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An Expert Guide to Bashkir Curly Horses

During my years as a rider and riding coach, I’ve owned 11 Bashkir Curly horses! These clever, agreeable mounts are fun to ride and keep my allergies at bay. Here’s what you should know about this breed:

First, a General Introduction to Curly Horses

Bashkir Curlies are an athletic, versatile, and level-headed breed of horse. Curlies come in all sizes and colors. Coat types vary from non-expressed curl to extreme curls. The winter coat of the average curly is tightly curled in the winter and in the springtime sheds out to a wavy summer coat somewhat resembling crushed velvet in appearance. Bashkir Curlies are great for allergy sufferers. Most people who usually sneeze and wheeze around horses can be around horses without having to take measures to deal with the inconvenience.

The Bashkir Curly Horse has a characteristic long stride & bold movement, making them adaptable to many types of equestrian sports. They have tough hooves and exceptional endurance. Curlies typically have split double manes and are not braided or clipped when shown.

Leopard appaloosa bashkir curly horse dramatically lit in a dark barn.
A Leopard appaloosa Bashkir curly horse stallion dramatically lit in a dark barn.

The Origins of this Horse Breed

The origin of the Bashkir Curly is a mystery, but Charles Darwin documented curly horses in South America in the early 1800s and the early Sioux Indians regarded curly horses as sacred mounts for chiefs and medicine men. Native American artwork shows Curlies carrying warriors in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

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 over 5,000 Bashkir Curlies in the world. Most of these horses live in North America, however, curly horses are now exported around the world. Curly Horses have grown in popularity in Europe- especially in Germany.

Two examples of curly horse winter coats

Fielding The “Myth” That Curly Horses are Hypoallergenic

Curly Horses have, for decades, been popular mounts for riders who sneeze and wheeze when they’re around regular horses. I myself have a severe allergy to horses. (I literally sneezed my way out of the Spanish Riding school when I visited Vienna last year!) However, I can ride, handle, and even groom my curly horses with no sniffles!

So when researchers published in 2019 1 and 2018 2 that laboratory testing found that curlies produce the protein that causes horse allergies, the curly community was shocked.

Although more research is pending, it appears that the process by which curlies don’t cause 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 testing 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” 3 and that “18 of the 20 riders did not react significantly when brushing the horses.” 3

This indicates that while curly horses may produce the same allergens as other horses, they apparently do so in a different quantity or have some additional protective factor that prevents reactions to the allergen.

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 or requiring any pre-medicating.

Are All Curly Horses Curly?

Actually, some curly horses don’t look like they have curly hair 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

curly horses make versatile mounts

Though eye-catching and unusual in the show ring, Bashkir Curlies have the movement, endurance, and heart to excel in competition. Bashkir Curly Sport horses have the uniqueness to catch the judge’s eye and 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 teacher for the weekend competitor. 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 showing.

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 horses 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, 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 curliesamong 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.

Is it true that Curly Horses don’t 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?

While curly horses are recognized as their own breed – and have a bloodline-based registry called the American Baskir curly registry and a trait-based registry called the International Curly Horse Organization – the curly trait can pop up in many other horse breeds – mostly due to the curly trait being recessive in Mustang bloodlines. Because of this, many horse breeds – particularly American breeds – carrying some Mustang blood. The curly trait most often pops up unexpectedly in Mustangs, Missouri Fox trotters and Morgan horses.

How do you groom a curly horse?

Although there are a few special considerations in grooming curly horses – especially when it comes to the thick ringlets of mane that many have, 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 ran through an auction house may sell for under $1000, if you are purchasing a young 2-3 year old curly horse ready to start training from a breeder, you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $4,000 on average. For Curly Horses that are saddle broke and safe for the average rider, expect to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 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 $5,000.


Average Size and height of curly horses

Like the mustangs with which curly horses share many genes, curly horses tend not to be particularly large horses. Most curly horses average around 15 hands high, without outliers often taller and occasionally exceeding 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. Because curly horses are a naturally robust breed that’s not prone to digestive or health issues, curly horses may live, on average, longer than the average horse.

Research sources used for this article:

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Are curly horses an alternative for horse allergic riders? Wolfgang Mitlehner, Wolfgang Mitlehner. European Respiratory Journal Sep 2014, 44 (Suppl 58) P4032; [][]

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