Over the past 35 years our family has lived on a working farm in Pike County, Missouri, about 70 miles north of St. Louis, and has purchased many horses from the local sale barn. These have included Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, ponies, and draft types. With very few exceptions, all have turned out remarkably well, developing into stock horses, hunt horses (we all hunted for many years with the Bridlespur Hunt), or often a combination of both.
Last year, my husband and I once again sat in the small, crowded sale barn and made the winning bid on a new steed, a sturdy, 3-year-old Appaloosa gelding who was to be my husband’s new stock horse so that we could retire his 27-year-old Thoroughbred from Wyoming. In the artificial lighting of the sale arena, we had judged this horse to be a fine prospect, and on closer inspection in the dimly lit barn, we found him to be of good bone, unblemished and apparently sound. He was delivered to our farm that night by a small, older lay who had ridden him for the trader in the ring to demonstrate his gentle nature. We bedded the horse down in the barn and went back to the house to retire.
In the bright light of the following morning, we went over to the barn for an examination of our new purchase. Not only did he prove to be a lot livelier than he had been the night before, but on closer inspection, we noted several peculiarities which had somehow escaped us the night before. The interior of the ears was adorned with soft curls, and his coat, rather than being just ill-groomed as we had thought, was actually wavy! Furthermore, his lower legs down to the fetlocks were also not only wavy but had ringlets where the hair was long enough to form them. Taking my grooming equipment in hand, I proceeded to work vigorously on his coat, and to my astonishment found that no matter how hard I brushed, the marcel effect waves on his body would not relax.
My husband and I were a little mystified and not a little perturbed. What sort of freak had we purchased? The waves and curls were not exactly unpleasant, but they were somehow unsettling. Th horse immediately became known as Curly, though I opted for Marcel. As it was the most busy time of the year when crops were being planted, Curly was turned out to pasture temporarily and little more thought was given to him or his curls.
Several weeks later, my oldest daughter received a Missouri farm magazine from a friend and among the articles in it we found, to our amazement, an article about “curly” horses. It appeared there actually was a registered breed of such horses and a breeder right here in Missouri. I read the article with avid interest and found a current theory was that this breed of horse originated in the Russian republic of Bashkir in the Ural Mountains. It was established that these horses were used in Russia as riding and draft animals, their hides were used as leather, their coats for fur apparel, and, as the mares were prolific milkers, cheese was produced from their milk. This article also characterized the breed as having an extremely gentle and friendly disposition, a great willingness and ability to learn, immense stamina, and easy keeping qualities. Last, but not least, the curly hair was proven to be hypoallergenic; people who were allergic to ordinary horsehair were not usually affected by “curlies.”
I immediately called the American Bashkir Registry, whose address in Nevada was given in the article, and found that by sending pictures of our horse’s coat, the curls in the ears and around the fetlocks, I could register him. After January1 of that year horses could only be registered if the sire and dam were known Curlies. I chose the name Boris Goudonov for our horse, sent off the required information, and subsequently received a very attractive registration certificate with a color drawing of Boris and his curls, as well as copies of the registry’s newsletter, Curly Cues.
In further correspondence with the American Bashkir Curly Registry, founded in 1971; the Curly Horse Foundation, Inc., founded in 1989 for research; and the American Minor Breeds Conservancy, I discovered several theories have been advanced regarding the history of this rare breed of horse, but in spite of recent genetic research, there appears to be no definitive answer to the question of the North American curly horse’s origins. The theory of the horses coming from the Bashkir region of Russia has been discounted, but it is an established fact that a curly breed called the Lokai existed in the Tajikistan region of Russia. Other theories advanced are that the curly horse of ancient origin came across the Bering land strait thousands of years before the Spanish introduction of the horse into North America; that they came with the early Norse invaders or even earlier Chinese sailors before 1492; that they were imported from India via the Khyber Pas into Russia by a Nevada rancher in the 1800s; that Russian settlers on the West Coast brought them; and that the Spanish conquistadors brought them to the Americas.
On the other hand, the known historic facts about this rare breed are that they were depicted in Sioux and Crow Indian pictographs of the mid to late 1700s; that they were domesticated from wild horses by the Damele family in Nevada in the 1930s, and that P.T. Barnum exhibited a curly horse in the late 1840s. The breed is known to have existed in the Tajikistan region of Russia and also in South America in the late 1700s to the 1940s.
Currently blood typing studies and genetic research on this bred are being encouraged by the American Minor Breeds Conservancy, but no conclusive evidence has been reached regarding the breed’s origins.
Meantime, “curlies” continue to exert their magnetism, delighting in and seeking out human company. They are also beginning to establish impressive records in trail and pleasure riding competitions, as well as in other areas, although there are under 2,000 now registered in this country. Boris Goudonov, at age five and 16 hands, has become an excellent and brave hunt horse as well as a promising stock horse. My youngest daughter and her husband operate Scotchwheat Stables, a riding and training facility near St. Louis. Boris has spent the last two winters there as a hunt horse, school horse, and ponying mount for breaking new mares.
By: Elizabeth Herring
From: January, 1993 Corral (a Northwest Ohio Horseman’s newsletter)