Photo Sidebar: Jays Curly Boy, owned by Pat and Jay McKendry, excels at endurance rides, as most Curlies do. Jays Curly Boy is also registered in the Arab (he's half Arab) and Appaloosa Registries.
Photo Sidebar: On Overleaf: These beautiful American Bashkir Curlys are owned by Juanita Cummins of Ramona, California. Photo by Dick Gibson.
"What is it?" ask most people the first time they see an American Bashkir Curly, one of the most unique breeds of horses in the contemporary equine kingdom.
The Curly presents an unsolved mystery. Equine researchers are now convinced that the Curly is a separate and distinct breed, but thus far, they have been unable to unravel its development and determine its actual point of origin. Many theories have been advanced about how the Curly came to North America, but there are as yet no sound data to support any of these hypotheses.
Some people believe the Russians may have brought the horses when they settled along the West Coast and in Alaska. Others speculate that the Mongols, who have been linked with the Navajo Indians in a variety of ways, may have brought the Curlies across the Bering Strait when the two continents were joined by a gigantic ice mass. If this latter theory is correct, it would mean that the Curlies were in America before the Spanish horses, making the Curly the first breed to be introduced into North America. There is certainly no indication that Curlies are in any way related to the Spanish horses.
It is certain that horses with curly coast date to ancient times. Curly-coated horses are depicted in the art and statuary of early China, and in Russia, Curlies have been raised on the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains by the Bashkir people for centuries. This, of course, is how the Bashkir name came to be associated with the breed. Another Russian breed, the Lokai, also produces offspring with curly coats.
Curlies are one of the most highly utilized breeds in the world. The Bashkiri people use them for transportation, clothing, meat, and milk. They are often kept in herds in their native country and tended in much the same way as we tend cattle in the United States. It's not unusual for a Curly mare to provide from 3 to 6 gallons of milk per day! In addition to being prized for its richness and taste, the milk is also made into butter and a highly nutritious cheese. Older horses are used for meat, while their curly coats and hides are made into clothing. Curlies are also used both for riding and driving. Their rugged build and seemingly inexhaustible stamina make them suitable for pulling the large Russian sleighs or troikas upwards of 75 miles per day over the snow.
The modern history of Curlies is traced back to a day in 1898 when young Peter Damele and his father were riding in the Peter Hanson Mountain Range in the remote high country of central Nevada near Austin. Peter Damele is now in his mid-80s but he can still recall the strange sight he and his father saw that day—three head of horses with tight, curly ringlets over their entire bodies. Father and son wondered where the horses had come from and how they had made it to that particular area. More than 80 years later, those questions are still unanswered. From that day in 1898 until this day in 1982, there have always been curly-coated horses on the Damele range; and many of those found throughout the United States can be traced to that herd.
No matter where he is found, the Curly will never be mistaken for another breed. During the winter months, both in Russia and in the colder climates of the United States, the hair is long and curly. Many of the horses are actually covered with ringlets over their entire bodies. During the summer months, the ringlets shed and leave the horses with a variety of coat patterns. Some illustrate the look of crushed velvet while others appear as if they have just returned from the beauty parlor where they had their hair coifed into an elegant marcel wave. Some Curlies also shed both their manes and tails during the summer, so beware of mounting one with the aid of a handful of mane! It just may come out with the first hard pull! Researchers speculate that Curlies shed their manes and tails to keep the curly growth from becoming impossibly matted in the range underbrush.
The hair on the inside of a Curly's ears is usually long and tightly curled, and the eyelashes are typically curled on the tips. The fetlocks are also long and fall into waves of curls, depending upon the individual horse and the time of year.
One of the most beneficial properties of a Curly's hair is that most people who have been plagued with allergies to horsehair have found that they suffer no such problems when exposed to Curlies!
The curly hair is not the only way Curlies differ physiologically from other breeds. "For one thing," explains Juanita Cummins of Ramona, California, who owns two Curly mares, "they have a much higher red blood count. I have heard one or two veterinarians say they would hesitate to give a Curly a blood transfusion from any horse other than another Curly. They also have an extra layer of fat, and their nostrils are very flat when compared to the more-flared nostrils of other breeds. All of these characteristics are carryovers from their place of origin, which, we are assuming, was extremely cold. The flat nostrils allow them to regulate the amount of air they take into their lungs. The extra fat is, of course, a form of insulation.
"The smaller, flatter nostrils may have a tendency to make them breathe faster than other breeds when at work, but it certainly does not affect their endurance. They are able to cool out rapidly with their pulse and respiration returning to normal quickly. I take my mares out on long trail rides whenever possible. On one such ride, a friend mentioned to me that my house was sweating very little. It was a correct observation, and I decided to have her checked by the vet after a workout. He said she was in excellent physical condition and that her pulse and respiration were absolutely normal."
Photo Sidebar: Since Jays Curly Boy is also an Appaloosa, his tail is short and rather sparse year 'round.
Photo Sidebar: Curlies have a personality that often translates into playfulness. Cummins' mares love to find a shallow watering hole and splash one another for a super cool-off!
Photo Sidebar: The topline of the Curly is almost straight, with withers that are similar to an old-style Morgan. The Curly holds saddle well. With the winter coat gone, the flanks are covered in marcel waves.
Photo Sidebar: A predominant personality characteristic of the Curly is a love of attention from humans. Juanita Cummins gives a brushing to one of her Curly mares.
