their horses have a funny coat," Betsy explained. "The curly coat sheds out in the summer to the point where it can be difficult to identify the horse as a Curly. Recently a man called me after reading an article I'd done on Curlies to say he'd had a Curly mare on his farm for years and didn't know it. Some horses are curlier than others, too, and some horses with full Curlies for both parents and grandparents can have straight hair. Despite their own straight coat, these Curlies can also be consistent producers of Curly offspring. Some of my curliest foals are out of straight mares with strong Curly backgrounds."
Tragically, some of the curious-looking horses were probably routinely slaughtered as people believed the horse suffered from a pituitary problem that can result in long and curly coats.
With the establishment of the American Bashkir Curly Registry in 1971, official recognition became available. Despite the relative youth of the stud book, Betsy estimates that fully 300 or 400 of the registered horses are very old or no longer living. Betsy said, "I cannot find anyone who knows exactly, but in the first stud book, the first 100 horses are listed with birth dates of the 1950s and 1960s." Since locating stallions and mares was difficult originally, some already-dead horses that were verified as Curly through photographs were also registered. Now that almost 20 years of recognition has passed, the stud books are closing and more good stallions are available all over the United States. "Up until recently there has been very little gelding going on so stallions have been fairly easy to find. That will change now that the books are closing," Betsy explained.
An apparently Curly mare is given temporary Curly status until she has produced the required number of verified Curly offspring. At that time the color of her registration papers changes and she is given---what else?---her "permanent." A registered Curly mare must produce three registerable curly coated foals (one year or older) to obtain a Permanent status. Stallions must also produce five Curly offspring to receive their permanent Curly status.
Straight-haired mares can never be Permanent no matter how many curly foals they produce. A straight-haired mare of unknown heritage could never be registered. Up until December 31, 1991, her foals by a Curly registered stud could be registered. An unknown curly coated mare can be registered but only until December 31, 1991.
A Curly baby is obviously a Curly from the moment it is born, but to guarantee true Curly blood, babies do not receive their Tentative status until they reach one year old when four additional pictures must be sent to the registry to prove the baby is still curly. Foals born of two Permanent parents can get Permanent papers at one year.
As the breed becomes more established, the challenge for all Curly breeders is to keep to the true qualities of the horse while accepting the pressures of varied breeding objectives.
"It's great to see Curlies in the show ring, because that's what it will take for the breed to become established and flourish," Betsy said. "At the same time I hate to see the horses changed too much. The Curly is typically a small horse, topping 15.1 like most mountain pony-type breeds are. As the horse is brought into civilization, I suspect it is getting better care and is therefore naturally becoming a bit bigger. But there is also some movement within the breeding programs to get really big. It's understandable that these changes happen, but I think it will be a shame if we lose the essential qualities that make our breed distinctive."
Some of these qualities include a sweet temper and a self-reliance that makes most medications, shoes, or fussing unnecessary. "I completely pasture breed and I don't much with the horses at all until they are at least two. Some wont' wear a halter until then but that is just my way. Yet when I have to get near them they really are gentle and understanding. I believe they truly like people and don't mind them being around. I've also observed that if they become tangled in a fence, they will stand still and wait for me to come and free them. They have lovely natural gaits, too. Most can do a smooth running walk and some are beginning to show up in the dressage ring as well."
Conformation and colors vary, but sorrel or chestnut is most common. The Curly's compactness and docility make them great for children, and their strength suits them to light farm work or driving. They can constrict their nostrils significantly, which makes them withstand wind and cold far better than most breeds. They apparently have one less vertebrae, like the Arabian, resulting in few back problems. One of the major breeders in Nevada is raising them for use on his cattle ranch, as he finds them an exceptional cow pony.
Working with a minor breed like the Curly presents more than the usual challenge to a horse farm owner like Betsy. "Since the breed is so little known, I spend a lot of my time educating people, writing letters explaining the horse, and writing articles myself. That work isn't done for you as it is with many of the more popular breeds. That's okay, though, because that's part of what I like about raising Curlies."
Before moving to Springfield, Vermont three yeas ago, Betsy raised Irish Dexter cattle, Nubian goats, and Suffolk sheep in Connecticut. "I enjoyed the goats and sheep but the farm here isn't suited to both horses and goats or sheep---it had to be one or the other. I decided I didn't want to milk the goats anymore so I've turned all my energy into the Curlies. I started with six and it has gone very well. They are such a hardy and good-tempered breed it's possible to run the whole operation pretty much by myself."
Partly from her own lifestyle and partly from a deep appreciation of the Curlies' strength, Betsy admits that she'd rather see her Curlies pulling a plow than in the ring. "They are suited to many things and when started properly they can do almost anything. But my own taste is to see them used. Curlies were meant to be outside and tough it out. They can do that with so little, but it seems the most natural for them. I never shoe them, they foal by themselves, they breed by themselves, they take very little grain, and they work well. What more could you ask for in a horse?"
And yes, the Curlies give you that added visual bonus---that darned curly hair. Although not proven scientifically, Betsy says she has friends who cannot be near other types of horses due to allergies, yet they own Curlies. Some even spin the hair and one woman in Washington State has experimented with felting the hair into cowboy hats.
But most of us are just happy to see it. It makes you smile and many would agree, it sometimes looks like the hardy, good little Curlies are often smiling back.