Imagine a horse that has curly hair as soft as a velvety teddy bear, a temperament like a friendly dog, and a history shrouded in mystery.
Diane and Rex Mitchell have two.
“The most frequently asked question we get at shows is: ‘How did you do that?'” Rex said.
“He tells them it took four people and seven curling irons,” Diane said with a smile.
Copper M-1 or “Emma” — named after the army’s M-1 tank, because “she is built very, very solidly” — is a chestnut (brown) filly, six months old, with long, curly lashes and silky, curly hair. Emma pushes her neck against my hand for more petting and tries to taste my notebook.
Her sire, Copper Sun, is a seven-year-old sorrel with a wavy summer coat, a curly winter coat, and a mane, tail, and forelocks that fall in curly, flaxen dreadlocks.
Every spring Copper sheds his winter coat, and Diane boxes up the hair and sends it to a friend in Indiana who spins it into yarn. Last summer, he also shed his mane and tail.
“You don’t take them too many places after they do that unless you’re ready to be teased,” she said.
Only about 2,000 curly horses are known to exist. Almost all of them live in the United States and Canada and are descended from the curlies that still roam wild in Nevada.
Bob Brown — wild horse and burro specialist at the US Bureau of Land Management’s Ely, Nevada, office — said three or four of the twenty-five herds of mustangs in his district have some curly horses.
In a couple of weeks, about 1,100 mustangs will be rounded up for adoption so they won’t overpopulate the range, he said.
“There is a good chance there will be 10-12 curlies in the group, perhaps more.”
The curlies that are nine or younger will be prepared for adoption just like the straight-haired horses, he said.
Diane, a registered nurse at Chandler Regional Hospital who teaches horsemanship at Central Arizona college, found Copper in Camp Verde, where a couple had a curly horse they said “walked funny.”
The Mitchells, who live in the Indian Hills area, weren’t even looking for a curly horse until they saw Copper.
“He wasn’t lame,” Diane said, “he was gaited. He walks with a special gait that gives an extremely smooth ride.”
Copper has a lateral gait, which means the legs on the same side move together, but the hind foot hits the ground before the front foot does.
“Some people feel a horse that doesn’t trot isn’t a real horse,” Diane said, “but Roy Rogers rode a gaited horse. Tom Mix rode a gaited horse.”
Rex, who was raised on a working ranch in Idaho, said if you ride trails or cross-country, a gaited horse is much more comfortable.
“You ride fifty miles on a trotting horse and you’ll feel it,” he said. “Life is too short to ride a horse that trots.”
A footnote to the American Bashkir Curly Horse Identification Standards says of curlies: “Their more cherished quality is their calmness and extremely gentle disposition. “Many have been taken off the open range, even full-grown animals, and in a day or two, they are gentler than horses that have been handled for years. Nothing seems to ruffle them. … They delight in human companionship and love to be talked to.”
Diane brought Copper out of the corral so we could pet him and touch his curly mane.
“For a curly horse, this is wild,” she said.
“Most people don’t believe he’s a stallion,” Rex said.
“Some people have even gotten down and looked,” Diane said.
Curlies differ from straight-haired horses in a number of ways. They are shorter, averaging about 14-15 hands between the shoulder blades (a “hand” is four inches, the width of King Henry VIII’s hand).
Their hoof walls are an average of three-quarters of an inch thick (compared to roughly one-quarter inch for straight-haired horses). They have denser bones and stockier builds.
“Copper, who weights about 1,000 pounds, has the leg diameter of a 2,000-pound draft horse,” Diane said.
Curlies can withstand extremely cold temperatures. Their hair is more like the hair of an Angora goat than a regular horse — and not just in texture: a lot of people who are allergic to other horses are not allergic to curly horses. Emma’s 18-month-old sister, Penny, was purchased by a man in Flagstaff for a granddaughter who is extremely allergic to animals.
But one of the strangest things about curly horses is that no one knows where they came from.
The Serology Lab at the University of California at Davis did blood typing on 200 curly horses, according to “Breeds of Livestock¾Bashkir Curly Horse,” prepared by Oklahoma State University, and found no characteristics that would identify the Bashkir curly as a genetically distinct breed.
What the testing showed was that many breeds were involved in their development. “The rare and unusual variants that did emerge from this testing are found only in feral horses or those breeds based on feral herds. No single common blood marker was found.”
“So there is nothing to show where they originated,” Diane said. “All we know is that they have been in North America for at least 200 years.”
