A Horse of a Different Curl

Curly Horse

By Margaret Evans

“We had four Curly horses in our field and one of them lay down and rolled, ending up under a wire fence,” recalled Shelly White, owner of Curly Standard Place in Summerland, BC. “I didn’t want to go over to him in case he jumped up and hurt himself. But as he got up leaving a bit of hair on the fence he knocked a six-metre aluminum irrigation pipe lying on the ground. The pipe made a loud clanging sound. A bit later, the other three horses went over to the fence and they also rolled near it but not going under. One of them then picked up the pipe in the middle of its length and kept dropping it to reproduce the clanging sound. He seemed to be reasoning as to where the sound was coming from.”

From all accounts, Curly horses are like that. Rather than spook, run, and look back at the source of their fear from a distance the way many horses do, a Curly horse is more apt to pause and assess a situation. Along with other qualities, it is their apparent capability to reason and figure things out as well as their high intelligence coupled with a good memory that makes them so endearing to owners, breeders, and riders, and so intriguing to others curious to know more.

Curly horses have long been prized for their hardiness, and their gentle nature makes them very suitable for families and children. Photo: Oakesmuir Curly Horses

Curlies, as they are fondly called, have many unique characteristics, none the least of which are their versatility, hardiness, and gentleness. They compete in hunter classes, the dressage ring, western classes, barrels, reining, and gymkhanas. They are 4-H or Pony Club mounts, pack horses, or Search and Rescue horses. You’ll see them in competitive trail, on a backcountry ride, on a working ranch, a farm, or in a therapeutic riding ring. To those who own them, they are the quintessential family horse.

Curlies are easy keepers and, with responsible care, their exceptional hardiness allows them to be kept outside year round. “Our horses are kept in a natural state,” said Sonja Oakes who, with her husband Greg, owns Oakesmuir Curly Horse Farm in Guelph, Ontario, home to 80 Curly horses. “They are outside and the stallions are with the mares. They have their own bands (and) each band is in a different field.”

But perhaps their most cherished quality is that they are extraordinarily companionable. From birth they are naturally calm, curious, and friendly. “Their enduring quality is that once you gain their respect you will have an incredible partner,” said White. “I have had horses my whole life and these are completely different. They are just not the same as other horse breeds. They are a great horse for families and children.”

And they are, by anyone’s definition, curly-coated. But what exactly is the Curly horse that for over a century has been erroneously known as the Bashkir Curly?

From all accounts, their story is a delicious unsolved mystery that began long ago and far away. The existence of horses with curly coats has been observed here and there for centuries.  Horses were hugely valued among the ancient Chinese and, as war mounts, they were honoured as tomb figures. During the T’ang Dynasty, Emperor T’ai Tsung, also known as Li Shih-min (AD 627 to 649) was legendary for his war victories. When construction of his tomb began some 13 years before his death, he ordered that it be decorated with bas-relief statues of his six beloved war horses. They were “heavenly horses,” animals with superior strength and courage. Two were spotted, one was chestnut, one black, one bay, and one, “Ch’uan Mao Kuo” was a saffron yellow Curly horse. These six statues still exist and two are on exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In the 1771 publication “The History and Art of Horsemanship,” Richard Berenger in describing horses of the Russian steppe says, “They are generally of one uniform colour, inclined to red, the hair of their skins being curled, and waved like a lamb-skin...” They have been reported in Europe, and Charles Darwin in his book, “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” first published in 1868 made reference to a curly-haired horse in Paraguay.

Their persistent ancestral link to Bashkir might have started with a 19th century photo of a curly-haired horse claimed to be from that region. Bashkir of the former U.S.S.R. is now the independent republic of Bashkortostan located in the southern part of the Ural Mountains in European Russia. The Bashkirians have been breeding their (non curly) Bashkir horse, a different animal from the Curly horse, for over 1,000 years. Curlies have also been linked to the Lokai horse of central and southern Tajikistan. Some of these horses are born with curly or S-shaped hair. But this theory remains unproven.

This horse and rider honour the heritage of The Sioux and Crow nations who are known to have ridden Curly horses at the turn of the 19th century. Photo: Clix Photography

While their origins in Russia and Asia remain tantalizingly elusive, it is known that Curly horses were alive and well in western North America at the turn of the 19th century. They were mounts for the Sioux and Crow nations and during the Winter Count of 1801-1802 the Sioux stole Curlies from the Crow in a region of South Dakota. For Native Americans, they were buffalo hunting horses and warrior mounts and, like many native nations, they would have acquired their horses through trade, raiding parties, and from the wild mustang bands descended from horses brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores. Those that escaped or were turned loose banded and spread across the central plains to the west.

