There was a time when a breeder whose mare dropped a curly-coated foal quietly dispatched the “freak” behind the barn lest it reflect badly on his breeding program. Now, thanks to the efforts of a handful of devoted horsemen, those same animals are prized as part of a unique, rare breed of horses known as American Bashkir Curlies, or American Curly Horses in the United States.
Coats crimped in various patterns that resemble crushed velvet, a 1920s marcel wave, or the wool on a karakul lamb characterize the Curly horse. Viewed through a microscope, the hair presents an oval cross-section rather than the rounded outline of straight hair. Manes may be short and frizzy or lie thickly along both sides of their necks in a full pouf of ringlets. The kinks and waves are at their glorious best when the horses sport a full winter coat. Unique among equines, Curlies often shed their mane and tail hair completely each spring.
Debate continues over whether these horses with crinkled coats first arrived by mutation or migration. The truth is probably a combination of both. The C.S. Fund, Inc., a private California foundation dedicated to the preservation of genetic diversity in domestic livestock, undertook a study of the breed in 1989 in an effort to separate fact from legend. Fund researchers interviewed Curly breeders, corresponded with Russian scientists, searched anthropological and historical records, and blood typed over 200 of the 1,150 existing Curly horses in an attempt to pinpoint the origins of these unusual equines.
Much of the recent interest in Curly horses stems from the breeding efforts of a single family, the Dameles of Nevada. Giovanni Damele was an Italian immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1879 and, by 1898, realized his dream of buying a ranch. According to family tradition, it wasn’t long after that when Giovanni (now called John) and his sons Peter Luke and Bernard first noticed curly-coated mustangs on the range. The family never possessed any of these unusual horses until 1931, when two of John’s grandsons caught a feral curly horse, broke him, and sold him.
The Dameles came to appreciate the special characteristics of the Curly horses after the bitter winter of 1932 killed most of the domestic cattle and horses and even decimated the wild herds. When the Dameles rounded up what was left in the spring, they discovered that most of their straight-haired stock was gone. The curly-coated feral horses, though weak, had survived.
The Dameles began crossbreeding those survivors with their other ranch stock to breed their toughness into their cow horses. Their herd grew, horses were sold, and as word spread about the unusual equines, others began to realize that the horses they’d once dismissed or destroyed as freaks were really part of a genetic pattern. In 1971, the American Bashkir Curly Registry was formed to give the curly-coated horses breed status and to preserve the gene pool by recording pedigrees.
The breed’s exotic sounded name is actually a mistake, according to the findings of the C.S. Fund. In 1939, a defunct British magazine ran a photo of a curly-coated horse which it claimed belonged to the Bashkir breed of Eastern Russia. A sketch of that horse with an almost identical caption ran in a US Sunday cartoon feature called, “Strange As It Seems,” with a tagline similar to the caption in the British publication. Benny Damele believes this cartoon was the origin of his family’s conviction that the horses originated in Russia. While the C.S. Fund did discover a curly coated Russian breed, it was called the Lokai, not the Bashkir. The Fund could not find any links between either the curly-coated Lokai or the straight-coated Russian Bashkir horses that are raised for meat and milk, as well as their usefulness as draft animals.
The existence of a curly-coated breed in Russia led to speculation that, through migration across the Bering Strait or importation by early Russian settlers, the Russian horses somehow contributed to the wild Curlies originally captured by the Dameles. As the Fund’s researchers studied literature for other references to curly-coated horses, they were unable to find any irrefutable evidence of Russian importation.
They did, however, find considerable references to curly horses in South American literature and speculated that since the feral North and South American horse herds seem to have originated from common stock, it would be likely that curly genes appeared as a spontaneous mutation in both herds.
That theory is borne out somewhat by additional findings that curly-coated horses were sighted in the Great Plains and the West as early as 1800. The pictorial “winter counts” on animal skins which the Plains Indians used to record events of the previous year show that the Sioux stole curly-coated horses from the Crow in 1801. These curly Indian ponies may have been the source of the curly-coated horse P.T. Barnum exhibited in 1848. The Indian Curlies supplied a few small breeding programs on ranches in North and South Dakota.
As the C.S. Fund talked with breeders and analyzed the few available studies on the genetics of curly coats, it became obvious that two kinds of curly-coated foals appear in the equine genetic pool.
An occasional curly-coated foal crops up in an established straight-haired breed. Such foals have occurred, for instance, in Standardbreds, Morgans, Missouri Foxtrotters, Quarter Horses, and other breeds. The American Bashkir curly Registry allows double registration of these animals. Independent animal scientists and a South American researcher concluded that, in these instances, the curly-coated trait is the result of recessive genes received from the foal’s sire and dam.
However, the experience of many Curly breeders is that the curly-coat gene is dominant. In matings of Curly horses to other Curly horses, the offspring is usually a Curly. But when both Curly parents carry a recessive gene for straight hair, a straight-haired foal can crop up.
Dr. Philip Sponenberg of Virginia Polytechnic Institute examined the American Bashkir Curly Registry’s stud books in 1989 and determined that genetically, both types are represented in the Registry, even though the two types of curliness are not the same.
Besides the toughness which the Dameles found associated with the curly-coat characteristics, breeders feel several other traits appear to be genetically linked. Along with their curly coats, the horses inherit a kind and gentle disposition that makes them easy to handle and train. Whether this is the result of careful selection for temperament by breeders, the natural consequence of the Curly horse’s hybrid gene pool, or some actual pairing of genes for temperament and curly coats is open to debate. Although there is no hard scientific evidence to date, there are instances where people ordinarily allergic to horses are able to tolerate the breed’s oval hair. There is a trade-off to this hypoallergenic quality, however. Curly horses always seem to smell sweaty, even when they are only standing around.
Until more studies are done, the C.S. Fund points out, the curly horse is simply a breed based on a single coat characteristic, like the Palomino or Buckskin. Theoretically, scientists cannot yet consider the Curly horses a true breed, because their registry only records three generations of animals. The standard definition of a breed requires at least six generations of pedigrees.
Curly numbers have grown from 20 since the Registry’s founding in 1971 to about 1,150 today. The American Bashkir Curly Registry, currently open, will be closed in December 1990, and thereafter only the offspring of two registered Curly horses will be registered.
In response to the research begun by the C.S. Fund, some Curly enthusiasts formed the American Curly Horse Foundation in January 1989 to continue work begun by the Fund. The Foundation plans to catalog all Curly horses by family or bloodlines and to use that information to help breeders increase Curly horse numbers. The Foundation has the support of the American Minor Breeds Conservancy, which is dedicated to saving rare breeds of livestock in the United States.
By: Bonnie Kreiller
From: Horseplay, November 1991