The North American Curly Horse

- Buffalo Pony to Modern Working Horse

by Karen Zierler

Curlies in History


       The question: Where did the North American Curly Horse come from, is still being debated today. In the early years, ranchers/newspaper columnists believed that it was a native breed to North America related to the Russian Bashkir. The first theory went that the Curly horse migrated over the Bering Straight, and in very few numbers lived remotely throughout America. Then, when the Spanish and the settlers came, they released horses to run wild which then mixed with the native Curly population. And, thus, every once and awhile, in the wild Mustang herds one could find a rare curly coated horse. Or, so it was initially thought. This theory has, however, been called into question.


With modern research into the origins of the Curly Horse, it was discovered that curly horses existed in North America in the 1700's (The name Bashkir actually became linked due to a 1938 article, "The Evolution of the Horses", in which a Lokai horse showing curls was wrongly called a Bash Bashkir.) Light could be shed on some of the mystery surrounding the Curly Horse by studying Indian Sioux Tribe records. Three records in particular provided new information on the Curly Horse, the sacred "Buffalo Hunting Pony".


The first is the Lakota Winter Count. Each winter, the Lakota (a sub-tribe of the Sioux) recorded major events by writing (with symbols, like the Egyptians) on a large buffalo hide. The hides are called Winter Counts and were faithfully copied when worn out. The Winter Count in the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society drawn by Lone Dog begins in the year 1800 and ends in 1877. The symbols for the year 1803-1804 show that the Sioux Tribe stole Curly Horses from their enemy, the Crow (2).


Oral tradition from the Sioux confirmed this, as was told to Ernie Hammrich. Hammrich purchased the last of these Native American bred Curly Horses from Slim Berndt and the Sioux Indian, Eli Bad Warrior, in South Dakota. Slim Berndt faithfully bred his Curlies to other Curlies. Hammrich, however, was a renowned Quarter Horse breeder and at one time President of the AQHA, using the Hard Twist and foundation bloodlines, which he did introduce into the Curly Horses he had (3). Today, there are very few Native bred Curlies from the Bad Warrior lines, most are mixed with foundation Quarter horse blood. Descendants of these horses are some of the best quality Stock-horse Curlies today, and were used by such famous trainers as Gawani Pony Boy in shows and clinics regularly.


The second document that refers to the Curly Horse is the collection of historical drawings by Red Horse, an eye witness and participant in the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn (1876). This was the final successful battle the Native Americans would stage against the U.S. Calvary. In it, General Custer's troops were destroyed at the Last Stand. Red Horse's drawings show Sioux Warriors riding Curly Horses and leading away captured Army horses. The distinct difference in coat when compared to a straight-haired horse is pronounced (4). Interestingly, the Custer Battlefield Historical Museum has determined a roster of Indian warriors in the battle. A Lakota Sioux named Bad Warrior, is listed (5). Maybe it is just coincidence, but one wonders if Eli Bad Warrior inherited his Curlies from Custer Battlefield warriors?



A third source, the colorful ledger drawings depicting the Lakota - Sans Arc way of life by Black Hawk, Chief Medicine Man of the Sioux, includes images of a particular curly coated horse (6).  Strangely, both this horse and the one drawn at the Battle of Little Big Horn by Red Horse have the same coloring and markings and almost appear to be the same horse, the horse is drawn with sacred feathers and it would appear that Black Hawk had high respect for her.


After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, leader of the joint Native American allies, was forced in 1877 to flee in Canada (7). Taking his tribe northward, he took some of his horse herd with him. It is possible that he brought the first Curlies to Canada. After four years, starvation forced Sitting Bull to give up and return his tribe to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Legend has it that a Native American family at U.S. Fort Berthold traded for two Curly mares from Sitting Bull's band as they passed en route, founding a small population there (8).


Back at Standing Rock, Sitting Bull an his tribe remained until the battle of Wounded Knee at which time Sitting Bull was murdered and Big Foot's band and horses killed. Because the Indians were forced onto Reserations, some of the herd was turned out free, roaming at Standing Rock. In the aftermath of Wounded Knee, starvation and years of war took its toll, and the Native horses dwindled in number. To this day, beautiful Lakota wild horses can be found at Standing Rock, descendants of Sitting Bull's herd, however the Curly is absent. Being so rare, few numbers are likely to have survived and possibly the Sioux families treasured the remaining Curlies and kept them in t he family rather than setting them free such as Eli Bad Warrior did.


Although no  Curly Horses today are found in the Lakota Horse population, the Bureau o Land Management (BLM) rounds up wild Mustangs in Rock Springs area of Wyoming (south of Montana) for culling, and each year when the Mustangs are brought in, several Curlies are amongst the herd (9). One theory is that the Northern Arapaho or Southern Cheyenne, allies with the Sioux and participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, received Curlies in trade and eventually released them in to the wild herds of Wyoming.


