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The Curly Horse - Origin of the Breed

Curly Horses
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 Driving.

Reference: 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.