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Breed Profile: The Curly Horse

by Karen Baril

Determining the origins of the Curly Horse is a little like reading an Agatha Christie novel. Just when you think you have it all figured out, some obscure fact dissolves your theory.

One theory says that ranchers Peter Damele and his son Benny first discovered the "Bashkir Curly Horse" while riding in the Nevada high country in 1898 and promptly named the wild horse for its curly-coated resemblance to the Russian Bashkir. Years later, Shan Thomas, author of the book Myth and Mystery, the Curly Horse in America, conducted extensive research into the breed's origins and determined that it was not, in fact, related to the Russian breed and that the Bashkir region of Russia had never supported a curly haired horse. On the other hand, nearby Taijikistan was home to an unusual breed called the Lokai, which often sports a curly coat. Might the Bashkir Curly have been inaccurately named? Is the Curly Horse really a descendent of the Lokai?

Curly Horses will shed out all or most of their curls in the summer months and grow back their curls just in time for winter.

Probably not. There is no evidence that Russian settlers brought horses to the Americas. No mention of horses appears in any of the ship logs. This makes sense, as early Russian settlers rarely used horses for agriculture, preferring to invest in stock animals instead. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that any horse could have survived the treacherous journey by ship.

One popular theory suggests the horses were imported by a man named Tom Dixon from northern India in 1880, but pictographs drawn by the Sioux Indians indicate a successful raid of Curly Horses from the Crow as early as 1801, long before Tom Dixon is said to have imported them.

Yet another hypothesis suggests the Curly Horse simply migrated to America before the last Ice Age, traveling across what is now the Bering Strait. However, research has proven that horses became extinct on the North American continent about 10,000 years ago and were reintroduced to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors sometime during the 16th century. So, the theory dissolves like tissue paper.

Overall, the American Bashkir Curly Horse should give an impression of sturdiness and athleticism.

All this mystery prompted UC-Davis to perform DNA testing to determine if the Curly had the characteristics of a distinct breed. What they found was fascinating. The researchers discovered the Curly Horse is really comprised of various breeds, notably the Quarter Horse and the Morgan, and not a genetically distinct breed as previously thought. However, the Curly Horse shares characteristics with primitive horses: wide set eyes, strong cannon bones, small round black hooves, and even the absence of ergots on some Curlies all seem to indicate a close relationship to primitive equines. So, the questions remain.
International Curly Horse Organization

The mission of the ICHO is to register, research, promote, preserve, and protect, the Curly Horse and its unique characteristics. The ICHO offers registration to all Curly haired horses, and the straight offspring of one or both Curly parents. For horses of Curly bloodlines that do not qualify for actual registration status, the ICHO offers pedigree tracking. Offspring of these pedigreed horses, that are bred back to Curly Horses, then produce offspring which are again eligible for full registration status.

The ICHO is serious about research and education and is dedicated to its members. Its vision goals are: to preserve, protect, and promote Curly Horses; to register and track pedigrees of North American Curly Horses; to perform, fund, and support research on the Curly Horse; to provide continuing education to breeders and members for maximum understanding of Curly Horse genetics and all that is involved in its breeding and management; to provide a Curly Horse information network on a worldwide scale; to encourage member involvement through communications, activities, and events; to provide all members a voice through open discussion; to provide an open-minded atmosphere where all worthwhile individual and group goals can be pursued; to preserve a democratic system of policy making; and to provide the highest professional standards of service to members.

For more information, visit www.curlyhorses.org or contact International Curly Horse Organization, Member Support Office, Tina Estridge, Office Manager, 2690 Carpenter Road, Jamestown, OH 45335; 937-453-9829; E-mail office@curlyhorses.org

Unsolved mysteries aside, the wild horses with the curly ringlets captivated Peter Damele and his son Benny. The question of how they came to be roaming free in the Nevada high country only adds to the appeal of these gentle horses. The Dameles began capturing and then breeding the wild Curlies to their best ranch horses, notably an Arabian stallion named Nevada Red and a Morgan stallion named Ruby Red King. They were delighted that the curly gene proved to be dominant and found the resultant crosses to be intelligent and friendly in addition to possessing tremendous stamina and a strong work ethic. Most of today's Curly Horses can trace their ancestry to the original Damele herd.

