My Hair is Stick Straight so Of Course I’m Drawn to the Curlies…

I have a donkey named Norma.  She is very special for many reasons, but one reason in particular is her very curly winter coat.  Actually, I had no idea her coat was special until several people commented on her unusually curly coat.  At first, upon hearing this about Norma, I didn’t take heed since most visitors here have never really seen a donkey up close.   I figured that maybe they just hadn’t seen a donkey before.  But then, I had to look at my own logic.  How many donkeys have I seen up close?  Not many.  And when I started to take note of neighboring donkeys, I did have to agree that they all looked very dissimilar to Norma.

Finally, a very close friend of mine commented on Norma’s ringlets.  “Does she have Cushings?”  This was a good question because Norma is rather stout.  In fact, my farrier calls her “Enorma”.  Anyway, she doesn’t have Cushings.  So I asked, “Why?” My friend, who raises mules and has several donkeys said, “Never in all of my years with donkeys have I ever seen a curly coat.”  I looked at Norma with her very long and curly lashes and tried to cover her largess ears.  I told her that she was very special not only because she was the only donkey on the premises, but now because she was the only donkey with a curly coat…  Great.  I don’t think she was impressed.  Poor girl.  She does feel singled out.

So, I went on a quest to find any other curly coated donkeys so I could show Norma that she isn’t alone. Maybe we could go to some group sessions or singalongs or something…  As I was on the internet searching for salvation, I didn’t find a single other curly coated donkey.  Amazing!  But, I did come upon a Bonanza in the North American Curly Horse, formally known as (and still known as) the Bashkir Curly.

Now, I have told myself that this blog would not delve into breeds.  As we all know, our particular breed is the best… or at least generally, we all have spoken or unspoken preferences.  And, because I know this, I don’t even want to get into it with all of you.  I figure it would be like bringing up religion, sex, politics or Junior’s lack of a job at Christmas dinner.  You know what I mean…

But, now that we are talking about it, in my humble opinion, there have to be many equine breeds to fit with the diversity of horse people.  “Like Owner, Like Horse” they say.  As long as every breed association sticks within their groups, we’ll all get along.  OK, well, I don’t really mean that but I do feel that certain breeds of people ride certain breeds of horses… OOOOPS, I just did it again!  I don’t really mean it that way because I have several breeds and I ride with lots of different people who have several breeds.  To me, all horses are individuals so it isn’t the breed (except in the case of Zorses…).  Sorry, see, I did it again!  That is exactly why I don’t talk about particular breeds.

So, today, in honor or Norma, I’d like to talk about a particular breed.  :)


American Curlies.  Or, North American Curly Horses  or American Bashkir Curly Horses or American Curly Horses or Curly Horses… I love that they are just as conflicted in their relatively new registry as the rest of us!  But, that isn’t why I’m interested in them.  I’m interested in them because of their unique HAIRcoat.  Did you know they were hypoallergenic?

First off, let’s discuss how the American Curly Horse came to be.  Sounds easy but it isn’t.  No one knows for sure and they admit it.  I love that!  One theory was since there had been recorded curly horses in Africa and Spain, they could have come from there.  But there was no proof.  In fact, there is no firm root system or Moses Tablets to confirm or deny any genesis of the American Curly.  Originally, it was thought that these horses were descendants of the Russian Bashkir horse.  That couldn’t be confirmed but the name stuck.  After much discussion among Curly historians, all that is known is that curly coats were reported in wild mustang herds in Nevada in the late 1800’s and Native Americans also caught and trained them.  So, let’s just start there, shall we?

(Olde Tyme Photos:  First is a photo of US Army on a curly in 1906, Second is famous curly stud, Dixie D, next is Benny Damele, last is famous foundations stud, Copper D.)