Sandy Hengstler writes in the “History of the Curly Horse” that Sioux and Crow Indians had curly horses during the winter of 1801-02. They were recorded in a Sioux winter count kept by artist/historian Swift Dog, whose people now live on the Standing Rock/Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
The Indians thought curly horses were medicine horses and prized them, Diane said.
In drawings made in 1881, Red Cloud, a Sioux chief, depicted curly-haired horses in his drawings of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Members of the Damele family, which had a ranch near Eureka, Nevada, saw three horses with tight, curly ringlets in the Peter Hanson mountain range of central Nevada in 1898, according to the Oklahoma State University article.
Much of the Damele stock was killed during the harsh winter of 1932, Diane said. “Only the curly horses survived.
“And when they broke those curly horses to ride, they discovered they were easier to break, calmer, gentler, and tougher than their other horses.”
The Dameles started breeding Curly horses for ranch work, she said. But a lot of people thought curly horses were defective and many were slaughtered. By 1971, they were on the federal endangered species list.
The American Bashkir Curly Registry was founded in 1971 to save the curlies that were left, and today curlies are no longer considered endangered.
The curly horses were called Bashkir curlies, Diane said, because everyone assumed they came to Nevada with the Bashkir Russians who worked in the mines.
But when relations with the Soviet Union warmed up enough for correspondence, the Americans learned there were no curly-haired Bashkir horses in Russia.
One origin theory is that the curly horse’s ancestors crossed the land bridge with the ancient Indians who migrated to North America.
Sharon Williams, a breeder from Williamsburg, Indiana, retells on the Internet an Indian legend that curly horses first appeared to people as a group of “large, curly red dogs.”
“Some time after the legend of the curly dogs,” Williams writes, “it has been found that the curlies were described by the Native Americans as the ‘horse before there were horses.’ which would seem that the curlies were apparent prior to the arrival of the Spanish horses in North America.”
But no fossil evidence has been found to support that theory.
There is also a theory that the curlies came to North America with the Spanish.
“The Portuguese had a curly horse that has become extinct in the last 100 years,” Diane said.
But Europeans left no written account of curly horses in North America until a Jesuit priest described curly-haired Sioux horses in the 17th century.
“Perhaps it was a recessive gene that became dominant,” Diane said. “Perhaps more than one gene is involved.”
Two curly horses can produce either a curly foal or a straight-haired foal, she said. Two straight-haired horses occasionally produce a curly foal.
Copper Son is one of about 80 curly breeding stallions. He is considered a “foundation stallion,” Diane said. For the last four generations, all of his predecessors have been curly horses except two in the fourth line back.
Of his nine offspring¾three with curly mares and five straight-haired mares—eight foals have been curlies and one was straight-haired.
Diane said curly horses have a reputation for being protective of humans.
A couple in Canada tells a story about a dog attacking their daughter, who was playing in the front yard. They heard her screams and ran from the house, but before they could reach her, their curly horse had jumped a fence, grabbed the dog in its teeth, and pulled it off the child.
The couple in Camp Verde told her one of their curly horses jumped its fence to protect a neighbor’s horse that was being attacked by a dog.
“They’re not known as jumpers except in emergencies,” Diane said with a smile.
She has experienced the curlies’ protective nature first hand, too, she said. When she first bought Copper, she was riding him too fast through rough terrain, and he fell, pinning her legs so her head was near his front hooves.
“Usually, a horse gets up by sticking its front legs out,” she said. But he kept his front hooves curled under him while he pushed himself up.
“To me, it meant he knew he couldn’t straight his feet out without hurting me.”
Diane and Rex plan to have an open house all day Nov. 29 and in the morning Nov. 30 at their place north of Casa Grande.
The roughly 14 other curly horse owners in the state will be invited to bring their horses, too. (Curlies come in all colors. There are even Appaloosa and pinto curlies. Diane just bought a curly pinto mare that will be here in time for the open house. Cheyenne Spirit Hawk, whose ears and forehead are brown above her white face like a medicine hat, has a brown patch on her chest that looks like an eagle.)
The public is invited to come and see curlies and pet them, Diane said. For information about how to get to the Mitchells’ home, call them at 836-5943.
For more information about curly horses in general, check the Internet. Sharon Williams’ web site is www.ywl.com/yw/frostfire/frstmain.html. Wendy Hiller’s is www.geocities.com/yosemite/1056/curly.html. The Canadian Curly Horse Association is www.telus-planet.net/public/spirit/home.htm/. And other web sites link to these.
By: Suann Edmond
From: Tri-Valley Dispatch, Casa Grande, AZ, Nov. 5-6, 1997