Curly horses, once rare little western wallflowers, are being bred in increasing numbers for the sport horse disciplines: tall Curlies, handsome Curlies, Curlies who jump big and who move like equine danseurs, endurance Curlies—the toughest of the tough, Curlies for driving and Curlies for dressage, even Curlies who win in-hand.
The Curly Sporthorse Association of North America was chartered in November of 1998. Unlike the old line American Bashkir Curly Registry, which discourages outcrossing, and the relatively new American Curly Horse Association, which registers first generation outcrosses in a separate stud book, CSANA exists solely to register, promote, and encourage the production of superior sport horse type Curly horses and ponies, regardless of their ancestry. With CSANA, outcrossing to Thoroughbreds and warmbloods to add height and style, to Arabians to boost movement and endurance, isn't the exception, it's the norm.
And what's so special about Curlies? Why breed Curly sporthorses at all?
The dominant gene responsible for producing curly hair coats is wonderfully prepotent. It's relatively easy to breed beautiful, athletic, stand-out-in-a-crowd Curlies. Horses (ponies and mules, too) who inherit the curly gene also inherit a block of secondary characteristics, some of which wildly endear them to certain segments of the horse community.
Budget conscious horse keepers adore Curlies. Curlies are notoriously easy keepers. Most adults subsist nicely on modest quantities of clean grass hay. And a Curly's inherent sensible disposition and tendency to stay calm in crisis translate into far fewer vet bills than the norm. Curly hooves are unique: narrow and somewhat upright, they are astoundingly tough, durable, and crack resistant. Only competition Curlies and Curlies ridden on pavements or rocky, rough terrain will generally need shoes. Blankets, turnouts, and hoods: with Curlies, who needs 'em! Curly winter wool protects its own.
"Our Curlies have next-to-human DNA," crow Curly zealots. Extreme? Well…yes. But most Curlies genuinely like people; they are "personality" horses and they love to learn. Some inherit a bred-specific "freeze" response; instead of bolting, they halt and face the thing they fear. They are wonderfully uncomplicated horses. So training bills? Uh-uh. Save your bucks. Most competent riders can easily school their own Curlies.
Perhaps best of all, certainly for those afflicted, Curlies represent a horse allergy sufferer's last, best hope for a happy life with horses—their hair is hypoallergenic. Legions of former allergy victims suffer not a cough, sneeze, itch, or wheeze while caring for, riding, and even grooming their Curly steeds.
And there is tremendous diversity in the Curly population. When the American Bashkir Curly Registry was incorporated in 1970, curly-coated horses were scarce as gold-plated road apples. Over the next fourteen years, 290 Curlies were registered in volume one of the ABCR stud book, 224 of whom had at least one straight-haired parent, among them Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Morgans, Standardbreds, Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, Spanish Mustangs, Missouri Foxtrotters, Tennessee Walking Horses, ponies, Percherons, BLM feral horses, and unregistered horses of every sort and size. Because of that early diversity (outcrossing continued until the main stud book closed in 1992, today's Curlies come in a mind-boggling array of sizes, shapes, and coat colors.
Enthusiasts claim there's a Curly hair style to satisfy all horse lovers' tastes, from that of the seemingly straight-haired individual with a minimally expressed curly gene, to the ultra kinky coats of year-round poodle-curled woolybears. Most Curly coats fall someplace between. Typical Curly hair styles include coats comprised of soft swirls, of loose ringlets or tight marcel waves, crushed velvet coats, and coats of kinky, poodle-curled 'wool.' Some coats combine two or more elements. Some individuals are curly over certain body sections (especially hips, shoulders, and neck) but straight haired somewhere else. Some are crimped, curled, and waved from stem to stern.
Curly tails and manes vary, too. First and second-generation outcross Curlies (which includes most modern sporthorse Curlies) generally grow wavy or lightly crimped manes. A wildly corkscrewed mane so thick and luxurious that it tumbles down both sides of a Curly's neck is typical for individuals from slid Curly backgrounds—as is, conversely, a scanty, upstanding 'finger' mane and sparse 'rat' tail. Most Curly tails, however, are of medium length and thickness. Most are wavy, some hang in loose corkscrews, and others are all but straight.
When Curlies shed their winter finery, most grow smooth, straight-haired summer coast—that is, straight save curls inside their ears and on their lower legs, and sometimes curls or wavy hair across their hips. A few Curlies grow crimped, curly, or wavy summer coats, though their summer hair will be shorter, silkier, and usually less tightly curled or waved than their winter woollies were.
Some Curlies shed their manes and tails. Though first and second generation outcross Curlies (including most Curly sporthorses) inherit this trait less frequently than do individuals from solid Curly backgrounds, Curlies whose manes and tails shed begin slipping hair around midsummer. Some lose little hair, others shed until their tailbones and crests are denuded. Mane and tail shedding Curlies regrow lost hair very quickly; by midwinter, their manes and tails are gloriously full again.
Despite wild assertions circulated on the Internet, except for their luscious coats and secondary breed characteristics, Curlies are horses like all other horses. Curlies must be wormed and vaccinated; doing so won't harm them. Though light to moderately ridden adults rarely require more than good grass hay; young stock, in foal and lactating mares, old horses, and the rare less-than-easy keeper can safely assimilate grain and legume hay. Curlies can't go days without water. They don't have insulative body fat like elk, nor the nasal passages of a moose. A Curly is a unique horse but an equine freak he's not.
So does your sporthorse sport curls? If he does, we'd like to hear from you—if he doesn't, perhaps he should!