On the range in Nevada, an Italian rancher (obviously another reason I was drawn to this story since I’m basically an Italian rancherini) named Giovanni Damele set up business in Eureka, Nevada.  Eureka Nevada is described as the loneliest town on the loneliest road in America (I sure hope the land was cheap…).  Funny, that road, Hwy 50 is not far from where I live.  Anyway, “John” noticed the curly coated horses out with the mustang herds in this rocky, desolate and forgotten part of Nevada.

After a particularly nasty winter, John was again very astute to notice that most of the wild herd had died except the curly coated individuals.  Hmmmmm.  This happened the next winter as well — which seems obvious since supposedly there weren’t any sleek coats left from the previous winter.   Being an astute rancher, ol’ John decided to round him up some of them curlia coateda horsesa.  (I can speak Italang since my father was from Sicily off the boat.)  And, gather some of them he did!

You can probably guess what happened from here.  The lore is that John’s horses were the strongest and most sure footed in the valley.  People came from far and wide to buy the offspring.  So, generally, the Damele ranch and especially John and his son Benny are known as the founders of the breed.  From the original few, John out crossed them with a few studs he admired.  One was a Morgan (I love this, of course) named, Ruby Red King.  He also used an Arab stud named, Nevada Red and another stud of unknown breeding named, Copper D.  (All of these studs have color reference names.  I wonder if they were all sorrels?)

So, that is how the American breed came to be.  In fact, the Damele family still has a ranch in Nevada and still raises these horses.  I have the address if you are interested in visitingJust ask me and I will send it to you.  Isn’t it cool that we are still close enough in time that we can actually speak to the family who is widely known as the creator of the breed?!  I would love to speak to Justin Morgan.  Anyway, that is the story.  For you readers who have peaked curiousity about this breed, here are two links.  The first is to a  very informative Curly website.  And sadly but thankfully, here is a link to the Curly rescue group.  Sigh.  As with all breeds of horses these days, the rare Curly horse is also being sent off to slaughter.  (This link has a charming story about a baby Curly just saved from slaughter who needs a forever home.  Is it yours?  Take a look.)

OK, now back to the curly part.  It is known that these horses have a curly coat in the winter. It sheds in the summer.  However, the mane and tail are the clinchers.  Most of the Curlies shed their mane and tail either every spring or every couple of years.  I think ol’ Mother Nature was trying to figure out a way to get rid of those itchy dreds so she just decided to let it all fall out.  Heck, it will grow back.  This is why in some photos, Curlies show either no mane or hardly any mane and often times a short tail.  I also read many articles on tress management.  It is suggested that you trim the mane and tail, if it doesn’t fall out, to keep it from knotting.

Curlies are also supposed to be smaller (14 – 15.1) with wide set ears. They are described as a durable, sturdy, horse with a short back, straight bone, and thick, healthy hooves. In stories written about John Damele’s Curlies, they were often called “very strong”, willing, loving towards people and not cowardly. Curly Horses may have other primitive horse traits like smaller chestnuts or missing ergots (Aren’t ergots and chestnuts the same thing?  I’m feeling igner’t right now).

Here is where it gets interesting…  It seems that Curlies, who are basically a mixed breed, had to form a few registries.  Why?  Well, and this is the plain yet mind boggling part, the purists wanted to keep from outcrossing them.  ??  I totally understand why they wanted this, but, it is perplexing because that is how they came to be in the first place…  But, in 1990, the American Bashkir Curly Registry closed its books to outcrossing.  So, the ICHO (International Curly Horse Organization) began.  They outcross.  Then came the CSI (Curly Sporthorse International) that develop, you guessed it, the Sporting Curly.  Oh, and we cannot leave out the BLM Curly, which are the remnants of the original Curlies from the range (I’m happy to report that there is a group trying to help the Mustangs by valuing the Curlies left on the range.  They are working with the BLM to save them.  Here is a link.)