Owners and breeders of Curly Horses marvel at their ability to remain sound and healthy with minimal care.

Curly Horse Traits
The most remarkable feature of the Curly Horse is, of course, its wavy or curly coat. Soft to the touch, these ringlets are sometimes spun into a silky cloth. It is believed the hair is hypoallergenic, making this horse a healthy choice for anyone who suffers from animal allergies. The coat, including the mane and tail, varies in degree of wave, from a crushed velvet texture to a tight ringlet curl, but is almost always soft and silky to the touch. Manes are often curly and tails sometimes exhibit waves, too. Curly ringlets inside the ears and wavy whiskers and eyelashes are perhaps the most endearing trait of the Bashkir Curly.

The Curly stallion Spartacus, owned by Sandra Hendrickson, has been IN Reserve Champion at Training, First, and Second Level of dressage as well as AHSA Horse of the Year. He is also on the USDF Statistical List of Stallions for those having sired two or more USDF Horse of the Year offspring.

Curly horses come in all colors, from palomino to bay and pinto and every color in between. They will shed out all or most of their curls in the summer months and grow back their curls just in time for winter. The coat requires no special attention other than a normal daily grooming, however care must be taken not to comb it out, as this will remove some of the wave.
Research to Isolate Curly Gene Begins

Two associations have independently begun research projects to isolate the curly gene.

According to Sandra Hendrickson, president of the International Curly Horse Organization, in 2001, following the death of Dr. Ann Bowling, the International Curly Horse Organization accepted the proposal of Gus Cothran, PhD, Director of the Equine Parentage and Research Laboratory at the University of Kentucky to isolate the Curly Gene. In so doing, he will also try to locate the breed traits that have been identified with the Curly Horse, such as the substantial bone, temperament, and certain amounts of mane and tail hair loss. The collection of blood samples is expected to be completed within the next month and the isolation of the gene will then commence. Many years of discussion of the possibilities of trying to accomplish this has been made feasible financially by the large increase in knowledge and scientific advances with the work on the genome of the horse and have finally helped make this research a reality.

The International Curly Horse Registry is being award a tax exempt status of 501-(C)(3) as one of their primary focuses has been directed toward many aspects of curly equine research. As such, they welcome all grants and contributions to help them continue with the research as well as development of young rider skills and sport participation.

Additionally, according to Greg Oakes, president of the American Bashkir Curly Registry, a research project to isolate the curly gene is being recommenced through the ABC Registry. The project, originally, proposed by Dr. Ann Bowling, is being restarted by Dr. Cecelia Penedo, head of the horse genetics department at the University of California at Davis (UCD), following Dr. Bowling's unexpected death. UCD has the world's largest database of curly horse DNA, as over 1,500 samples have been registered there from parentage testing for the American Bashkir Curly Registry.

"This research will prove invaluable for Curly Horse breeders," Oakes states.

The American Bashkir Curly Registry

Sometime during the late '60s, a group of Curly Horse enthusiasts recognized that large numbers of their favorite breed were ending up in slaughterhouses. Considered somewhat of an anomaly by the horse world, Curly Horses were often treated as throwaways. The formation of the American Bashkir Curly Registry in 1971 saved this exceptional horse from extinction.

The American Bashkir Curly Registry maintains a current stud book, registry, and a list of licensed breeders throughout the United States and Canada. Shows, breed sales, and play days are all a part of owning a Curly Horse, and the ABC Registry encourages owners to get involved and have fun. For more information, contact the American Bashkir Curly Registry at 775-289-4999 or log on to www.abcregistry.org.

The Curly Horse Spartnick (by Spartacus), raised by Sandra Hendrickson, was shown by Sue Kolstad to United States Dressage Federation Horse of the Year Honors. He is now owned by Joan McClellan.

