Curly Horse Origin and Characteristics

If someone loves horses, but finds that they are allergic to them, the Curly Horse is the breed for them. The genetics of this breed reduce the allergens that are produced through a specific protein found in other breeds. Most people who have an allergy to horses find that they can work with Curlies when they can’t work with any other breed.

Although the Curly Horse is a relatively rare breed, it is not considered to be endangered. Multiple organizations are in place to help preserve the breed and help it to grow in popularity.

Curlies go by several different breed names. They are often referred to as Bashkir horses. Some have begun to differentiate the Bashkir Curlies from the North American Curlies as well. Each horse carries the unique gene which promotes a curly coat of hair on the horse. 

Some Curlies have also been crossbred to gaited horses in the past. About 1 in 10 Curlies will have some form of an ambling gait. It is affectionately referred to as the “Curly Shuffle,” though the actual gait can range from a trotter to a running walk.

In 1971, when the American Bashkir Curly Registry was started, just 21 horses were part of the original group. Today, there are more than 4,000 Curlies in this registry and more than 1,000 in other registries and groups that have started since then. 

What Is the Origin of the Curly Horse?

The origin of the Curly Horse is highly debated. Research is ongoing to determine how this breed began. At this time, there isn’t a solid answer. Some have suggested that Curlies traveled the land bridge from Russia to Alaska that may have existed historically. Others believe that Curlies came to the Americas when the Spanish reintroduced horses to the region during the colonial era.

Charles Darwin, during his travels to South America in the 19th century, documented the presence of horses with curly coats. The Sioux tribes were known to reserve Curlies so that they were only ridden by their medicine men or their chiefs. Warriors going into battle at the Battle of Little Bighorn are shown riding Curlies in tribal artwork.

There are several theories about the origin of this breed, including that Curlies come from the Iberian Peninsula. Crossbreeds from that region are known to produce curly hair, which suggests it could be a dominant gene.

The origins of the American Curly Horse are known. A rancher named John Damele captured a Curly Horse that was running in the local semi-feral herds of the US West. His property in Nevada would endure some difficult weather swings over the years. In the toughest years when other horses couldn’t survive, the Curlies that they’d bred or sold to other ranchers in the area would thrive. 

The Damele family would go on to establish foundation horses for the American Curly, though a Morgan and an Arabian without the curly gene were included in their pedigree. Many Curly Horse pedigrees today include horses that came from the Damele ranch. 

What is unique about the Curly Horse is that there are no findings that make it a breed that is genetically distinct. There are no single common blood markers found in Curlies to this point. That means the curly hair that is distinctive for this horse is more like a color breed, such as a palomino or buckskin horses. 

The Characteristics of the Curly Horse

It is the structure of the coat that is first noticed with the Curlies. They have a unique gene which curls the hair of the coat in multiple classifications of severity. Some Curlies may have a minimal curl that is only seen in the mane and tail. Others have a maximum amount of curl that includes a dreadlocked mane, curls over the entire body, and even curly eyelashes or guard hairs.

There are even Curlies that don’t have any curly hair at all. These are called “smooth-coated” Curlies.

The Curly Horse will typically have a split mane that is not braided when shown. Any breed of horse can produce a Curly, though the gene must be present in one of the parents for this to occur. 

Besides the fact that they are mostly “hypo-allergenic,” the popularity of the Curly Horse is also due to its temperament. Most Curlies are very calm, extremely friendly, and highly intelligent. They are tough horses, with a strong stamina, and they are highly sociable. Most Curlies prefer to be around people than other horses – unless there is a herd of Curlies for them to socialize with on a regular basis.

The reason for this preference to people over other horses is due to their reasoning skills. Curlies tend to analyze situations before responding to them, as if they are logically simulating scenarios based on what their reactions tend to be. This causes the Curly Horse to rarely be spooked or flighty in nature.

Most Curlies tend to have a chestnut coat, but every solid color is a possibility within this breed. Even Appaloosa markings have been found on some individuals. Pinto, roan, grulla, and cremello are also possible.

Caring for a Curly Horse can be somewhat challenging. When the coat is combed or brushed, the hair tends to lose most of its curl. To prevent matting, the mane and tail tends to be trimmed instead of brushed so the unique look of the Curlies can be maintained.

This breed will usually stand between 14-16 hands high, though the mixture of genetics within Curlies means all body types and heights are possible. Their total range can be as small as a miniature horse to as tall as a large draft horse.

How the Curly Horse is Used Today

It may be unusual to see a Curly Horse in a competitive event, but they have the temperament to excel when entered. Their movement and endurance is comparable to any breed. In the past, Curlies have excelled in show jumping and dressage.

The willing and gentle temperament of this breed also makes it an excellent therapy horse. People who benefit from experiential treatment with horses find that the horses tend to be patient, reliable, and supportive. Their level-headed nature and focus on reasoning makes them an excellent teacher for beginners, but they can also be responsive and willing for an expert handler.

Because of their hypo-allergenic nature, anyone who has an interest in the equine world can begin learning how to ride when paired with a Curly. This has led to many trail organizations to have at least one Curly around for trail riding, ranch work, combined driving, or other recreational needs so that anyone who wants to get to know horses better can do so.