Gathering photos for this missive was rather interesting.  I could find very few beautiful curly coated photos.  It seems that although this breed is known for its coat, since the coat appears in winter, all bets are off… Or, the owners just wait for that coat to go away so grooming is easier?  I don’t know.  But, I’ll tell you, I couldn’t find one Winter/Summer comparison shot for any of the internet featured Curly horses.  That’s what I wanted.  I wanted to see the Before/After pics like the drama of a major Makeover show!  Couldn’t find one.  Not one!  So, I think the curly part must wear a bit hard on owners.  I’m not sure.  But, there are a lot more pics of the horses shed out than not shed out.

Now that I am a new found Curly expert having delved into this for an entire day… I would have to agree with the purists of the ABCR.  When I look at the breed standard, such that there is a breed standard, it seems that John Damele wanted a strong ranch horse.  That’s it.  Strong.  Ranch.  Horse.  OKOK, don’t get all squinty eyed. I can see why all the other folks want to take this sweet, strong ranch horse and cross it with other stuff to hopefully get the strong, curly and sweet part into whatever else they have in their particular woodpile.  I’m just sayin’…

So in conclusion, for me, Curly blood is kinda like salt or garlic or butter.  It is the stuff that goes into most tasty recipes.  You have the Curly Fresian cross, the Curly Paint cross, the Curly TB cross, the Curly Pony cross… it is endless.  Are they diluting the breed or merely making it better?  Dunno and don’t really want to argue that.  After all, hybrid vigor is a glorious thing.  I know that I always describe the look of my purebred Australian Kelpie, Dexter, as 5 different dogs put together.  You see, a purebred Australian Kelpie is indeed a mix of all the dogs they have there in Australia plus a dash of Dingo thrown in for good measure.  Yup, he’s a purebred Kelpie made up of everything under the sun.  Still, in my opinion, Dex is sound, brilliant and just about the most vigorous dog I’ve ever met.
I think the purebred Curly is like my Dexter.   I think they are probably a very healthy hybrid that has become a purebred.  I like it.  I like it just like I love my purebred, Dex, and my purebred donkey Norma with the remarkable curly hair.  So if you were to give me a choice of what kind of Curly would work for me…

Well, I’d go with Damele’s original idea of a strong, little, willing, moppy-headed wild thing.  Like owner, like horse —  or so the story goes…

HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!

HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth... if you like this, please pass it around!

16 comments have been posted...

  1. Susan Winters

    I have 2 curly donkeys. They had longish hair when they were little. As they matured, the hair became more darker, softer and curly. Their winter coat is amazing. Joe and Kona are very unique!

  2. Vickie

    I have a donkey with curly hair too! Her name is Jane. I wanted to share her picture but see no way to attach it.

  3. dawndi Post author

    I don’t know anything about them… I have found little online. Sometimes I wonder if it is really
    how Cushings Disease expresses itself in donkeys. Not sure at all about that. Just a thought.
    My Norma has been curly for the last 15 years or so. But, she wasn’t curly as a 2-7 year old. That is
    why I think it might be her metabolism. But, again, not sure at all. It could be that her hair is curly
    and it shows at maturity.

  4. Holli Mathews

    Hi there was wondering if you found any other curly haired donkeys? I have one that is white in color and his hair is just like Norma. I just got him he was abandoned in a pasture so I took him in. I would love to know more about him. His breed ? And any other info you can provide. Thank you

  5. Sheryl D'Uva

    Thank you for this article, how exciting to see more coverage of out wonderful curly horse!! They are truly awesome and its great to see more people learning and possibly becoming more involved with them.. I am also excited to see 2 pictures of mine on this!! :) Sheryl

  6. Sheryl D'Uva

    this is great to see more coverage of our wonderful curly horse!! I am also excited to see 2 pics of mine on here.. Its always wonderful to see more people learning about them. they are truly a wonderful horse!@! Thank you for writing this!! Sheryl

  7. Lene Jensen

    Wow, a curly donkey!

    Does she have any foals? It would be interesting to see if she pass on the curly coat to her offspring.

    Do you have any chance to find out if she is hypoallergenic? Like, by sending hair samples to allergic people that are willing to test?

