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The sweet-tempered American Bashkir Curly horse can survive brutal winter temperatures, stands its ground when threatened, and has naturally crimped hair–but where in the world did it come from?
By Deborah Donohue
Photography by Caren Schumann
“Mysterious” is the one word everyone in the horse world can agree upon when discussing the origins of the unusual, curly-coated American Bashkir Curly Horse, also referred to as North American Curly, American Curly, or simply the Curly Horse. Horses with curly coats, depicted as far back as 161 AD in the artifacts of early China, suggest these modern day wonders are most certainly descendants of an ancient breed.
The name “Bashkir” was adopted in the late 1930s when an image of a curly-coated horse from Bashkortostan, Russia was published in the 1938 March issue of Nature Magazine, in a feature titled, “The Evolution of the Horses.” While further research indicates Russian horses with curly coats were most often those of the Lokai breed found in the Taijikistan region of Russia, the name Bashkir stuck and is perhaps most widely used today.
The arrival of the breed in North America is equally shrouded in mystery and speculation. Some believe these horses were among those who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge during the last ice age, though fossil evidence does not support this hypothesis. Others entertain the possibility that Spanish conquistadors brought the curly-haired horses up from South America, but this, too, has not been proven.
Another premise traces their arrival back to Russian colonists, who immigrated with the intent of settling and farming America’s Northwest Territory in the 1700s. Some purport the colonists brought the Curlies with them, later abandoning the horses–along with their farming dreams. What is known, is that Curlies have been in North America since the early 1800s. Numerous Indian pictographs (records consisting of pictorial symbols) from 1801-1802 illustrating the “Winter Counts,” note the Sioux had stolen a number of curly-haired horses from the Crow at the Standing Rock-Cheyenne River Reservation.
What we do know is that this rare and beautiful breed (as of May 2005 there were just over 4,000 worldwide) arrived in North America and ended up roaming with herds of wild mustangs.
The Curlies’ survival in modern times can be traced directly back to 1898, with their discovery by a ranching family in Eureka, Nevada. While out checking cattle in the remote high country of the Peter Hanson Mountains, John Damele and his sons caught sight of three unusual looking horses running among the mustangs. These horses had tight, curly ringlets covering their bodies.
Though intrigued, it would not be until 1931 that they would catch one of the curly-haired equines. When they did, they broke it and sold it. A devastatingly cold winter in 1932 would bring their attention back to the curious equines. While re-gathering their ranch horses that had been wintered out, they found all had perished in the brutal weather.
The only horses that were found alive on the open range were the curly-haired horses. After another particularly harsh and snowy winter in 1952, the Dameles once again found only the curly-haired horses had survived. The following spring they set out in earnest to begin a breeding program, now convinced of the ruggedness and stamina of the horses they had first spotted years before.
The Dameles weren’t overly concerned with producing a pure breed, but rather a good cow horse that could withstand the harsh winters. (Even today, some consider Curlies not a genetically distinct breed, but a cross of various other breeds, often Morgan and Quarter Horses, though Curlies do possess markers only found in feral horses.) The Dameles caught their first stallion out of a herd of mustangs and named him Copper D. Copper D would become the most famous Damele Curly Horse sire, though many noted sires would follow. Some of the better known were Ruby Red King, a registered Morgan stallion, and Nevada Red, an Arabian stallion bred by Susanne Swanson of California, a close friend of the Dameles.
A multitude of Curlies in North America and around the world today can be traced back to the Damele herd and the highly regarded Damele breeding efforts.
The most unique characteristic of the breed is of course their curls!
The coat of the Curly may vary from ringlets that are several inches long, to Marcel waves (deep, soft waves) to what is termed “crushed velvet,” a soft dense pile of curls in the body coat. Coats are considered hypoallergenic; often those who have an allergy to horsehair have lessened or no reaction to Curlies!
Curlies have a double mane that splits down the middle, often leaving curly ringlets on both sides of the neck. Like most horses, they shed their body coats in summer, leaving a wavy or straight, lighter coat for the warmer days. Their spectacular curls return with the chill in late fall.
The breed is cherished for its calm and extremely gentle disposition. Nothing seems to ruffle a Curly. According to the American Bashkir Curly registry, “They do not tend to resort to flight when frightened (which has been claimed the horse’s greatest means of survival) preferring to face the unknown rather than run from it.”
Curlies possess great intelligence, are quick learners and have remarkable memories. They had been used for western riding, reining, gymkhana, hunter/jumper, roping, English equitation, western pleasure, dressage and driving. They also do well in Competitive and Endurance Trail Riding. They are reported excellent mounts in the mountains and for ranch work.
Curlies stand an average height of 15 hands, and usually weigh between 800 and 1,000 lbs. Heads are of medium size. Ears are short to medium in length and have curls inside that generally do not shed out in summer. Eyes are wide set with eyelashes that curl up. (Tails and fetlocks also have some degree of curl.) Eyes have an Asian-like slant, which gives them a sleepy look, despite their alertness.
Hooves are black and unusually tough, almost perfectly round. Curlies have stout round bone cannons, straight legs, flat knees, strong hocks and short backs. Round rumps, powerful shoulders and a round barrel contribute to their power and endurance. All common horse colors can be found within the breed including Appaloosa and Pinto, but many Curlies are a chestnut color.
With their sweet natures and uncanny ability to do what they are asked, Curlies may be a good option for supervised beginning riders. They can also be adept and intuitive therapeutic riding horses for both children and adults.