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The Truth about Curlies

An aficionado of the breed debunks common myths about Curly horses.

Article and photographs by Sue Weaver

The prospective buyer hooked her fingers through Chaka's corkscrew mane and thoughtfully gnawed her lip. "I like him," she finally told me, "and I'd take him, except I grain and vaccinate my other horses, and on the Internet it says that if you vaccinate Curlies or feed them extra protein they could die. I wouldn't want that to happen, so maybe I shouldn't buy a Curly after all."

Western Horseman Magazine

Once scarce as desert snowballs, 3,000 Curlies are currently registered in North America. A good thing, right? As a Curly aficionado I say yes¾except that as interest skyrockets, so does a body of misinformation concerning our Curlies.

Folks wonder: Are they really hypoallergenic? Can a flu shot kill a Curly? Do their manes fall out? Is it true they don't need shoes? Did their ancestors come from Russia? Is it difficult to groom them? Can you really spin their "fur"? Are they ultraintelligent or dumb as rocks? What is fact? What is fiction? And where can I find out?

What follows is a list of commons myths--and the truth of the matter--about our Curlies.

Western Horseman Magazine

Myth: Folks who are allergic to other horses can own and ride Curlies.

Truth: The scientific community has yet to confirm this claim, but legions of jubilant former horse allergy sufferers insist they suffer not an itch, sneeze, cough, or wheeze while caring for, riding, and even grooming Curlies. True, not everyone finds instant, absolute relief, but enough folks do to make Curlies an allergy sufferer's best hope for a happy life with horses.

Myth: Curlies have incredibly strong immune systems, so they're not susceptible to disease. But vaccinating a Curly could give him the disease you're vaccinating for¾and kill him.

Truth: To the Curly community's dismay, this falsehood--along with other equally damaging scraps of myth-information--has been widely circulated via the Internet. Curlies are hardy horses but horses nevertheless, and subject to the same maladies (including internal parasites) that afflict other horses. They must be dewormed and vaccinated, certainly for tetanus, sleeping sickness, and other problems endemic to the locales in which they are kept. And while deworming and inoculating horses is never totally without risk, Curlies suffer adverse reactions no more frequently than do horses of other breeds.

More bizarre is the Internet-circulate fallacy that Curlies can't share water sources with other horses because "the water in a shared trough will carry traces of other horses' vaccinations; if you give that to your Curly, you risk giving it the disease the same as if it were vaccinated." Again, not true.

Myth: Curlies must never be grained. Concentrates are too rich in protein; feeding grain could kill a healthy Curly.

Truth: It's true that most Curlies are very thrifty keepers, and the average adult Curly subsists nicely on clean grass hay. But to achieve their full growth potential, young Curlies can (and should) be judiciously fed the same sort of rations given to non-Curly young stock. Likewise, performance Curlies, near-term and lactating mares, older horses, and other poor keepers benefit from additional protein in the form of grain or legume hay.

Myth: All Curlies are quiet, gentle, and easy to train. Curlies have a "freeze reflex," so they never spook or run away. But they hate repetitive exercises, and they can't be longed.

Truth: Most Curlies are indeed wise and intelligent, but a few are dense as planks. And most Curlies are friendly, sweet, and eager to please--but there are nervous, sullen, skittish Curlies, too. Some freeze when they sense danger; others bolt like cottontails when startled or scared. Some longe; some don't. Like horses of all breeds, each Curly is an individual and must be approached as such.

Myth: Curlies are family and ranch horses; they're unsuited for specialty disciplines.

Truth: Not so! Since the American Bashkir Registry was chartered in 1970, breeders have bred Curlies custom-tailored for their own special needs.

Gaited horses: Curly-coated foals are sometimes born to straight-haired Missouri Foxtrotter parents. Scores of Curly Foxtrotters have been registered in the Bashkir and American Curly stud books; thus many (though not all) Curlies have Foxtrotter ancestors. Naturally, some are easy-gaited.

Endurance horses: Bazy Tankersley of Al-Marah Arabians in Tucson, AZ, has created the quintessential endurance horse by mating her world-class Arabians with Bashkir Curlies. Others breed Arab-Curlies, too. Once-feral Curlies adopted through the Bureau of Land Management have also excelled at endurance, as have Curlies of feral ancestry.

Sport horse Curlies: Sandra Hendrickson of Greycoat Farm in Indianapolis breeds them. Her "golden cross"---the gray and white pinto Curly stallion Spartacus bred to her Morgan mare McMagdalena--has produced a half-dozen outstanding Curly sport horses, among them Level 4 dressage champions GCF Spartnik and GCF Sparlock. Other breeders produce dressage, hunter-jumper, and eventing prospects by crossing Curlies with Thoroughbreds and warmblood breeds to create "the sport horse with curl."

Plus there are registered Curly ponies, Curly draft horses, Curly cutters, Curly reiners, and (yes) Curly ranch and family horses. Whatever your pleasure, Curlies can do!

Myth: Every curly-haired horse is a bona fide Curly.

Truth: They're not. Non-Curly horses with Cushing's disease have curly hair coats, too. Cushing's disease is caused by a pituitary problem. Afflicted individuals grow lots of long, curly, slow-to-shed hair that feels coarse and brittle to the touch, unlike a healthy Curly's fine, soft coat.

Horses suffering from Cushing's disease don't display secondary Curly characteristics such as soft, calm, heavy-lidded, almond-shaped eyes; small, crescent-shaped nostrils; proportionally short, broad, and shapely ears; and narrow, somewhat upright, hard and ultradurable "mule feet."

Western Horseman Magazine

Myth: All Curlies shed their manes and tails; they look awful in the summertime.