    Please keep in touch with ICHO. Genetist Dr Gus Cothran is working on isolating the curly gene, but it is a tough call. Perhaps a hair/blood sample from Norma could be studied together with samples from normal haired donkeys and one could come a step closer to where that gene might be hiding?

  8. Brie

    As a Curly horse owner I wanted to say thank you for posting such a thorough and entertaining article on my favorite breed of horse. I also wanted to let you know that there is a Winter Photo gallery here:

    with plenty of pictures of Curlies with their winter curls.

    I don’t think all of them lose their manes and tails…some do and some don’t as far as I know. And winter grooming is *interesting* but not terribly strenuous: I use a poodle brush on my horse in the winter which is different from using a curry comb on him, but certainly not more difficult.

    His hair requires normal grooming aside from that, and while I do spend some time in the summer on his mane, I enjoy doing so and feel that it isn’t much different from any horse needing their mane combed free of tangles. I just finger-comb his mane so as to preserve the curls.

    It would also be nice to know why your donkey has curls–I have a Curly mule and while I have been assuming she’s half Curly horse, I could be wrong. Maybe she’s half Curly donkey. I found this article because I was on Camelot Weekly’s Facebook page and there a donkey that looks Curly going through their auction this week. So I googled “curly donkey” and here I am.

    Anyhow, thanks again for a great article on the Curly horse!

  9. dawndi Post author

    You Curly Group people are very responsive and wonderful! I’ve received many offers for pics from your group. Nice to see such a solid representation!

  10. Sara

    Good article, if you would like some more curly pics, my fiance Tom Damele has a ton, as well as his family still raises the breed that began with his Great Grand Father, we have some really neat pics from the old days and of current new horses on the ranch.

  11. Shelly

    This is a really great article on Curlies – one of the best I have read! You did great research and it is written in an interesting and amusing way – great job!

    You used a couple of images of my horses on there – which is just great – but I DO have winter summer photos of those two for comparison if you would like to see them!
    p.s. I LOVE your donkey!

  12. Jackie Richardson

    Great article on Curlies…didn’t know you were looking for comparison shots of a curly in curls and without…I have some so If you want to put some up just let me know!!! Jackie

  13. Adria

    Hmmm, I tried leaving a comment yesterday, but it didn’t seem to stay. So, I’m sorry if it did and I just can’t see this so you get it twice!

    I wanted to thank you for writing such an informative blog about American Curly horses! I also wanted to thank you for choosing to use a photo of our stallion *Tall Trees Misty’s Beau. His is the head shot of a buckskin (8th photo down from the beginning of the section on the breed). You noted that you couldn’t find summer photos. I’d be glad to supply you with a few if you are interested! Again, thank you!

    ps Norma is *very* cute!

  14. Laurie Lee

    As an owner of a Curly Horse, I can tell you that everything that you read about the Curly’s disposition and intelligence is true. They are fast to learn new things and they have good memories. My horse is a Rescue, yet she has no bad behaviors caused by what happened to her before she came to me. She has amazingly good common sense, is very personable, and is very good at showing me that I am her “special person.” Curlies can and do participate in a variety of disciplines. While Dream was Curly Sporthorse International’s Horse of the Year 2008, Youth Division (with a 15 year old rider), she is a fantastic trail horse and will go out alone without a hesitation. I think everyone should get to know the Curly horse, because they are a very special breed.

  15. Adria

    I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write a most informative blog about the American Curly Horse. However, more importantly, I wanted to thank you for choosing to use the head shot of my MOST handsome stallion, *Tall Trees Misty’s Beau (*Beau) in his winter curl! BTW, he’s the buckskin one 8 photos down from the beginning of your “Curly” section. I would be more than willing to share any number of photos of winter/summer Curlies. In fact, I have a great one of *Beau if you’d like. Again, thank you for writing about our fabulous horses and Norma is about the cutest donkey I’ve ever seen!!

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