Breed Portrait: The Curly Horse

A curly coat is the signature look of this versatile breed.

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It was the turn of the 19th century. The American West, from the Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and beyond, remained virtually uncharted by adventurers of European heritage. The Crow and the Lakota nations, on the other hand, had made the Plains their home for generations, and during the winter of 1801-1802, the Lakota were busy stealing horses from the Crow.

A pictograph painted on animal hide by the Lakota more than 200 years ago is currently being housed at Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It depicts important events that took place during that winter.

According to this pictograph, known as the Winter Count, this was the year the Lakota stole “curly horses” from the Crow. It was an incident that distinguished that year for the Lakota, and marked the first documentation of an equine we now know as the Curly Horse.

Curly horse forelock
Staring Contest by Thomas via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Rugged Foundations

Nearly a century later, on a winter day in 1898, Nevada rancher John Demale and his son Peter were riding the remote Peter Hanson Mountains in the Great Basin, checking on their cattle. In the dry, rocky landscape, they spotted a herd of wild horses.

Among the Mustangs, three horses stood out; instead of having a straight coat, these horses had tiny ringlets all over their bodies. The Demales were amazed, and didn’t forget the curly horses after they returned to their ranch. Years later, they began capturing curly Mustangs and breeding them for their special coats, willing nature and hardy constitutions.

The winter of 1932 was a terribly harsh one on the Nevada range, and almost all of the Demales’ horses and livestock perished. Only a few horses were found alive during the spring roundup; among them were some of the curly coated horses. The Demales used these survivors to start their herd of saddle horses all over again.

Twenty years later, another killer winter struck the range, but this time, only four curly horses survived. Impressed by the their ruggedness, the Demales decided to use these four horses—three mares and a colt—as the foundation of their saddle horse stock from then on, deliberately breeding for the traits of curly coats and hardiness that came with these horses. The mares were bred to an Arabian stallion and a Morgan stallion, and the curly colt became the foundation American Bashkir Curly stallion, Copper D.

In 1971, the American Bashkir Curly Registry (ABCR) was established to maintain a studbook and to help promote the breed. (The registry included the name “Bashkir” based on an early assumption that the breed had originated in Russia. Recent DNA evidence has not been able to confirm this.)

Today, 5,600 Curlies are registered with the ABCR. Some of these were wild horses captured on the range by the Bureau of Land Management, proving that curly genes are still alive and well in wild horse herds.

Curly horse cantering
Curly Horse photo by Lindsayanne at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Curly Horse Coat

Today, the horse with the curly hair has three associations to support it: the Bashkir Curly Association, the International Curly Horse Association and the Curly Sporthorse Association. All three consider the horse’s unique coat to be a primary characteristic of the breed.

The Curly’s coat resembles poodle hair, and is only present during the winter months. They shed out their curly coat in the spring, along with the majority of their mane and tail ringlets, only to grow them back the following winter season.

The Curly’s hair is similar to the mohair found on the Angora goat. Like mohair, it can be woven and spun into yarn. In fact, a number of Curly aficionados make an assortment of handmade clothing items out of the winter coats their horses shed every year.

Another unique aspect of the curly coat is its propensity to be non-allergenic. Most people who are allergic to horses have no problem being around Curly horses—even those horses that have shed out their ringlet coats for the summer.

In addition to their unusual coat, Curlies are known for their willing personalities and athleticism. They are used in just about every sport, including dressage, show jumping, combined driving, western riding, ranch work and trail.

The beautiful Curly horse has a unique place in the equine world. With its blend of temperament and talent, plus an unusual coat and intriguing history, the breed has something special to offer.

Curly horse mane
By Penella22Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

Curly Horse Fast Facts

Height: 14 to 16 hands

Color: All horse colors and patterns.

Overall Appearance: Medium-size head, wide-set eyes, medium neck, short back, heavy boned legs and flat croup. Coat hair is fine and soft, and may be made up of ringlets, marcel waves or crushed velvet textures.

Curly Horse Registries:

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