Curly Horse Origins Remain a Mystery

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Record Horseman, Bashkir Curly

Record Horseman, Bashkir Curly

The origins of the American Curly Horse are still a mystery. The historical records of both the Sioux and Crow Indians from the early 1800s describe curly-coated horses. Among the Sioux, curly horses (or “buffalo horses”) were highly prized and achieved almost a sacred status. In their winter counts, the year 1801-1802 was remembered as the year Sioux stole curly horses from the Crow.

The modern history of Curlies begins in 1898, when a Nevada rancher named Peter Damele discovered wild curly horses in the mountains near his ranch. In 1932, there was a particularly harsh winter that killed most of the Damele’s ranch stock. Most of the wild horses also died. The Curlies, however, survived. It didn’t take the Dameles long to recognize the exceptional hardiness of these animals, and they began to breed the curly horses for ranch work. They found the Curlies were not only rugged and hardy, but that they were intelligent, more easily trained, and had unmatched endurance.

In 1971, the registry was started with just 21 horses. At that time, it was believed that these horses were descendants of a curly breed of horse from the Bashkiri region of Russia, and the registry was named, “The American Bashkir Curly Horse Registry.” In 1989, a research study was done to discover the breed’s true origins. No positive conclusion was reached about where Curlies came from. The horses may be a genetic adaptation to the harsh mountain climate.

The modern Curly stands between 14 and 16 hands, and sorrel is the most common color. However, all colors, including pinto and Appaloosa spotted, are produced. With an exceptional desire to please and more than their share of common sense, Curlies are remarkably versatile and easy to train. There are just over 2,000 registered, but they are beginning to establish an impressive record competing in a number of disciplines, including English and Western pleasure, dressage, jumping, and endurance. Curlies are willing, intelligent, people-oriented creatures that thrive on affection. They make particularly good pleasure and trail horses, and are ideal as an all-around family horse.

Curlies seem to delight in and seek out human company. They display an affinity for people almost from the moment of birth. The Curly’s most visible characteristic is their curly coat, but the gentle disposition and desire to please are also believed to be genetically passed along. According to the registry, the first priority for breeders is to maintain the Curly’s naturally docile disposition. Another unusual breed characteristic is that rather than spooking and running away, a Curly will often turn to face whatever is new or scary, as though it wants to get a good look.

Curlies are truly unique. Not only are they known for their friendly, calm, even temperament, but they are so easy to care for they take much of the strain out of owning a horse. Most Curlies have very hard hooves that require shoes only under extreme circumstances. Curlies are hardy horses and very easy keepers. They do well, and seem to prefer, being outside rather than in a stall. What they need more than a stall is adequate shade and a windbreak. They have unusually tough hides and an extra layer of fat under the skin. A Curly’s blood has more red blood cells per cc and is more efficient at carrying oxygen. Little grain is needed, and owners insist that some grass-fed Curly can outwork several grain-fed horses of other breeds. Stories are told about the Damele family members taking only one Curly to ride all day at roundups or brandings, when their neighbors would bring two (non-Curly) horses to have a fresh mount when the first horse got tired.

The curls on each Curly are different and are present at birth. They range from waves to tight spiral ringlets. In the summer, they shed much of the curl and some shed their manes as well; a very few shed tail hair, too. The coat of the Curly horse is physically different than that of other breeds, and the hair shafts are structurally different when viewed under a microscope. People who are allergic to horses are generally not allergic to Curly horses. Several Curly breeders started their involvement with the breed to escape allergy symptoms, then became impressed with other qualities of the breed and began to raise them.

Although the number of registered Curly horses is still low, there are now breeders in all parts of the United States and also in Canada, Sweden, Germany, and Australia.

From: Record Horseman, 1999