Some Curly owners collect the shedding hair in the spring and spin it into yarn, similar in texture to mohair. The yarn is then knit, crocheted, or woven into wall hangings, mittens, and hats. Hats made from Curly hair are extraordinarily warm and soft.

Overall, the American Bashkir Curly Horse should give an impression of sturdiness and athleticism. Wide-set, large eyes give a panoramic vision advantage over other horse breeds, contributing to their even temperament. Horses with wide fields of vision are rarely taken by surprise and tend to be solid citizens. Bashkir Curly Horses have an alert, proud appearance with strong, short backs. The rump is round, but shouldn't have an "apple crease." Legs are clean and strong with flat knees and good cannon bone. Hooves are strong and not prone to cracking or chipping.

Curly Horses often move in a running walk, driven by powerful hocks and hindquarters. Owners describe them as forward moving and comfortable.

The Curly Horse's coat requires no special attention other than a normal daily grooming.

A Horse for Everyone
Curly Horses are extremely tractable, making them wonderful therapeutic horses or children's mounts. This is a horse than can go anywhere or do anything a horse lover can imagine--from combined driving to fox hunting, barrel racing, to dressage. You name it, and the Curly Horse will not only try, but will excel in any discipline their owners set their sights on.
Curly Sporthorse International

Curly Sporthorse International (CSI) was founded in 2003 to help promote, market, and selectively breed hypoallergenic Curly Sporthorses. CSI is a progressive registry focused exclusively on the development of Curly Sporthorses. Its goal is to help breeders and sporthorse enthusiasts train, enjoy, market and promote Curly Sporthorses for the classic sporthorse events: dressage, combined training, three day eventing, hunters, jumpers, and combined driving.

CSI was created by Sporthorse breeders and is dedicated to education, guidance, promotion, and recognition of the Curly Sporthorse. Sporthorse Curlies are one of the most popular types of Curlies, yet they are also, unintentionally, one of the equestrian world's best-kept secrets. They are athletic, intelligent, and people-oriented horses, all qualities that make a great performance horse. As added benefits, they are also unique, rare, and hypoallergenic!

CSI's focus is to help breeders and enthusiasts (both old and new to sporthorses) learn more about conformation and selection of both breeding and performance Curlies for the various Sporthorse events. As a natural extension of that goal, CSI has implemented a recognition program for both competitors and breeders of successful competitive Curlies.

Spartacular Splashes, owned by Lisa Wytiaz, competing in dressage.

For more information, visit www.curlysporthorses.org (which boasts some wonderful photos of Curlies in sport) or contact Curly Sporthorse International, PO Box 129, Cross Anchor, SC 29331; 864-316-4672.

In recent years the Curly Horse has been crossbred with various gaited breeds, creating a way of moving that enthusiasts call an Indian Shuffle or Curly Shuffle. Gaited, or non-gaited Curly Horses are usually safe for the whole family or ride and enjoy.

Owners and breeders of Curly Horses marvel at their ability to remain sound and healthy with minimal care. Extraordinarily easy keepers, Curly Horses don't require a lot of pampering and many of them will never need shoes. However, despite their tough constitution, they still need to have shelter from the elements, adequate feed, veterinary care, and attention to their feet. And let's not forget lots of love and attention. Curly Horses are "people horses" and thrive on human companionship. They are often described as a breed that thinks problems through as opposed to being reactive.

With all that these special horses have to offer, it's no wonder their popularity is on the rise. In order to make the Curly Horse even more visible to the public, the International Curly Horse Organization Is now working with the Bureau of Land Management to set up a viewing area in Eureka, Nevada. Having Curlies on hand in this popular tourist area will bring the breed valuable exposure and delight the public. Stay tuned for further developments on this project.

From Equine Journal, September, 2003



Tamea C. Denault

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Tamea C. Denault is the founder of Dreamswept Farm and coach of the MountainWind Vaulters in Kettle Falls, WA. She is a certified CHA multi-discipline riding instructor. While earning her degree in psychology and education at Mt. Holyoke College, she also learned vaulting and has continued vaulting and coaching ever since. More...