“In the United States, there was a study done in the early 1990s at the University of California, Davis,” explained equine geneticist Dr. Gus Cothran with Texas U&M University. “(It was) determined by blood type that the North American Curly horse was derived from Spanish horses. The horses in North America that are curly coated descended from mustangs.”

As the Canadian and American west became settled, ranchers and farmers witnessed Curly horses running with mustang bands. It didn’t go unnoticed that Curlies in particular were capable of withstanding some of the harshest winters. One of the earliest Nevada ranching families to incorporate Curly horses into their working stock was the Damele family in the Eureka area and they have remained a leading force in the development of the type. Over time, other breeds such as the Arab, Morgan, and Quarter Horse were used to further promote its development as a versatile riding horse.

The characteristics of the Curly Horse underscore how varied this horse type is. Curlies come in all sizes from heavy draft to miniature sized horses but they are typically between 14 and 15.2 hands. Some individuals have been found without ergots. Some have small chestnuts. Their eyes are wide-set, sometimes elliptical in shape, and occasionally hooded. Crescent shaped nostrils are medium to small and they tend to have a large jowl. Their hooves are tough, hard, black, and round. They are round-barrelled with strong shoulders and a deep chest. Their legs are straight with a flat knee, a stout cannon bone, and strong hocks.

Curly horses come in a wide range of colours, and sizes range from miniature to draft, with most between 14 and 15.2 hands. This lovely two-and-a-half year old buckskin mare is FloraLake Von Dazzle. Photo: FloraLake Curly Horses

Their way of going is straight, clean, and athletic with a medium to long stride. While their gaits of walk, trot, and canter are classic to all breeds, a distinct group of Curlies are naturally gaited and can exhibit a foxtrot, running walk, or stepping pace. Curlies have a wide range of colour, and their curly coat is their outstanding feature and claim to fame. Their curliness is variable, some horses being more curled than others and some may or may not shed their manes and tails.

Curls are most obvious in winter months, and can look like crushed velvet, ringlets (left) or a marbeled wave (right). Photos: Courtesy of Curly Pines Ranch

Curliness is most obvious in winter and the curls can range from the look of crushed velvet to tight ringlets or a marbled wave. The curled hair can be four to five cm long. Tests have shown that the actual hair shaft is round and hollow. In cold weather, the hair apparently contracts, shrinking closer to the skin while in warmer weather it will expand. The hair also appears to have a natural wicking ability to remove moisture away from the skin so that it rests on the outer surface of the coat.

The curl is more than window dressing. In winter, these tight ringlets, waves, and twists repel rain and snow. The curling or waving of the hair will trap air keeping the horse warm and insulating it against the cold. 

Even the hair inside their ears is curly! Photo: Curly Standard Place

Their whiskers and eyelashes are curly or wavy, as is the hair inside their ears. Manes can hang in corkscrews, ringlettes, or dreadlocks. Tails, too, have waves or curls. In summer, the coat will shed out to be less dominated by curl and appear wavy or even appear straight-haired. The mane will shed and sometimes even the tail. Owners take great pride in their horses’ curls which are never clipped or scissored.  

During the spring shed, some owners will collect and bag the shed curly hair for spinning and weaving, provide it to someone skilled in the craft, or submit it for research testing. The International Curly Horse Organization has been overseeing studies on the horse hair fibre to assess its spinning characteristics as well as other unique factors (tensile strength, crimp, and diameter).

Some owners have also noticed that the horse even smells different from horses of other breeds. According to White, curlies are sweet-smelling compared to the more “salty” odour of other horses.

The fascinating feature of the curly coat is that it appears to be hypoallergenic. It seems that people who are allergic to horse hair do not experience the distressful allergy symptoms when around a curly coated horse.

“They are totally different from other horses,” wrote Oakes in Small Farmer’s Journal. “Many people with horse allergies have visited and thus far no one has shown any reaction. People used to getting hives can’t believe it when they don’t react to Curlies.”

