Curly Horses
Curly Horses

Curly Horses

by Greg Oakes of Guelph, ON, Canada

There is new hope for people with allergies to horses. A rare breed of horse with a different hair coat has solved that problem. “They are totally different from other horses, ” said Sonja Oakes, of Oakesmuir Farm in Guelph, Ontario. Most people with horse allergies find that the Bashkir Curly horse does not create a reaction, because its genetic design is different from other horse breeds. There have been many visitors from around the world to the Oakesmuir Farm – most people with allergies to horses have not reacted to this breed.

Although they are most famous for being hypo-allergenic, Curly horses have many other exceptional features. Nature has provided these horses with a unique heating and cooling system. Their thick curly winter coat repels rain and snow. Underneath, air is trapped near the short hair coat next to the body, keeping them warm. They are able to withstand cold winters, and can stay outside year-round. In the spring, they shed their coats. Their hooves are extremely hard and do not require shoeing.

Curlies come in all colours, plus they may also be appaloosa, pinto, tricolour, etc. The coat can range from a crushed velvet look, to a gentle wave, to tight corkscrew curls over the entire body. Their thick manes often appear wavy.

Naturally very gentle, many Curly horses do not have the same flight reaction other breeds do when frightened. They tend to assess, not flee, making them safer mounts. Curly’s seem to bond with people and learn quickly. This trait makes them good for children and novice riders.

They are suitable for most disciplines, both English and Western. Curlies have performed well in national-level dressage, jumping, vaulting, side-saddle, and endurance riding. They excel at anything, including being pleasure, family-oriented mounts.

Curly Horses

It’s a long road from mediocrity to superiority. In a breeding program it takes years, even with a breed as good as the Bashkir Curly horse. Oakesmuir Curly Horses started almost a decade ago with foundation mares and has one of the best studs in the breed. Sonja Oakes’s goal is to reach the top, and she has made some big steps in that direction. Having purchased many horses that she felt epitomized the qualities of the Curlies, her diligence and perseverance in finding top-notch breeding stock has resulted in a successful breeding program.

Curly horses are prospering in North America and Europe, and Sonja Oakes is one of the leading breeders. The farm exports Curly horses everywhere. With her eyes on the future, Oakes has achieved success, and will continue to play a role in the development of the Bashkir Curly Horse breed. Four factors are responsible for her achievements: the quality of her horses, her excellent training regimen, the accuracy of her genetic evaluation programs, and her professional after-sale service. Sonja excels at assisting prospective horse owners with their new charges. It is a lifelong commitment.

“Mares and stallions with excellent conformation and attitude provide the cornerstone of the Oakesmuir operation and,” claims Sonja, “with good nutritional support, the mares are having superior foals. The result of my constant investment of time and money has been the production of correct and beautiful performance-oriented foals. Some of the foals are being trained for hunters and dressage, with the hope that over the years, as more experience is gained, my breeding program can be further refined.”

It takes a lot of hard work and good decisions to produce a quality stable of horses. That is why Oakes puts so much effort into it. That is why her customers are so impressed with the results. She is a tireless promoter of the Curly horse and she has contributed significantly to its success in Canada. Sonja Oakes was the first Canadian to ride a Curly horse in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. The first Curly horse foaled in Ontario was born on her farm near Guelph. Dubbed Oakesmuir Chimo he has gone on to a successful stud career in Guelph. Another one of the colts, Oakesmuir Samson has matured to become one of the few new curly studs in Germany.

When the internet began, there were few websites for Curly horses. Oakesmuir Curly Horses had one of the first at Now you can type in the words curly horse and hit thousands of sites. The industry has grown immensely since Oakes started.

Curly horses are nothing to sneeze at. For people who have allergies to horses, an equine breed with a different hair coat has resolved that issue. “They are totally different from other horses, ” said Sonja. The Bashkir Curly horse does not create an allergic reaction because its genetic design is different from all other horse breeds.

As horses go, the Bashkir Curly Horse is unique. There are many theories as to their origins. When early European explorers brought their horses to North America, where they subsequently escaped to form wild horse herds, the curly may have already been on the continent. Nobody knows how long they have been here.

The Russians explored the Pacific Coast of North America and set up various settlements from Sitka in the Aleutian Islands to Fort Ross in California in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Perhaps they imported the horses. There is a Curly breed of horse in Russia today.

Native Americans did not use the Julian calendar, and consequently, the winter of 1801-1802 is recorded in pictographs on buffalo hides dubbed winter counts as the year the Sioux stole Curly horses from the Crow.

Some people claim a prominent wealthy Nevada rancher named Tom Dixon imported Curly horses from beyond the Khyber Pass in the 1870’s.

When Napoleon conquered Austria in 1805 he found what he described as “poodle hair horses” at the Vienna Zoo and had some transported back to Paris for his personal enjoyment. Charles Darwin in his famous book about evolution mentions sightings of Curly haired horses in South America in the early 1800’s. Various early European horse books mention crisp-haired horses that have curly hair.

