Bashkir Curly Horses are a rare and dynamic horse breed. While you can read a breed profile just about anywhere on the internet, in this article, you’ll learn about Curly Horses from my first-hand experience.
Over the years, I’ve owned 11 Bashkir Curly Horses! These incredible, agreeable horses are fun to ride and keep my allergies at bay. Here’s what I want the world to know about “my” breed:
- What it’s like to own a curly horse (spoiler: you get a lot of attention!),
- What it’s like to ride curly horses,
- My experience as a curly horse rider with allergies to horses + a review of research.
- Plus, an expert-level breed profile that digs deeper into the genetics and history than your typical introduction.
In this article, learn about Curly Horses from an owner, expert, and breed association insider.
First, a General Introduction to Curly Horses
Bashkir Curlies are an athletic, versatile, and level-headed breed of horse. Curlies come in all typical horse heights and colors.
The fur of a curly horse is usually curly, but varies from individual horse to individual horse. Some Curly Horses might not have visible curls- while others have extremely tight curls.
Breeder Insight: The winter coat of most curly horses is longer and more tightly curled in the winter. This is not just because the fur is longer, but also because the curls seem to get tighter in cold weather.
When horses shed in the springtime, curly horses shed their thick winter curls. The summer fur may or may not be visibly curly, depending on the individual horse. The fur of many curly horses has a “crushed velvet” appearance as the short hair curls just slightly.
Manes & Tails: Curly Horses usually have curly manes, forelocks, and tails. While the weight of long tail hair can straighten Curly Horse tails, manes are often thick and bushy. Some of these horses have manes that divide into ringlets (or turn into a puffy teased cloud of hair when the mane is detangled and combed out!) Curlies typically have split double manes and are not braided or clipped when shown.
Breeder Insight: According to breed standards, Curly Horses are allowed to compete in horse shows with a natural, unbraided mane, even in shows where mane and tail braiding is required.
Movement & Body Type: The Bashkir Curly Horse has a characteristic long stride and bold movement, making them adaptable to many types of equestrian sports. Multiple horses with Curly breeding have won USDF Horse of the Year. 1 As a breed, they generally have tough hooves and exceptional endurance.
My Experience as a Bashkir Curly Rider, Owner, and Breeder
I’ve often talked on LearningHorses.com about my experience starting horseback riding as an adult. However, you might be surprised to learn that the reason I started riding later in life is that I am allergic to horses! I learned about Curly Horses when I was in high school and became determined to buy one when I graduated.
So, a few years after graduating college, I bought my first curly horse. Contrary to all the advice I give about buying your first horse, I bought a horse and then began riding lessons! (In my defense, riding lessons on a not-curly horse left me sneezing for hours, so in my case, buying a horse and partnering with a trainer for intensive instruction worked great.)
Over the next decade, I became a breeder, a curly horse advocate, and eventually a riding coach. Here’s a photo of the leopard Appaloosa curly horse stallion I offered at stud:
What it’s like to Ride a Curly Horse
Riding a curly horse is essentially just like riding any other breed of horse- but curly horses turn heads.
I can’t take my curly horses to any public trail ride, horse show, or parade without getting lots of questions. Thankfully- I love talking about this breed! I love going to fall and winter horse events just to promote the breed at peak curliness!
In the image below, I accidentally caught one of the typical gawkers as they eye a curly horse in Native American tack.
Where Curly Horses came From & Why They’re Rare
The origin of the Bashkir Curly is a mystery, but Charles Darwin documented curly horses in South America in the early 1800s. Curly Horses appear, specifically, in the count of “Crow and Sioux Native American tribes as early as 1801” 2 during winter horse counting. Some accounts state that the Sioux people regarded curly horses as sacred mounts for chiefs and medicine men. “A Sioux winter count drawing, by Blue Thunder from 1801, depicts curly haired horses among the tribes horse herd.” 3
After being slaughtered nearly to extinction because of their unusual appearance in the first part of the 20th century, the Bashkir Curly registry opened in 1971 with only 21 horses. Today there are around 12,000 Curly Horses in the world (though exact numbers are difficult to cite due to fragmented registries and many unregistered horses). Most Curly Horses live in North America. However, curly horses are now exported and bred around the world.
Researching The “Myth” of Curly Horses Being Hypoallergenic
Curly Horses have, for decades, been popular mounts for riders who sneeze and wheeze when they’re around regular horses. I’m a reluctant member of the club of people with horse allergies! (I literally sneezed my way out of the Spanish Riding school when I visited Vienna last year!) However, as a horse-allergic person, I can ride, handle, and even groom my curly horses with no sniffles!
