Breed evolution: Curly-coated horses have been found in Chinese art dating back to 161 A.D. It's a mystery how the breed reached our shores. Some theorize that they crossed a former land bridge over today's Bering Strait, while others believe they arrived in the Northwest with Russian settlers in the 1700s. There are also those who believe the first curly horses arrived with Spanish explorers 400 years ago, eventually joining wild herds in the Southwest. Pictographs from the early 1800s show Sioux and Crow Indians riding curly-coated horses.
Modern history of the American Bashkir Curly begins in 1898, when a young Peter Damele and his father rode upon three curly horses in the high country of the Peter Hanson Mountains in central Nevada. Then, around 1931, the Dameles brought home a curly-coated horse from a local mustang herd, trained him, and sold him.
After the harsh winter of 1932, the Dameles observed that curly horses survived the severe conditions better than their flat-coated brothers. It wasn't long before the family started to use curly horses in their breeding program.
Today, some Gaited Curly Horses are descendants of the Damele horses. Breeders also diligently cross their Curly Horses with another gaited breed, such as the Missouri Fox Trotter, to produce a Gaited Curly Horse.
Owners tell us: Lisa Perry and her husband, Craig, own Zion's Gate Curlies in Hurricane, Utah, near Zion National Park. Lisa tells us that the American Bashkir Curly Association originally accepted all gaited curly-coated horses. However, a few years ago, it closed its books, which meant that only the offspring of ABC-registered horses bred to other ABC-registered horses could be registered. Lisa admits disappointment.
"There are relatively few Gaited Curly Horses, and we worried about problems from severe inbreeding," she says.
"So the International Curly Horse Organization was formed by more progressive members of the community who believed that such inbreeding was unacceptable. The ICHO allows us to breed our valuable curly foundation horses with the finest straight-haired horses, like our Missouri Fox Trotters. We breed top-quality Gaited Curly Horses that are dual registered with the ICHO and the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association."
According to the ICHO, "All Curly Horses that perform an intermediate/soft gait are eligible to be included in the Gaited Curly Association. A gait and conformation analysis will be done, and all accepted Curlies will be issued a certificate of approval and receive an analysis on their Curly for gait, conformation and breeding quality."
The Perrys have four children, two with debilitating allergies to horses. "But our children can ride, groom, and love our Gaited Curly Horses with no sneezes," Lisa says. "And many of our clients also find the curly coat hypoallergenic."
All of the Perrys' Gaited Curlies descend from the dominant curly gene found in the bloodlines of a Gaited Curly Horse named Curly Jim. In the 1960s, he was bred to an exclusive group of Missouri Fox Trotter mares; today, his legacy is seen in the pastures of Zion's Gate Curlies.
"The sweetness and intelligence of Gaited Curlies is endearing," Lisa says. "We've found that discerning riders want something special: smooth gait and good temperament, and the curl and color are like icing on the cake."
On the trail: Diane Mitchell, owner of Curly Country Ranch in Caldwell, Texas, breeds both Gaited Curly Horses that descend from wild herds and those with Missouri Fox Trotter in their background. She's a trail rider who also competes in endurance events.
"We may not have been the first to finish," says Mitchell. "But the ride veterinarians always commented that my horses finished events better then most horses started. Gaited Curlies have sturdy constitutions and stay sound even over tough terrain. Their easygoing temperaments and intelligence make them a breeze to train."
One of Mitchell's favorite trail rides with her Curlies is in Arizona's Coconino National Forest, on the Mogollon Rim. The Rim is a rugged escarpment at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau that offers an extensive trail system. There's high desert and forest, with lakes, creeks, and expansive views.
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