The coat of the Curly appears to be hypoallergenic, as it does not cause allergy symptoms in people who are usually allergic to horse hair. Photo: Curly Pines Ranch

Apparently, this unusual trait applies to other curly coated animals. “The hypoallergenic quality is well known in a number of curly coated animals such as dogs and cats,” explained Dr. Cothran. “Curly breeds are hypoallergenic and it appears to be true in the horse as well. It has to do with the protein which gives a kink in the hair. We are trying to find the responsible gene. It is still ongoing work. We are at a point where we have some samples to do the analysis. We have to test individuals that have the trait and those that don’t have it. We have to find a pattern where a particular variant is found with the curly and the alternate is found with the straight hair. Up until very recently, it was very time consuming and expensive but we now have the Genome of the Horse and in the near future we will be able to test for 50,000 or 60,000 markers at a time. It is still very much a work in progress.”

Sometimes a recessive gene will produce a curly-coated foal in a straight-haired breed. Photo: Curly Standard Place

The dominant curly gene ensures that a curly-coated foal is born to a curly dam by a curly stallion. But a recessive gene will on occasion produce a curly-coated foal in straight-haired breeds such as, for instance, the Missouri Fox Trotter or the Percheron.

These curly foals seem to acquire the unique qualities found in the curly horse type, despite being born to another breed.

Given their wide range of size and colour, their mysterious history and their occasional genetic tendency to pop up in other breeds, a debate has endured as to whether the Curly horse is an actual breed or a horse type.

“It’s a type becoming a breed,” clarified Dr. Cothran. “Whether it’s a breed or a type depends on which registry you talk to.” Registries for the Curly horse include the American Bashkir Curly Registry and the International Curly Horse Organization/North American Curly Horse Registry. In addition there is the ICHO-sponsored Curly Horse Pedigree Database where horse owners can search pedigrees and post horses for sale.

In 1971, the American Bashkir Curly Registry was established for the purpose of preserving, breeding, and promoting the horse. But in January 2000, ABCR became a closed registry, recognizing only ABC-registered Curly to ABC-registered Curly breeding.

“In 2000 ABCR required that all horses in this registry be DNA tested,” explained Oakes. “The testing was brought in to ensure all pedigrees were accurate. The fee was $50 per horse. The big thing about it is that it maintains our markets around the world.”

Photo: Clix Photography

In Europe, buyers are very specific about the integrity of the bloodline they are purchasing and DNA testing provides the level of documentation that will place a horse in a preferred market. But a lot of people still needed a registry for their half-bred, part-bred, or Curlies of unknown origin. As a result, the International Curly Horse Organization was formed to register all curly-haired horses including those that have occurred in another breed when the genetics between a sire and dam trigger a recessive gene response to give a Curly foal. As well as the Percheron and the Fox Trotter, a Curly foal has cropped up in the Arab breed. These offspring might be registered as both a Curly horse as well as the parentage breed.

In addition to the above registries, there is also The Canadian Curly Horse Association. This organization has made application to the federal Minister of Agriculture to seek the incorporation of the Canadian Curly Horse Registry under the Canadian Animal Pedigree Act.  With approximately 4,000 registered Curlies, a very small number compared to mainstream breeds, the Curly horse is recognized as a rare breed with Rare Breeds Canada. RBC is a federally registered charitable organization that was formed in 1987 and dedicated “to conserving, evaluating, and studying heritage and rare breeds of Canadian farm animals.” The organization, while small, is nation wide and their mission is to preserve heritage animals by increasing their numbers and educating the public.

RBC recognizes heritage breeds for their valuable characteristics of disease resistance, birthing ease, mothering capabilities, their natural survival abilities and, for many, their ability to thrive on poor pastures. Heritage breeds are often ideal livestock on small farms. Through their Host Farm program, the organization works with members experienced in husbandry who have farm facilities and can maintain and propagate rare livestock including cattle, sheep, and poultry, as well as horses and ponies.

Photo: Oakesmuir Curly Horses

For all its mysterious history, its unique characteristics, and its easygoing nature, the Curly horse is a pretty enjoyable animal to have on the farm. Sometimes, that inherent savviness will lend a helping hand – or hoof – when chores have to be done.

“We had a four-year-old smooth-coated Curly horse mare,” remembered White fondly. “Some 4-H cows got out of their field and went into hers. She hadn’t been around cows before. We went out to round them up and try to herd them back into their own field. We were chasing them around to get control of them. But the mare ran in between us and the cows and penned them by herself.”

Now there’s a horse that can think on its feet. Clearly, with all their talents and traits, they are definitely a horse of a different curl.

Main photo: Clix Photography - During the spring shed, some owners collect the shed curly hair for spinning and weaving. Tests have shown the actual hair shaft is round and hollow.