The celebrated exhibitor of curiosities P.T. Barnum purchased a curly horse in 1847 from an agent in Cincinnati. Barnum waited for the perfect opportunity to introduce the Curly horse to the public. When noted explorer Colonel John Fremont got lost in the Rocky Mountains, America waited for news of his survival. As soon as he emerged from the wilderness, Barnum took advantage of the situation to promote his Curly horse as a strange new breed Fremont had discovered in the wilderness. Barnum made a small fortune charging curiosity seekers 25 cents a head to see the horse. His returns got even better after Fremont sued Barnum for his chicanery. The Curly horse litigation made national headlines, and the free publicity further promoted Barnum’swoolly horse exhibit. A few years later when Fremont ran for President as the Republican candidate, he was lauded as “the Woolly Horse” candidate.

General George Custer was too busy to notice that some of his adversaries were riding Curly horses at the battle of the Little Big Horn but drawings of the battle completed by a participant, the Sioux Chief Red Horse indicate their presence.

Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett rides a Curly horse in several of their early black and white movies.

Pioneers recorded various sightings of Curly horses in Western Canada and the United States among wild horse herds. Canadian pioneer sightings include such diverse places as Curly horse sightings in the Cypress Hills and Aishihiik Lake in the Yukon. In America they were found wild in Nevada and Oregon. No one has yet to discover their origin for certain. Few cowboys initially bothered with the strange breed until rough cold weather and temperature inversions wiped out a lot of the wild horses. Only Curlies, with their thick winter coats, survived, though they were gaunt. Given no choice, ranchers brought in several of these horses for work and quickly discovered their marvelous characteristics. Some were used as ranch saddle horses. Others were crossed with draft horses for heavy farm work.

Curly Horses

They are able to withstand cold winters. In the spring they shed their coat. A side effect of this unique hair coat is that the hair is hypo-allergenic. Most people with allergies to horses are not allergic to this breed. Sonja has had many people from around the world visit her farm near Guelph, Ontario to see if they were allergic. She is yet to have a disappointed customer.

“There is nothing more heart warming than to see the smile on the face of someone, who has been prevented from owning a horse all of their life due to allergies, realize their dream of horse ownership with a Curly horse.” said Oakes. She has sold horses to old order Pennsylvania farmers who farm with horse-drawn machinery but are allergic to other horses.

Among the best traits of these horses is their low maintenance. Oakes’s 75 Curlies stay outside year around. “That consideration is important to a cowpoke tired of mucking out stalls.” she says, adding, “As a former feral horse, the Curly has tough hooves and, unlike other breeds, doesn’t need shoes. Curlies are easy keepers and do well in hay alone. They are endowed with tremendous stamina and a surprising ability to pull and carry. They don’t frighten easily, and in a bad situation will wait patiently until someone comes to help.” Today, when so many people with little or no horse experience are buying horses, it is all the more important that a horse have a well balanced and gentle nature — qualities Curlies possess.

Another person who loves Curlies for their versatility is Jim Alan of Celtic Curlies in Lakebay, Washington. “Curlies can pack, plow, or carry riders,” says Jim. “With their long legs, thick chests, and heavy bone and muscle, they make excellent work animals. Their calm disposition makes them easier to work around, too. We had our stallion, JC’s Jubilee, trained for harness work as well as riding so he could help with our farm chores.”

Jim uses Jubilee to skid logs, often working pretty close to the stallion’s feet, without incident. “If you’re thinking of working a piece of land with horses, consider Curlies,” says Jim. “Their calm temperament and willingness to work, and the bond you’ll form with your horses will make your chore a pleasure. A Curly is a lot less expensive to keep than a large heavy horse.”

“Curlies seem to bond with people and learn quickly”, says Sonja, “This trait makes them good for children or novice riders. My husband learned to ride as an adult. He was skeptical at first. But the horse seemed to sense he was learning and would stop when he was off balance and wait for him. I have preschool daughters that I am teaching to ride. I would be worried about them on any other horse but a curly. Currently, I am training some curly horses for a therapeutic riding centre. The curlies have a gentle nature.”

Oakes is pleased to point out several of the excellent traits of the breed and how they excel at modern events. They do really well at dressage and endurance events. Currently two Curly horses in the United States have reached high levels in dressage. There are draft Curly horses too. Percherons carry a recessive gene for curly hair. One of the most prolific prize winning sires was the Laet bloodline. They became popular all across North America. A group of them at Michigan State University produced countless curly hair foals in the 1930’s. These horses were crossed with Curly horses in the United States. The true Curly horse has a dominant gene for curls. The larger draft Curly horse may possess both due to this early misconception.

Curlies are still a rare breed. About 3500 have been recorded since they began registering them in 1971. Sonja Oakes has the largest selection of trained curly horses in the world on her farm. The horses are registered with the American Bashkir Curly Registry , Box 453, Ely, Nevada, 89301. Though Oakes has sold draft Curlies to non-mechanized farmers they are so popular that they are being used in many disciplines worldwide. Oakes started out ten years ago with two mares and a stud. Her equine business has been successful and has allowed her to increase her horse herd and expand her farm facilities.