The Bashkir Curly Horse

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There is new hope for people with allergies to horses. Some people suffer allergic reactions to the equine species, but a rare breed of horse with a different hair coat has solved that problem.

“They’re totally different from other horses,” said Sonja Oakes of Guelph, Ontario. Oakes first discovered the rare breed on a trip to the United States, and fell in love with them. For one thing, people who are allergic to horses find that the Bashkir Curly does not create a reaction, because its genetic design is different from other horse breeds. The hair shaft is quite different.

“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 the Curlies,” Oakes said.

Although the breed has been registered as such only since 1971, a recent poll in an American horse magazine, Horse Illustrated, ranked the Curly at number ten in popularity out of over 40 breeds.

Curlies are one of life’s little mysteries. Few records survive. it was only in 1898 that 8-year-old Peter Damele made the first recorded sighting of Curlies in the United States. One day he and his father were riding in the remote high country in central Nevada when the boy spied three strange looking horses. They had tight fur ringlets all over their bodies.

It later turned out that there had been stories about the strangely haired horses in that district for many years, but the Dameles were the first to make an official record of their sighting.

Even then, it took the family 50 years to take advantage of young Pete’s discovery, and that came about due to a killing winter. All the horses on the Damele ranch died in that vicious cold–except the Curlies. Even though they remained outdoors and were gaunt, they were undefeated by Mother Nature.

The ranch’s cowboys were forced to bring in several of the breed for work–and quickly discovered their marvelous characteristics.

Among the best traits is their “low maintenance,” Oakes said. Curlies do not need grain and can get by with grass and hay. They remain outdoors all winter, and to a cowpoke tired of mucking out stalls, that is an important consideration. To go with that trait, they have naturally tough feet, and do not need shoes, unlike other breeds. They are the perfect horse for the north.

Nature has provided these horses with a unique heating and cooling system. Their thick winter coat repels rain and snow. Underneath, air is trapped near the short coat next to the body, keeping their body warm. They are able to withstand cold winters. In the spring, they shed their coats, providing knitting material akin to the Karakul or Barbados hair sheep.

Oakes said she traveled to the US several times to see the horses and finally decided to buy some to start her own Curly operation. She considers herself fortunate to have purchased stock owned by the late Benny Damele, which is considered the base for the entire breed.

References to Curly horses have appeared before. Native Americans did not use the Julian calendar, and consequently, the winter of 1801-02 is recorded as the year the Sioux stole Curly horses from the Crow.

When Napoleon conquered Austria in 1805, he found what he described as “poodle hair horses” at the Vienna Zoo and had some transported back to Paris for his personal amusement.

General George A. Custer may not have noticed that some of his adversaries were riding Curly horses at his last stand, but Sioux drawings of the Battle of the Little Bighorn indicate their presence.

There are several theories as to the origins of the Bashkir Curly horse. As an official breed, Curlies are less than 25 years old, although they have a long, colorful lineage.

As horses go, a Curly is unique. When early European explorers brought their horses to North America, where they subsequently escaped to form wild horse hers, the Curly may have already been on the continent.

Nobody knows how long they have been here, but some speculate that the Bashkir Curly came across the Bering land bridge eons ago, perhaps with Mongols who later became the Inuit–or perhaps some of them were brought here when Russians first owned Alaska and explored the western coastlands of North America.

Early records place Curlies on the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains in Russia, and they got their name from their remarkable curly coats, which can grow from three to six inches in length during winter. The horses shed their long hair, manes, and tails each spring. When the manes grow thick, they appear to be braided.

Curlies come in all colors, from roan to palomino to Appaloosa. One distinguishing characteristic is the Curly’s coat, which can range from a crushed velvet look to a gentle wave to tight corkscrew curls over the entire body.

The first Bashkir Curly born in Ontario was born on the Oakes’ farm near Guelph. Dubbed Oaksmuir Chimo, he is a bit of a ham, sticking his nose in Sonja’s pocket playfully searching for a snack, a testament to stability within the breed.

Oakes is pleased to point out several of the excellent traits of the breed and how they can adapt to modern uses for the horse.

“They do really well in dressage and endurance events,” she said. “What really impressed me, however, was their wonderful disposition. When my husband and I decided to start breaking in our 4-year-old Curly mare, Buck Mtn. Elee Mae, she had not had any ground work and we’d only ever had a halter on her. We went from there to riding her with a saddle (we haven’t used a bit yet, only a lead shank on the halter) in the space of about five minutes. Elee has been a doll, no bucking or silly behavior at all. Even my husband, who was wary of horses until we got our Curlies and didn’t ride, has had no problems riding Elee. I’m thrilled with her gentleness and sensible attitude. When she gets confused as far as what we ask her to do, she just stops, and when she’s figured out what it is we want her to do, she starts again.

“I have heard similar stories about their gentle nature, and I was skeptical initially,” said Oakes. “Curlies seem to bond with people and learn quickly. This trait makes them good for children or novice riders. Often when my husband is riding and gets off balance on the horse, Elee Mae will stop and wait for him. She seems to sense he does not know how to ride and is teaching him. When I ride, she is much more lively.”

The horses have a higher pulse rate and a higher blood cell count, adding more oxygen to their blood. Their eyelids and nostrils are different, offering further protection from the cold.

“They have a lot more heart than other breeds,” Oakes said.

She expects that the Curlies will become more popular as western even or pulling horses because of their strength and stamina, as well as because of another peculiar trait. most horses, when they are startled, will rear, shy, and run. Not the Curlies. They behave more like mules, and freeze in a standstill while they study a strange situation.

"They behave more like mules."

“They behave more like mules.”

Oakes said that one of the most astonishing things about the horses is their hair when it is processed by man. She was in North Dakota to check some of the horses, and said one man there had a hat knitted from Curly hair. When he was outside in -35 degree weather, the hat was pulled tightly around his head. When he went indoors, he set the hat down, and Oakes said she watched it “grow” for an hour as it became warm.

Chimo was the first of the Curlies to be born in Ontario, and he now has lots of company to play with the 1997 foal crop.

"The horses are gorgeous"

“The horses are gorgeous”

She and her husband, Gregory, keep the horses on their farm, where they also raise Belted Galloway cattle and Boer goats.

“The horses are gorgeous,” she said. “And they’re really easy keepers.”

For more information contact Sonja Oakes at RR #5, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1H 6J2. The American Bashkir Curly Registry can be reached at PO Box 246, Ely, NV 89301.

Small Farmer's Journal cover, Spring 1998

Small Farmer’s Journal cover, Spring 1998

By: Gregory & Sonja Oakes, Guelph, Ontario
From: Small Farmer’s Journal, Spring 1998