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North American Curly Horse: A Breed Guide

An in-depth guide to the North American Curly horse.
North American Curly Horse: A Breed Guide

Origin

The North American Curly Horse is a rare breed of horse with its origins in North America.  There are about three thousand of them in the world today. 

Allergy-friendly horse, what is it?

The American Curly Horse has curly hair, especially the winter coat.  The mane and tail is usually in curls or ringlets.  For decades, allergic horse lovers have been able to be with and own Curly horses and recent research has proven scientifically that Curly horses are allergy friendly.  A brief reason why this is so, is there are other protein types in the skin and hair of the Curly horses, as well as smaller amounts of the allergen protein than regular horses.  It cannot be said that these horses are 100% hypo-allergenic, as allergies vary from person to person, but most allergy sufferers, even those with strong allergies, experience lesser reactions or no reaction at all to the vast majority of Curly horses.   Hair samples from the Curlies can be used by the allergy sufferers who want to test themselves before they meet the horses themselves.  This has proved to be a good way to avoid unnecessary severe reactions if the person has extreme symptoms.  It is also a great way of determining which Curly horse prompts the least or no reaction in each sufferer. 

History and early breeding

The Indians were among the first to value the Curly horses and breed them.  The Sioux believed the Curlies to be sacred and were therefore only ridden by the tribal leaders.

 In 1971 the first Curly horse register was formed - The American Bashkir Curly Registry.  Today there is also the North American Curly Horse Registry and the Curly Sporthorse International Registry.  Three blood lines are the most prominent, with most of today's Curly horses tracing their ancestry to one or more of the three stallions Copper D, Curly im or Eli Bad Warrior's sire (name unknown).

Genetics

The basis for breeding in America and their export to Europe and Australia are horses with a dominant Curly gene, where each individual has an unbroken line of Curly horses back through the generations.  Research is currently working on isolating the Curly gene so that in future there can be a genetic test to ascertain whether a horse is a true Curly horse.  Some inherit their Curly gene from both parents and always give a Curly gene on to their offspring: this is called homozygous. 

Some Curly horses produce offspring with smooth fur, and this is called heterozygous.  These horses still have the hypoallergenic qualities, but no curls.  When a Curly horse has very tight curls and a shorter mane and tail, they are often homozygous for curls. 

The Curly Horse Inside & Out

Curly horses come in all sizes and types, so no matter what discipline you are interested in, you can find a Curly that can go to the top of that discipline.  Examples include dressage, show jumping, western, distance, driving, riding gait, therapeutic riding, and even pony trotting.  There are Curly horses doing Grand Prix dressage and a Curly has been named the Dressage Horse of the Year in the U.S.

Although the most common height is about 14.3 hh, there are Curly horses from miniature to a large draft horse.  All colours and patterns exist and are accepted by the registries.

Technically, a Curly horse is a horse with curls but Curly horses are known for a number of other characteristics that distinguish them from normal horses.  The most special is, of course, their hypoallergenic coat: however their temperament is exceptional and they are extremely quiet to handle and love people.  They have the ability to survive extreme conditions such as cold, have strong hooves and dense bone and have a much reduced panic and flight instinct.  Conformationally, they tend to have a short, strong back, small chestnuts, small or missing ergots, oriental shaped eyes, and floating gaits that are comfortable for the rider.  It is possible these properties are inherited as part of the Curly gene (they can sit on the same chromosome) or maybe they are a product of the early breeding programmes.

There are many stories of the early Curly horses which have been handed down.  It was often said that for a day's work in the saddle a cowboy had to have two horses.  Those who had Curly horses only needed to have the one horse for the day.  Curly horses that were caught from the wild horse herds, were gentled within a couple of days despite never having seen or been around humans before.  Most Curly horses tend to seek people and are very communicative and responsive to friendly and natural treatment.  They require basic care, thriving in herds, living outside on good roughage with no shoes or rugs. 

Hair

Curly horse hair has been classified as more similar to that of angora than of normal horses.   Any Curly horse’s coat is unique and even individual’s fur can alter from year to year.  Winter Coat types can be anything from micro curls that sit close together over the body to small or large ring-shaped bells, a pattern like waves over the body.  As with all horses, they shed their winter coats in the spring and some owners collect the shedding hair and either spin it themselves or send it to someone to make wool.  A typical Curly horse coat must be mixed with a little sheep's wool to enable it to be spun if the fibres are a little short.

The summer coat is short and therefore has less curl.  Some Curlies have a summer coat that still stands out clearly from normal horses, but most have quite a smooth summer coat.  However, just take a look at the mane and tail which can be anything from a little wavy to ringlets or dreadlock.  They can also have curly eyelashes and whiskers, curly ears and curly fetlocks.

Some Curly horses shed their manes and / or tails in the summer, which grows back at an incredible speed in the winter.  Most Curlies have their big, thick, long curly manes and tails all year round and the manes are often split down the middle and located on both sides of the neck.

Curly Horses in Europe

In 1992, the first Curly horses were imported into Sweden, where there are about 200 today.  Norway, Denmark as well as France and Germany followed around 10 years later, with the first Curlies being imported into Scotland by the Shenval Stud in around 2005.  Colourthyme stud in Hampshire followed soon after with a sporthorse breeding group of one stallion and 2 mares.  Until 2 years ago, these were the only breeders of Curly horses in the UK, but in 2008 Trevor Hall Stud in Wales, imported 12 Curly horses and ponies from the U.S., Canada and Europe, and this year has seen a steady flow of more Curlies, most recently to the Extraordinary Equine Centre in Dorset, whose 2 new in-foal mares are due to arrive in a this month from Stag Creek Farm in Texas. 

BChaps

2010 has been an exciting year for the Curly horse in the UK, as the British Curly Horse and Pony Society has been formed by a handful of Curly horse enthusiasts and it is hoped that within 2 years we will see numbers increase, inspections and gradings commencing and Curly horses infiltrating the British horse world.  2011 will see more Curly horses being shown, exhibited and competed in the UK as members get out and about on their Curlies. 

Figures are approximate, but it is thought that there are currently around 50 Curly horses and ponies in the UK - a small number indeed, but a good foundation for the UK breeding of quality Curly horses for everyone and all disciplines.

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