Great Basin Curly Horses

Team of harnessed Curlies wearing winter coats
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"Picasso," whose registered name is The Investigator, is a versatile horse whose accomplishments include jumping (inset), polocrosse, and dressage. Here, Nicole Allen (on top) and Megan Grove, perform an arabesque flag combination at the trot.
It Takes a Special Horse
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Western Horseman cover, April 2004

Western Horseman cover, April 2004

This Pinto Curly Horse is a Montana stallion owned by Mike Conti. The photograph was taken during an International Curly Horse convention field trip to the Damele Ranch.

This Pinto Curly Horse is a Montana stallion owned by Mike Conti. The photograph was taken during an International Curly Horse convention field trip to the Damele Ranch.

Eureka, first settled in 1964, is in the heart of central Nevada’s wild-horse country and known as the home of the American Curly Horse breed. This remote ranching and mining town also has been named “The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America,” US Highway 50. The surrounding Great Basin countryside is a cold, high-altitude desert dominated by sagebrush flats and surrounded by steep mountains. Only the strongest people and animals survive this harsh environment. However, there’s always been a lure of adventure about this remote region. Perhaps that’s what brought Giovanni, “John” Damele to Eureka, where he came to appreciate the curly-haired horses.

Like Father…

John Damele arrived in Eureka from Genoa, Italy, in 1879. He worked as a woodcutter for 11 years, providing wood for the charcoal ovens that fueled smelter furnaces for local silver and lead mines. John saved enough money to bring his wife and three children from Italy to join him in Eureka.

In 1898, John and his family made a down payment on the Three Bar Ranch northwest of Eureka near the Roberts Creek Mountains, where the Damele family began raising cattle and horses. While checking cattle, John and his two boys saw horses with curly hair running with the mustang wild-horse herds. The sight of the horses with long curly hair wasn’t easily forgotten.

Wild horses in Nevada originated from several sources, primarily animals that were released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, the US Cavalry, and American Indians. Around 1931, the Dameles caught a Curly Horse from a mustang herd and took the horse back to the ranch, where they broke the horse to ride, and later sold it. According to Damele family history, this was their first experience with handling and training Curly Horses.

The Dry Creek Ranch headquarters seem dwarfed by the surrounding terrain.

The Dry Creek Ranch headquarters seem dwarfed by the surrounding terrain.

In 1932, during a devastating winter in the Three Bar Ranch country, deep snow and bitter cold hung on for months. When spring came and the ranch horses were gathered from where they’d “wintered out,” the only horses the Damele boys could find alive were curly-haired horses. All the straight-haired horses had perished in the hard winter. No one needed to tell the Dameles what they’d witnessed, which was a real turning point in their thinking. True stockmen that they were, they realized that if the Curlies could be broke to ride and turned into cow horses, they certainly could be relied upon to stay alive when other horses perished in the harsh central-Nevada winters.

…Like Son

In the fall of 1942, John’s son, Peter L. Damele, his wife and two sons, Peter J. and Benny, bought and moved to the Dry Creek Ranch that’s on the Pony Express trail 25 miles southwest of the Three Bar Ranch. A Pony Express horse-changing station had been located near the Dry Creek Ranch headquarters during 1860 and 1861. The family also purchased the Ackerman Ranch, 12 miles north of Dry Creek.

The Dameles registered the 3D brand and placed it on a horse’s left thigh and on the left hip on cattle. This 3D brand is still used on horses and cattle on the Dry Creek and Ackerman ranches, which the Dameles still own today.

The winter of 1951 and 1952 was another brutal, cold one with deep snow. When spring came, once again, the only horses left alive were the Curlies. The Dameles decided to start breeding Curly Horses in earnest that spring. Before that, Curlies had just been part of the horse herd. The Dameles caught their first Curly Horse stallion out of a herd of mustangs, named him Copper D, and broke him to ride as a 2-year-old.

