The American Bashkir Curly

The history, myths and reality behind the rare breed of the Bashkir Curly.

Bashkir Curly

Raised for centuries on the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Bashkir Curly — named for their remarkably wavy winter coats — served as beasts of burden, means of transportation, and sources of both meat and milk for that region's people.

Photo by Jean Unglaub and Paul Hodges

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Meet an unusual animal that just might prove to be the ideal family horse.

Raised for centuries on the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Bashkir Curly — named for their remarkably wavy winter coats — served as beasts of burden, means A of transportation, and sources of both meat and milk for that region's people. And — like their stouthearted ancestors — the modern-day American members of the breed are hardy enough to withstand high altitudes and extreme weather conditions, as well as being agile enough to maneuver across rugged terrain.

The Curly is also one of the gentlest (and most intelligent!) breeds of horse imaginable. Since they possess an unusual affinity for humans, the animals can be easily broken and trained. In addition, when confronted with a new or threatening situation, they rarely shy or bolt in the way that most of their equine relatives do. Instead, they generally stand their ground and face the problem.

Says Who?

Take 76-year-old Bill Valentine in Wales, North Dakota, for instance. Bill brags that his elderly Curly mare, Dolly, is so gentle that his 2 1/2-year-old grandson won two classes with her at a local horse show last summer.

Urbana, Ohio resident Rhonda McQuinn obtained a Curly stallion through an adopt a wild-horse program last year. Expecting to spend months breaking and training her new acquisition, she was amazed to find that it took only a couple of days to have her rough and-ready mount saddle-broken and behaving as well as a seasoned pleasure pony! "Why, he's just a big baby!" Rhonda reports.

Sunny Martin of Ely, Nevada — who is the breed registry secretary — says, "Curlies really do take to people. I've never seen anything like it!" And she should know, because she's been on hand to watch many of these horses be brought in from the range . . . fight that "one good fight" at the end of a rope . . . and settle down almost immediately into friendly, tractable animals.

One of Sunny's favorite Curly stories (and she's gathered so many of them she's decided to write a book about the breed) is about a Connecticut mount named Fazie. Fazie — true to his heritage — did not like to be pampered, and he had a pretty clever way of letting his owners know it. In cold weather, his overly attentive masters swaddled him in a horse blanket. But just as soon as his owners were out of sight, Fazie undid the two surcingles under his belly with his teeth, and then (unable to manipulate the buckle under his chest to release the blanket) he reached over his back . . . caught the rug in his teeth .. . pulled the whole thing over his head . . . and deposited it neatly in the corner of his stall. Spying on him one day, Fazie's owners got the
message and quit coddling him!

There are countless other tales extolling Curlies, and many of them might seem a bit hard to swallow at first. "Believe them!" says Ed Brice, of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. "Curlies are so unusual you really need to be around one of them for a while before you can truly appreciate the breed." Ed claims that Kewpie, a Curly lent to the park by Sunny Martin, was so endearing that she spoiled him and his coworkers on the breed. And now the park (which displays about 40 different equine breeds) has its own Curly, Mel's Lucky Boy, to show off!

Damele's Wild Herd

However, it is known for certain that in 1898 eight-year-old Peter Damele made the first recorded sighting of Curlies in this country. One day, when he and his father were riding in the remote high country of central Nevada, the youngster caught sight of three strange-looking horses with tight fur ringlets all over their bodies.

It actually wasn't until 50 years later that the Dameles brought some Curlies in from the ranges and tamed them. That year — as the result of a killer winter — most of the family's ranch horses either froze or starved to death. So the cowpokes were forced to domesticate the only equines left . . . the rough-and-ready Curlies!

And the Dameles soon discovered how remarkable Curlies really are! Naturally athletic and keenly intelligent, these animals are easy to care for. They require neither shoes nor fancy food, and their thick winter coats, which are shed (along with their manes) in early spring, rarely get parasites. What's more, many folks who are allergic to horse hair find that they're not allergic to Curlies.

Registry Saves Lives

Eventually, the Dameles enlarged their herd and sold some of the Bashkir horses here and there. As a consequence, many of the Curlies you see today are direct descendants of that Nevada herd. Unfortunately, when Curlies became more widespread, a lot of people mistook the wavy coated critters for genetically defective equines . . . and decided to slaughter them. In 1971 — in part to put an end to this sort of senseless killing — the American Bashkir Curly Registry was established. Curlies constituted, at long last, a recognized and respected breed!

The registry accepts any color — even Appaloosa and Pinto — and allows for double registry (as in the case of Curly-Aps, for instance) just as long as the horse in question displays the telltale three- to six-inch-long kinky winter coat and good conformation. Currently, there are only about 245 registered purebred Curlies in the United States, and most of these horses are located in Nevada, California, and Oregon.

The American Bashkir Curly: It just may be the perfect horse for the homesteader in search of an equine for all seasons and all reasons!