American Curly Horse

  • HEIGHT: 14.3–15.2 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Western North America
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Unique curly coat and mane; smooth lateral gaits
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Ranch work, trail riding, endurance, and all pleasure sports

Nevada rancher Giovanni Damele and his family first saw horses with dense, curly coats running wild on their new spread in 1898. Not until 1931, however, did the family catch one of the horses, break it to ride, and sell it. The next winter was extremely harsh, and most of the wild and domestic horses running on the range either starved or froze to death. Among the few survivors were several Curly Horses.

Intrigued by their hardiness, the Damele family began a concerted effort to capture, use, and breed them. They found the horses easy to train, good at ranch and cattle work, and comfortable to ride because of their naturally smooth shuffling gait. They had great endurance and were extremely hardy. Some Curlies also have the odd characteristic of annually shedding and regrowing the mane and sometimes the tail.

As neighboring ranchers bought and worked the Curly Horses, word spread about their hardiness, versatility, and tractable nature. The fanciers researched their unusual breed and found that the animals were not limited to Nevada. In fact, Crow and Lakota Sioux had captured Curly Horses from South Dakota in the early 1800s. It is reported that in 1881, when Chief Red Cloud made some drawings of the Battle of Little Big Horn, he included an Indian riding a curly-coated horse.

The American Bashkir Curly Registry was founded in 1971 amid major concerns about the likelihood of inbreeding problems because the population of Curlies was so small. At that time it was believed that the breed traced its history back to the ancient Bashkir breed of Russia, and so the name Bashkir was incorporated into the breed’s official title. Before the dawn of the Internet, it was exceptionally difficult to gather information on obscure horse breeds from remote parts of Asia, so for quite some time the theory of Russian origin persisted.

This theory was probably mistaken on two counts. First, the Lokai is the correct name of the Russian breed known for its curly coat. Second, it is extremely unlikely that any horses escaped from early Russian settlements in Alaska and over the years managed to migrate to Nevada. The distance between Alaska and Nevada alone makes this nearly impossible, but in addition, it is now known that the Russians shipped very few horses from Siberia to their settlements in Alaska. It is doubtful that any of those were of specific breeds, or had curly coats, although this is not proved.

The Russian settlements in Alaska never succeeded at any sort of animal breeding because of the extremely severe climate. The few horses that may have been imported from Russia probably perished in Alaska. Thus the origin of the American Curlies remains a mystery.


The registry members decided that in order to save the Curlies, it would be necessary to outcross to other breeds. Four breeds were selected for specific reasons. Arabians were chosen because they have the same short back, sometimes with five lumbar vertebrae, and, like the Curly Horses, they are known for great endurance. Morgans were chosen because their conformation is similar to that of the Curlies. Appaloosas were selected because they had been bred for endurance and because some share the very unusual Curly trait of shedding the mane and the tail annually. Finally, the organizers selected Missouri Fox Trotters because their gait is most like the natural gait of the original Curlies.

Not only do Curlies have a curly coat, but they have curls in their ears as well.

In 2000, the American Bashkir Curly Registry closed the studbook to all other breeds. Horses now are admitted only by proven pedigree, not simply because of coat characteristics. However, a second registry, the International Curly Horse Organization, continues to register all horses with curly coats, regardless of pedigree. This allows Curly Horses from the Bureau of Land Management and crossbreds to be tracked.

When viewed, the Curly coat has a wavy pattern similar to rippling water.

Curly Horses resemble early Morgans in type, and the Morgan was one of four breeds used to help establish the breed. The others were Arabian, Appaloosa, and Missouri Fox Trotter.

Breed Characteristics

Curlies are born with dense, curly coats, including curls in the ears and curly eyelashes. It is said that people with allergies to horses are not allergic to Curlies, but this is not proved.

Curlies transmit the curly characteristic to their offspring about half the time, even when crossed on horses with ordinary, straight coats. It is sometimes easier to see the curls when the horses are in their winter coats, but close examination of a Curly in summer also reveals the characteristic.

Curlies are used for ranch work, trail riding, endurance, and all pleasure sports. They make good all-purpose and family horses.


These sturdy horses stand 14.3 to 15.2 hands and weigh between 950 and 1,100 pounds. A typical Curly resembles the early Morgans. The eyes are wide-set, providing good peripheral vision. The muscular neck is of medium length and attaches to a wide, deep chest and powerful, rounded shoulders. The back is short and strong. The round croup has no crease. The breed is known for its extremely hard, black, almost round hooves. Many individuals have no ergots; some have small, soft chestnuts.


Curlies come in all common horse colors, including all solids, pintos, and Appaloosa coloring.


According to the American Bashkir Curly Registry (founded in 1971):

  • More than 4,000 horses were registered as of 2004.
  • About 100 new foals are registered each year.
  • The breed is found in many parts of the United States and Canada.

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