Truth: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! Folks whose Curlies shed down to bare crests and naked tail bones kind of like them that way. If you don't, not to fear--many Curlies support full, luxurious manes and tails year-round.

The mane and tail hairs of Curlies who shed them usually begin loosening in late spring after body coat shedding is complete. Once loose, the mane and tail hairs pull out easily and are often rubbed out by the horses, so that by autumn shedding is complete. Some Curlies hang on to a little man hair (often a few long corkscrews just behind the ears), and most retain some tail. Hairs begin growing back immediately so that by midwinter the horse's mane and tail are full again. However, Foxtrotter Curlies usually don't shed their manes and tails, nor do many individuals with Andalusians, Arabians, Morgans, and other thick-maned and –tailed breeds close-up in their pedigrees.

Myth: Only Curlies' winter coats are curled. In the summertime, they look like non-Curly horses.

Truth: Even after shedding their winter woollies, most Curlies retain lushly curled fetlocks. The hair on the lower legs and across the hips of most summertime Curlies is marginally curly or wavy. A few Curlies grow curly, crimped, or wavy summer coats. Their summer haircoats will be shorter, silkier, and usually less tightly curled or wavy than their winter coats are.

Western Horseman Magazine

Myth: It requires special equipment and know-how to groom a Curly.

Truth: Nope. An inexpensive Sarvis-style currycomb does the trick. A Sarvis comb works wonders on even the kinkiest Curly coat, even during shedding time--though shedding blades are a boon then, too. Curly manes and tails are easy: Gently tease out mats or snarls, and handpick debris.

Myth: Curlies' naturally shed winter hair can be spun like wool.

Truth: Indeed it can. Curly horses' hair shafts are oval instead of round like other equines', a trait home spinners say improves the spinability of the "wool."

Myth: Because their hooves are extra tough, Curlies rarely need hoof trims and are never shod.

Truth: It's true most Curlies have unusually tough and durable feet, but their hooves are not impervious to weather, wear, and tear. All Curlies require hoof trims, though sometimes not as frequently as non-Curly horses. Curlies ridden hard need shoes.

Myth: All Curlies descend from curly-haired Russian horses brought to American by Russian fur traders. That's why they're called Bashkir Curlies.

Truth: Actually, there's almost certainly no Russian connection, and if there were, it wouldn't be to the Bashkir breed, which is not curly-coated at all.

The Peter Damele family of Eureka, NV, had been breeding curly-coated ranch stock (descended from Curlies they'd captured in the Roberts mountain range) for almost a decade, when in the late 1930s or early 1940s they came into possession of a "Strange as it Seems" cartoon depicting a curly-haired horse like their own. The caption read, "Horse with a permanent wave! The Bashkir horse of Eastern Russia has natural curly hair all over it." So the Dameles and other pioneer Curly breeders assumed American feral Curlies were somehow descended from Russian Bashkir horses.

However, in the 1980s, the CS Fund, a rare-livestock-breed conservancy) conducted an extensive Curly horse research project culminating in the publication of "The Curly Horse in America: Myth and Mystery." In it, the Russian connection was largely disproved.

Instead it seems our Curlies are an all-American product. CS Fund research concludes that by 1801 and throughout the balance of the 19th century, the Sioux owned and greatly prized curly-coated horses; one is even depicted on a hide painting of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. References to feral Curlies and to Curlies owned by non-Indians trace to the late 19th century.

But where did they come from? No one really knows.

Myth: Curlies are expensive and scarce.

Truth: Not at all. The American Bashkir Curly Registry boasts 111 licensed breeders in 31 states, 3 Canadian provinces, Germany, Sweden, and Australia. Young Curlies are available in the $1,000-$3,000 price range; trained adults and proven breeding stock range from $1,500 up.

Fine, original-type feral Curlies have been (and still can be) adopted through the BLM's Wild Horse Program. Grade (but eligible to be registered) Curlies are frequently discovered at horse auctions, especially in Foxtrotter country.

Some folks breed their own. Curly to non-Curly matings often produce curly-coated foals. When Curlies were ultrascarce, such breedings were the norm. Of the first 290 horses recorded in Volume One of the American Bashkir Curly Registry studbook, 224 had at least one straight-coated parent.

Each year the American Bashkir Curly Registry raffles at least one Curly. Tickets cost $1 each. Feel lucky? This year's winner could be you!

Myth: All registered Curlies are Bashkir Curlies, registered in the American Bashkir Curly Registry's stud books.

Truth: Not any more.

Founded in 1970, the American Bashkir Curly Registry (Box 246, Ely, NV 89301) is the oldest of the three active Curly registries. It publishes a bimonthly breed journal (Curly Cues), sponsors awards and programs, and maintains separate stud book divisions for Curlies of full, one-half, and three-quarter ABCR-registered bloodlines; a stud book for the straight-haired offspring of two ABCR-registered Curlies; and a Curly Cross stud book for horses of unknown background and for outcrosses. Curly-coated ponies and draft horses are eligible for registration.

In 1998, the American Curly Horse Association (Box 167, Whitesville, KY 42378) began registering American Curlies in three divisions: Fullbred (those having two Curly, but not necessarily registered, parents), Partbred (having one Curly and one straight-coated parent), and Recessive (Curlies produced by two straight-haired parents). Curly ponies, draft horses, and mules can all be registered.

The Curly Sporthorse Association of North America (RR 3 Box 381, Pine City, MN 55063), also founded in 1998, promotes Curlies in the sport horse disciplines, including but not limited to endurance, dressage, hunter-jumper, combined training and eventing, and sport horse in-hand. CSANA publishes a quarterly networking newsletter (Sport Curl) and maintains a studbook for Curly horses and ponies of sport horse type and breeding.

All three registries welcome inquiries.

From Western Horseman, April 2001

 

 

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...