So when researchers in 2019 4, 2018 5 and again in 2023 6 published that laboratory testing found that curlies do produce the protein that causes horse allergies, I and the rest of the curly community were stumped. Thousands of allergic riders happily rode their curly horses without symptoms, while scientists insisted it was all myth!
Although more research is pending, it appears that the science behind curlies and allergies might be more complex. For example, those studies tested horse-produced allergens in a lab, rather than studying the human response to curly horse-produced allergens. An early study that actually did test the interaction of curly horses with horse-allergic riders found that “19 of the 20 horse allergic riders did not respond significantly while having horses contact (riding) with Curly Horses” 7 and that “18 of the 20 riders did not react significantly when brushing the horses.” 7
Understanding all these studies together can be seen as evidence that, while curly horses may produce the same allergens as other horses, there may be some additional factor that prevents reactions.
The vast majority of people who react with sniffles to “regular” horses can pet, ride, or even groom horses of the Bashkir Curly breed with no allergic reaction at all. Kids and adults who get hives after patting a typical horse can often hug and groom a curly horse without having any reaction.
Meet one of our Bashkir Curly foals:
Fact: Not all Curly Horses are Curly!
Some curly horses don’t look curly at all! Bashkir Curlies come in several different coat types- including smooth-coated horses that are only curly by genetics.
Are smooth coated curly horses also hypoallergenic?
Most of the allergy-related lab research has been done on Curly Horses that visibly express the gene for curly fur in their coats. But many horse-allergic horseback riders report that their smooth coated curly horses do not cause horse allergic people scratch, sneeze, or wheeze in the presence of other breeds of horse.
The Bashkir Curly as a Sporthorse
Though eye-catching and unusual in the show ring, Bashkir Curlies have the movement, endurance, and heart to excel in competition. Curly horses can catch the judge’s eye and have the carriage and movement to keep it.
Unlike most horse breeds, curly horses were not bred for a specific purpose. Rather, the often-recessive genes for curly horse hair have popped up in multiple breeds. This indicates it was a trait present in horses potentially for thousands of years. Because of this, modern curly horses are suitable for a variety of tasks and sports, ranging from pleasure riding to competitive rodeo events, and from cross-country and three-day eventing to endurance and driving events.
Several Bashkir Curlies have made a name for themselves at upper levels of dressage and jumping, but countless others have proved the reliable mount and patient teachers for casual weekend riders and riding lesson students.
Because of the Bashkir Curly’s position as a rare breed, and the only breed a person with allergies can be around, curlies often find themselves belonging to raw beginners who are unable to take lessons on school horses in normal stables. It is to their credit that these calm, forgiving horses can carry these riders from raw beginner to achieving the once-believed-impossible dream of competing in horse shows.
Curly horse breeders understand the difficulties with purchasing a hypoallergenic horse as an inexperienced horse person and are glad to help you find a facility or trainer that can work around your allergies.
Curly horses are rare, only a few thousand horses with curly fur exist in the world, most of them in the United States (although the breed is growing in popularity in Europe thanks to their hypoallergenic coat.) The responsibility for the preservation of curly horses falls to individual horse owners since- like the rare varieties of livestock, plants, and fruits being lost to industrial agriculture– domesticated animal breeds, will never be granted “endangered status” and protection.
The Origin of Curly Horses
Curly horses probably come from a common ancestor somewhere in Europe or Asia. The presence of curly horses among the Mustangs of the Great Plains of the United States in the 1800s indicates that horses with curly fur may have been imported with the Spanish horses that eventually traveled north to form American Mustang herds.
Originally, “Curlies” were believed to come from Ural Mountains in Asia- which is how the name of “Bashkir” Curlies originated. However, when DNA testing became widely available in the 1990s and early 2000, testing determined that the horses with curly fur in the United States had no significant genetic connection to these horses in Asia. Despite this scientific debunking, the myth persists.
One theory is that these horses were brought over the Atlantic by Spanish conquistadors as gifts for Mayan, Incan, and Aztec nobility. The descendants of those horses joined with non-curly horses as they turned feral and became American Mustangs. This may explain the frequency with which the curly gene occurred within early Mustang herds and still –in certain herds –today.
Learn more about Curly Horse history via our article on Curly Horse Foundation Studs
Where do Curly Horses live Today?
Today, curly horses live both in the wild and in pastures and stables around the world. There remain wild curlies among the Mustang herds in both Nevada and the Dakotas. These horses are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and occasionally are available for sale through herd culling (a practice of rounding up and selling horses, in order to maintain the population at a level the land resources can sustain) and sales by the BLM.