Breeding Curlies

The Dameles continued to breed Curly Horses and raise rattle on the Dry Creek and Ackerman Ranches. At one time, hundreds of broodmares ran outside in stud bands. A single stallion could cover about 30 mares outside, so quite a few stallions were needed in the big, open country. Handling big numbers of horses on the open range meant having good hands on horseback. The Damele boys were among the best. Running horses and catching them in different ways occupied much of their time.

The Dameles weren’t too concerned with the Curly Horse as a pure breed. When the Dameles first began catching Curlies out of the mustang herds, they were big, coarse-looking horses with unrefined heads, bodies, and legs. The ranches had specific needs for their horses, and certain ideas about what they wanted their horses to look like. The country around the Dry Creek and Ackerman Ranches is steep and rocky on the eastern slope of the Simpson Park Mountain Range. As a result, the Dameles wanted their horses to handle steep mountains, be sure-footed in the rocks, stay sound, survive bad winters, take the “big outside circle: on the flats (when checking cattle), drag calves to the fire, and be gentle. The Dameles wanted to breed a ranch horse that could do it all. They soon found out that the Curly Horse could do all these things and maybe more.

Through the years the Dameles purchased many stallions to use on their outside broodmares. Some of their better-known sires were a registered Morgan stallion, Ruby Red; a registered Arabian stallion, Nevada Red; and an unregistered Appaloosa stallion. The more famous American Curly Horse stallions, as the breed became known, were Peacock D, Grulla D, Dixie D, and Dusty D, and the most famous Damele Curly Horse sire was Copper D. People from several states purchased Damele horses with the 3D brand, and the Curly Horse gene reportedly dominant in their breeding. Many Curly Horses around the world today trace their lineage to Copper D.

Curly Horses graze the Dry Creek meadow. Note the short tails, scant forelocks, and curly manes.

Curly Horses graze the Dry Creek meadow. Note the short tails, scant forelocks, and curly manes.

A Congressional Change

In 1971 a big change affected the Dameles and other Great Basin ranchers. The US Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. Nevada is home to more than half the nation’s wild horses, and mustang herds on Nevada rangelands began to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, which created and monitored herd-management areas. The days of ranchers running mares outside with stallions on Federal lands were drastically reduced. However, recent reports by ranches and BLM employees state that curly-haired horses have been observed running with the mustangs in Eureka County, Nev.

This photo of Benny Damele and Shoshone was taken at Dry Creek Ranch in 1983 when the Curly Horse was 3 years old.

This photo of Benny Damele and Shoshone was taken at Dry Creek Ranch in 1983 when the Curly Horse was 3 years old.

The Curly Horse

The coat of a Curly Horse is the most distinguishing feature that sets it apart from other breeds of horses. In winter, the hair coat has long curls, although most of the long, curly hair often is shed in the summer. Mane and tail hair also is curly.

Another interesting characteristic of this breed: the Curly Horse is reported to be hypoallergenic. People allergic to horses are more tolerant of Curlies.

Curly Horses are intelligent, calm natured, and, when handled correctly, easily trained. The horses share many physical characteristics with primitive horses, including wide-set eyes and strong cannon bones, and Curly Horses have particularly tough hoofs, almost perfectly round in shape, which makes them good in rocky country. Some owners compare Curlies to mules because the Curly Horses think things through rather than panic when faced with unexpected situations.

The Family Tradition
The Damele family is still at the Dry Creek and Ackerman Ranches, and they still use Curly horses for working cattle. Tom and Peter Damele raise Curlies and had two “stud bunches” on their ranch last summer.

In October 2003 the International Curly Horse Organization held a convention at the Opera House in Eureka and made a field trip to the Damele Dry Creek Ranch. Curly Horse owners from several states and from Norway, Sweden, and Germany attended the event.

The Damele family is well respected as stockmen, has survived many hard times and carved out a name in Nevada ranching history. The Dameles and the American Curly Horse always will be linked together—as they should be.

Note: Longtime Western Horseman contributors Mike Laughlin and Lee Raine appreciate the Damele brothers, Tom and Peter, and their sister, Ellaree Mariluch, for allowing them to photograph the Dry Creek and Ackerman Ranches, and for supplying vintage photos and Damele family history.

By: Mike Laughlin
From: Western Horseman, April 2004