Photo Sidebar: The fetlocks of the Curly are extremely wavy and long. The Curly hoof is naturally strong and seldom requires shoes unless ridden on extremely rough terrain.
Sunny Martin, President of the American Bashkir Curly Registry in Ely, Nevada, has been a horsewoman for more than 50 years. In her estimation, the Curly is one of the most sure-footed breeds she's ever known. "They are able to travel in extremely rough terrain with no problem whatsoever," she explains. "They're hardy animals and unbelievably easy keepers. For one thing, they don't require as much food as other breeds of the same size. Their feet are so strong that they are seldom shod. There are many Curlies with white markings on their legs, and many have socks running right down to the hoof. In spite of the white, most of these Curlies will still have a black hoof. The hoof is not brittle and seldom splits or cracks."
In terms of conformation, the Curly is reminiscent of the old-style Morgan. The topline is straight and level, and evidences only minimal movement even when traveling at the trot and the lope. As a matter of fact, many owners say they are excellent horses for people with severe back problems because of the smooth ride they provide. The withers are somewhat modified, much the same as the old-style Morgan, but they have no problem in holding a saddle in place.
Many researchers feel the Curly has some traits that link him to the true primitive horse. Many individuals have been found without ergots. Some have small, soft chestnuts. Their soft, inexpressive eyes have an unusual Oriental slant which lends them a rather sleepy look. At the same time, the eyes provide the Curly with a larger range of vision to the rear. The sleepy look is really very deceptive, since it's highlighted by a naturally proud head carriage. Most Curlies are very alert, not lazy. They move at a natural running walk or foxtrot.
Curlies typically show a stout roundbone cannon, straight legs that also move straight, flat knees, strong hocks, short back indicating five lumbar vertebrae, a round rump without a crease or dimple, a V'd chest and a round barrel. All of these characteristics contribute to their strength and endurance. Most Curly foals arrive with thick, crinkly coats that resemble a luxurious fur. When excited or when at play, they move at a bold trot with their tails absolutely straight in the air.
The Curly disposition is extremely calm and gentle. "Many Curlies have been taken off the open range," explains Sunny Martin, "and even full-grown horses are gentled within a day or two. As a matter of fact, many of them are more gentle than a horse that has been handled for years. Nothing seems to ruffle a Curly, and they don't have a tendency to resort to flight when frightened. This is in direct opposition t the theory that flight has always been the horse's most basic means of survival. Curlies, with their naturally curious nature, seem to prefer to face the unknown. If survival means kicking or fighting, they generally elect that course rather than run away.
"I'm not saying a Curly won't struggle and fight when first roped or haltered. He will! But his naturally kind disposition comes to the foreground when he realized he will be treated with gentleness and affection," Sunny Martin continued. "There is something else I've noticed in my years with Curlies and that is the fact that they seem to have very little tolerance for abuse. It's possible to beat a Curly, but it's not possible to beat him into submission. He will remember the unkindness and has a tendency to be less than forgiving about such situations."
There are no pure Curlies in today's horse world. Not too many years ago, they were carted off by the dozen to the slaughterhouses. They were misunderstood and the sight of those curly coats that were sometimes 4-6 inches long made people think first and foremost of inbreeding. In turn, these same people decided they should rid the horse world of these presumably less-than-desirable animals. By the time horsemen and horsewomen began to realize their worth, the Curly numbers were down to a level that was nearing extinction. The only way to ensure survival was through outcrossing. Those same outcrossings have produced Curlies in every conceivable color and marking, even Appaloosas and Pintos. There are many Curlies that are members of multiple registries. For instance, there's Jays Curly Boy, owned by Jay and Pat McKendry in Morgan Hill, California. Marked as a striking Appaloosa, Jays Curly Boy is entered in the Arabian Registry (he's half Arab), the Appaloosa Registry, the American Bashkir Curly Registry, and the Endurance Registry. And why did the McKendrys buy him? "Because he's so different," they laugh.
Curly owners insist that the breed is extremely intelligent and quick to learn. "As a matter of fact," laughs Sunny Martin, "when this intelligence is coupled with their natural affinity for humans, there could be a problem! I have two Curlies that have learned to open corral gates. There have been instances when I've returned home from a shopping trip and found them waiting for me in my screened porch! They can learn to open doors with no trouble at all. Because of this, Curly owners often find they must take extra precautions with enclosures. They are really no-nonsense horses and have an uncanny ability to do all that's asked of them."
In spite of the Curly's abilities, many owners are reluctant to show their curly-haired horses in competitions. After all, they had heard the curls ridiculed. They had watched other people pointing fingers at their unique breed and declaring they were the products of poor breeding. And, in the early days, many Curly owners didn't realize that they really had a rare and unique breed standing sleepy-eyed in their corrals.
In order to overcome this reluctance, the Curly Registry offered national performance awards and urged owners to enter competitions. In a few short years, a mere handful of Curlies have won trophies in barrel racing, pole bending, Western riding, reining, gymkhana events, hunter, jumped, roping, English equitation, Western pleasure, gaited pleasure, competitive and endurance trail riding. That's quite a record for such small numbers.
In 1982, the American Bashkir Curly is no longer taking the sad ride to the slaiughterhouse. His worth has been recognized, and his abilities have become respected. There are still pitifully few Curlies, but owners are now breeding their unique horses in an attempt to spread their unusual characteristics.
So, the next time you see a horse that looks as if his owner gave him a too-curly permanent, don't ask, "What is it? Instead, ask, "Is that an American Bashkir Curly?" Chances are, you just may be correct.