Do Curly Horses shed?
All curly horses shed their coats on a typical seasonal cycle. Because these are so rare (and for some people, only something they’ve seen photographs of!) historically, curlies have often been confused with horses that have Cushing’s disease. Horses that have Cushing’s disease have hair that grows unevenly, causing the shafts of the hair to bend. This, combined with the Cushing’s symptom of not shedding a winter coat on time, has caused many misdiagnoses of healthy curly horses as cushings-suffering horses, and misidentifications of cushings-suffering horses as curly horses. Because of this, there persists a belief that Bashkir Curlies – like horses suffering from Cushing’s disease – do not shed, but this is not true. Curlies shed at the same rate and annual rhythm that all healthy horses do: growing thick curly coats in the winter that shed to sleek or crushed velvet-looking short coats when the days begin to lengthen in the spring.
What breeds of horse are curly horses?
Curly horses are recognized as their own breed. There is a bloodline-based registry called the American Baskir curly registry and a trait-based registry called the International Curly Horse Organization. Also, the curly trait can pop up in many other horse breeds – mostly due to the curly trait being recessive in Mustang bloodlines. The curly trait most often pops up unexpectedly in Mustangs, Missouri Fox trotters and Morgan horses.
How do you groom a curly horse?
There are a few special considerations in grooming curly horses – especially when it comes to the thick ringlets of mane. However, for the most part, grooming a curly horse is just like grooming a horse that does not have curly fur. Basic grooming practices like picking hooves, currying, and brushing are just the same. You can read more about unique curly horse grooming needs in our article on caring for a curly horse mane.
How much does a Curly Horse cost?
As with most horse breeds, the price of this breed can vary dramatically based on the horse’s breeding, training, health, disposition, and show experience.
While a healthy curly horse with no papers and a dubious history may sell for under $1000 at an auction, curly horses from breeders are more expensive. If you purchase a young curly horse ready to start training from a breeder, you can expect to pay between $2,500 and $5,000 on average. For Curly Horses that are saddle broke and safe for the average rider, expect to pay between $3,500 and $6000 on average. Curly Horses with significant show experience, performance titles, very unique colorings (such as Leopard Appaloosa, Dun, Grullo, etc), or beginner-safe training may cost upwards of $7,500.
Average Size and height of curly horses
Like the mustangs with which curly horses share many genes, curly horses are usually not large horses. Most curly horses average around 15 hands high. Some may occasionally exceed 16 hands. Curly ponies are not uncommon.
Life expectancy of Curly Horses
The lifespan of curly horses can vary dramatically. Just like any horse or other living organism, a number of factors affect life expectancy. Many curly horses, if well cared for, survive well into their 20s.
More Articles on Curly Horses:
Research sources used for this article:
- Equine Journal Magazine, March 2012 Issue. [↩]
- Thomas S, Gaier D, Bowling A. (1989) cited in: Morgenthaler, C., Diribarne, M., Capitan, A., Legendre, R., Saintilan, R., Gilles, M., … & Cothran, G. (2017). A missense variant in the coil1A domain of the keratin 25 gene is associated with the dominant curly hair coat trait (Crd) in horse. Genetics Selection Evolution, 49(1), 1-10. [↩]
- Saddle and Stirrups Magazine, Issue 30, Page 59, [↩]
- Victor, S, Binnmyr, J, Lampa, E, Rask‐Andersen, A, Elfman, L. Levels of horse allergen Equ c 4 in dander and saliva from ten horse breeds. Clin Exp Allergy. 2019; 49: 701– 711. https://doi.org/10.1111/cea.13362 [↩]
- Zahradnik E, Janssen-Weets B, Sander I, Kendzia B, Mitlehner W, May C, Raulf M. Lower allergen levels in hypoallergenic Curly Horses? A comparison among breeds by measurements of horse allergens in hair and air samples. PLoS One. 2018 Dec 12;13(12):e0207871. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207871. PMID: 30540798; PMCID: PMC6291085. [↩]
- Victor, S., Lampa, E., Andersen, A. R., Gafvelin, G., Grönlund, H., & Elfman, L. (2022). Measurement of Horse Allergens Equ c 1 and Equ c 2: A Comparison among Breeds. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, 183(11), 1166-1177. [↩]
- Are curly horses an alternative for horse allergic riders? Wolfgang Mitlehner, Wolfgang Mitlehner. European Respiratory Journal Sep 2014, 44 (Suppl 58) P4032; https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/44/Suppl_58/P4032.short [↩][↩]