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The Curly Horse - Origin of the Breed
Origin of the Curly Breed
The exact origin of the Curly Horse is one of the greatest mysteries of the horse
world. One of the theories, and the source of their name, is that they are descended from
the Russian Bashkir. However, upon closer examination this
does not seem plausible. Shan Thomas, author of "The Curly Horse in America -
Myth and Mystery", in correspondence and consultations with Russian scientists,
the Soviet Union's agriculture department, the Moscow Zoo and other experts of
Russian livestock found unanimous agreement that there was no curly haired
horse from the Bashkir. However they did confirm that the Lokai, found in the
Taijikistan region, does sometimes display the characteristic curly coat. Could the
Lokai be the actual originator of the Curly breed? That, too, appears to be
almost impossible. No mention of importation of horses were made in ship's logs
which brought Russian settlers to the west coast of North America. In addition,
horses were only used to a limited extent in Russian agriculture during the late
1700's and early 1800's. Stock breeding was not very successful and most
settlements were only able to keep a few livestock. In 1817 there were only
sixteen horses in Russian America. Goods were transported to Okhotsk, the major
Russian port for ships bound for Alaska, via pack horses. At the time, a trip across
Siberia to this port was very hazardous and nearly half of the horses died each
year. The horses of this region were the Yakut, named after the local people. So it
seems that any horses that might have been brought from Russia to Alaska would
have been of the Yakut breeding not the Bashkir or Lokai breeds, both of which
are originated from much further south and west of the Yakut.
Another theory is that the ancestor of the Bashkir Curly might have crossed the
land bridge during the last Ice Age. But there is no fossil evidence to support the
existence of horses in the America's from the last Ice Age until the reintroduction
of horses to this hemisphere by the Spanish.
Several other hypotheses as to the origins of the Curly exist but all have
failed to be proven creditable upon closer examination, or simply remain untested.
In separate research the CS Fund has done blood typing on 200 curly horses in the
Serology Lab at UC-Davis. Although one can not definitively identify a horse's
breed by its bloodtype characteristics there are characteristics common to an
individual breed. This testing was seen as a method to determine if the
Curly did in fact display the blood characteristics of a distinct breed.
There were no findings which would identify the Curly as a genetically
distinct breed. The typing showed that many other breeds have been used in their
development, particularly Quarter Horses and Morgans. The rare and unusual
variants that did emerge from this testing are found only in feral horses or those
breeds based on feral herds. No single common blood marker was found.
Formation of the Curly Breed
Fortunately, the development of the modern Curly much more is clearly
known. The modern day history of American Curly dates to 1898, when
young Peter Damele (Duh-mel'ly) and his father were riding the Peter Hanson
mountain range in the remote high country of Central Nevada, near Austin. Peter,
who passed away in 1981 at age 90, could vividly recall the strange sight they saw
of three horses with tight curly ringlets over their entire bodies. It was intriguing
to both father and son as to where these horses had come from and just why they
were there, questions that as you can see are still not answered. However, from
that day to this, there have always been curly-coated horses on the Damele range,
and Peter's son, Benny Damele, continued to breed them for his ranch work.
Many of the Bashkir Curly in the U.S. can be traced to the Damele herd.
Establishing the American Bashkir Curly Registry in 1971, the founders set out to
save these animals from extinction in the U.S., as it was found that too many of
them, through ignorance, were being slaughtered. They then began the process of
establishing breeding traits. To accomplish this U.S owners were asked to list the
characteristics unique to the Curly. These, when compiled, brought out
several interesting features of the breed. One especially odd feature of the breed is
the fact that they can completely shed out the mane hair (and sometimes even the
tail hair) each summer, to grow back during the winter. Even though the mane
hair is usually extremely fine and soft, it is quite kinky, and this ability to shed the
mane is perhaps nature's way of coping with the corkscrew curls, as it would
become quite impossible to manage if it became matted through years of growth.
Too, their body coat sheds out in the summer and they become wavy or fairly
straight on their body, with their distinctive wintercoat returning in late fall.
Several winter coat patterns have been observed, from crushed velvet effect, to a
perfect marble wave, to extremely tight ringlets over the entire body.
The Curly transmits the curly characteristic to its offspring about fifty
percent of the time, even when mated to horses without the curly coat. They also
seem to be a hardy breed and able to survive severe winter conditions. In the
winter of 1951-52, the Curly horses were the only ones to survive on the range of
Nevada without supplemental feeding.
Curly's appear in all common horse colors including Appaloosa and
Pinto. Physically they are of medium size, somewhat resembling the early day
Morgan in conformation, and a number of traits have been found in this unique
breed that links them to primitive horses. Many individuals have been found
without ergots. Some have small, soft chestnuts. Their eyes have the wide set eyes
characteristic of Oriental breeds. This is said to give them a wider range of vision.
They are described as having tough, black hoofs which are almost perfectly round in
shape; an exceptionally high concentration of red blood cells; stout round-bone
cannon; straight legs that also move straight; flat knees; strong hocks; short back
which indicates five lumbar vertebrae; round rump without crease or dimple;
powerful rounded shoulders; V'd chest and round barrel. The foals arrive with
thick, crinkly coats, curls inside their ears and curly eyelashes.
In recent years the Curly has performed well in a wide range of equestrian
events including Barrel Racing, Pole Bending, Western Riding, Reining,
Gymkhana Events, Hunter, Jumper, Roping, English Equitation, Western
Pleasure, Gaited Pleasure, Competitive and Endurance Trail Riding, Dressage and
American Minor Breeds Conservancy News, "Curly Horse Mystery
Remains Unsolved", Laurie Heise, Nov-Dec, 1989, Vol. 7, No. 1
[American Livestock Breeds Conservancy]
Hendricks, Bonnie L., International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, Univ
of Oklahoma Press, 1995
Correspondence: Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, KY
Curlies in Canada
Hans Skonskberg brought the first Curly into Canada in 1900. He captured the horse at a
water hole and it was thought to have belonged to the Indians. Hans was the father to Ole, the yougest of three children. Hans
continued to breed the Curly horses, specializing in pinto's and was still breeding these awesome horses when I visited with him in 2004.
In 1801 a Sioux Indian depicted pictures which were known as the winter
the Sioux stole Curly horses from the Crow. Winter Count, one of the curlies, was
kept by Swift Dog, whose tribe is in South Dakota. A large majority of the Curly
horses today can trace their roots to the Dakota’s. "The buffalo Ones" are depicted in
pictographs by the Indians in the 1800's.
PT Barnum makes reference to having acquired a curly horse in
Cincinnati in 1848. John Camaila captured some woolly ones or buffalo
horses from the wild herds in Nevada in 1880.
Although they are an ancient breed, they are recognized as a rare breed,
only 300 registered Curlies in Canada in 2000.