Sandy Hendrickson of Indianapolis, Indiana, has gotten used to inquisitive stares and misinformed questions about her unusual equines. She remembers the time a woman asked her, "Why did you spend all that time putting curls on that horse?" Hendrickson raised American Bashkir Curly horses, a breed that sports long, wavy coats that do, indeed, look like they've been given a perm—even their eyelashes are curly—but the thick ringlets are all natural.
Photo Sidebar: The stallion, Colonel's Feisty Fella, and the foal, Colonel's Buff Penny, display the exotic curls and sturdy conformation of this exotic breed. The Appaloosa Curly, Jay's Curly Boy, is an endurance and trail champ and proof that the curly coat gene seems to predominate.
Curlies were discovered running wild in 1898 in the high country of central Nevada. Young Peter Damele and his father were riding the range when they spotted three horses with tight curly ringlets all over their bodies. They'd never seen anything like them, and had no idea where the animals had come from. The Damele family is credited with first taming the horses, which are still being bred on their ranch today by Peter's son, Benny.
The origin of these animals is still nearly as intriguing as it was at the turn of the century. No one knows for sure how they came to the United States, but most believe they are descended from curly-coated horses raised by the Bashkir people in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union (hence the name given to them by the registry). Some speculate they came across the Bering Strait when there was an ice bridge. If that is true, the Curlies would have predated the Spanish horses brought to this continent by the explorers. These unusual equines were running wild long before the Mustangs began populating the West.
"I think it's probably that the Russians brought them," said Sunny Martin of Ely, Nevada, secretary and founder of the American Bashkir Curly Registry. "They're just about the most fascinating breed you could be around." The registry was established in 1971 to try to preserve and perpetuate the curly-haired horses, and today there are more than 800 registered. Since Curlies were scarce, by necessity they have been crossed with other breeds to increase their numbers. But the gene that produces the curly coats and their other special traits seems to predominate. Martin added that crosses with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are not allowed, however, as the registry wants to keep the hot, racing-type blood out of the breed. "We're not breeding speed into them," she said.
Their hair is unusual in other ways, too. Curlies often completely shed out their manes, and sometimes their tails, in the summer. The man hair is as fine and soft as a baby's, but is also kinky. And another oddity—their mane tends to pull out if you grab it, especially in the summer. Curly owners cannot use the mane to hang onto for security. When these horses have shed their heavy winter hair, their coats may become merely wavy or almost straight. Breeders have discovered several patterns of curl, from a marcel-type wave to a crushed-velvet appearance to tight ringlets.
Curlies' eyes have a somewhat exotic Oriental slant. Their smaller nostrils may have been an adaptation to survive in an extremely frigid climate such as that found in Russia. Curlies also have an unflappable temperament, a quality that first led Hendrickson to investigate the breed after she saw her first Curly several years ago at the Hoosier Horse Fair in Indianapolis. Like most people, she was amazed by the breed's unusual appearance. "I had read about horses all my life, and I had never heard about anything like this," she said.
Hendrickson wanted an easygoing horse, because she had undergone hip surgery. She couldn't take the chance of further aggravating her condition by falling off a horse. "I thought I'd raise them. They're such a novelty, and I fell in love with them," she said. Hendrickson now has seven Curlies, her four-year-old stallion, Spartacus (Sparky), four mares, and two weanlings. Nicole Michna has been training and showing Sparky in dressage, and the curly young stallion ended his first show season by placing fourth in training level at the Indiana Dressage Society's year-end awards.
Michna recalls the first time she saw the horse with the curly locks. "He was funny looking but he moved well. I thought the curls were real interesting. They grow on you. The thing I like the most about the breed is that the horses are very intelligent and they learn quickly…and they're willing to please." Michna said she thinks Curlies are good prospects for all disciplines, and could be outstanding at endurance and combined training events because of their strong, dense bone.
Many folks find Curlies are good on the trails, and for either Western or English riding. Competing against other breeds, they've been successful in everything from barrel racing and jumping to gaited pleasure (some Curlies are gaited) and competitive and endurance trail riding. "We're trying to breed an all-around pleasure horse that can go out and do everything," Martin explained. "We think that our horses have done beautifully."
Curlies seem to attract a lot of attention wherever they go. Hendrickson remembers the time a dressage judge came down out of the judge's box and said to Michna, who was riding Sparky, "Can I pet his curls?" According to Martin, a 76-year-old horsewoman, everyone can pet a Curly, even people who are normally allergic to horses. That's right. Curlies are "hypoallergenic." But to those who have always loved horses and thought they could never own one, Sunny offered the following warning about Bashkir Curlies: "They're like peanuts. You can't have just one."