However, a rancher named John Knappes gives credit to his uncle Ike, and the Brookes family , for the introduction of the Curly to Rock Springs. According to letters written to researchers for "Myth & Mystery - The Curly Horse", his uncle purchased a black Curly stallion at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Mr. Knappes continued to range breed the Curly, mixing it with Morgan x Standardbreds, Army remount Thoroughbreds, or Tennessee Walkers using the Laramie Stud's son, Rocket. The Rock Springs horses then are considered descendants of the Laramie Stud (11). Given Fort Laramie was central in managing the Plains Indians, it might be speculated that the stallion came from the Sioux Indian stock.


Sitting Bull was not the only Native American believed to propagate the Curly Horse. On May 31st, 1877 in response to the U.S. demands to give up lands and confine themselves to the Reservation, Chief Joseph's Nez Perce Tribe in Oregon also fled to Canada, only to be stopped 40km before the border. September 30th saw the Battle of the Bear's Paw Mountains in which Chief Joseph surrendered. However, his brother, or other relatives of his, escaped and took horses and a band of 200 people onward into Canada (10). As time went by, they migrated further northward. During their migration, they left Curly Horses by the Aishihik Lake in Yukon Territory, Alaska. Joe Mead, a modern breeder, claimed to have discovered, and used, the Curlies of Aishihik many years ago. Mead crossed the Aihik horses with the Damele strain (12). How the first Curly Horses came to Canada is unclear. As mentioned, possibly Sitting Bull brought some. However, what is known is Ole Skjonsberg and his family were big horse breeders at around 1900 and Skjonsberg and his uncle brought Curlies to Alberta from South Dakota where they had a stock herd (13). Skjonsberg always told the story that his father, Hans, stole his first Curly Horse in 1890 from an Indian at a water (14). Most likely in South Dakota. It is speculated that this Curly came from the Sioux or Crow, however, other Curlies in their herd may have come from Nevada. Curlies in Canada are also known to have come later from the Nevada area, North Dakota and Montana, and oral tradition suggests that the Skjonsbergs were rustlers or ranchers, and took a large herd north over the border (15). In the future, some of these lines would be bred to the Canadians beloved racing Jockey Club stock to develop unique bloodlines such as the Cypress Curly Horses. Sadly, due to restrictions placed by the founders of the first Curly registry in 1971, which was against the introduction of racing blood, the names of these out cross stock were never recorded.


More is known of the early Nevada Curly Horse. In 1898, the Damele family purchased their ranch in Eureka, Nevada. They would become one of the most influential breeders of Curly Horses in the 20th century. Having seen the Curly Horse running wild with the Mustangs, two sons of Damele captured a sorrel Curly stallion in 1931, broke him to ride and sold him. In 1932, a devastating winter hit and much of the Damele working horse herd perished. When the Damele's rounded up the remains of their herd in spring, among the few survivors were three Curly Horses. Able to withstand the hardship, these tough horses were respected by the ranchers. Benny Damele was won over, and began using the Curly as the base for his new ranch stock. Although at this time there was no direct intent to breed Curlies, they ran with the herd and were sold to California, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.


The 1950's would see a similar, even harsher, winter in which out of a herd of 300 head only one Curly horse colt, Cooper, and 40 broodmares survived (among them Curlies). To rebuild the herds, the Curly colt and a Saddlebred stallion brought out of Idaho, were used as herd stallions. In order to avoid inbreeding, Benny Damele then chose to introduce his herd to a high quality Arabian horse, named Nevada Red, and alter a high quality working Morgan, Ruby Red King, in to the Curly bloodlines.


Modern breeders have taken two different routes with the Damele line. Some, such as Joe Mead (inheritor to the Damele herd), bred true to the Classic Curly, which retains the original characteristics of the Damele bred horses, while others have chosen to develop a Sport Curly for dressage and jumping, using the Damele line as its base. One particular stallion that has made a strong mark in the Sport Horse development with a Dressage career is Spartacus. He has two lines of Arabian blood (one being Nevada Red), while most of his successful get still competing in Dressage are from a Morgan Mare, Magdelena. The Spartacus line often has a Baroque quality. Subsequently, over the course of 20 years, this line has been out-crossed and improved through the introduction of Warmblood bloodlines.


While the numbers of Curly Horses began to slowly increase in Nevada, the Dakotas, Montana, and Canada, another Quarter Horse Breeder, Francis Fredell, in Boulder, Colorado began to experiment with the Curly. Having received one as a gift from his father, most likely a Damele, he began by breeding the small feral horses. Upon his marriage, Mrs. Fredell had other ideas. She viewed the Curly as stemming form the Spanish Mustang herds, and quickly began incorporating as much Quarter Horse blood as possible. After 40 years, in 1983, when the Fredell's retired from breeding, their Curly herd consisted from 75%-90% Quarter Horse blood, mostly from McCue and Oklahoma Star. The Fredell line has had a dramatic influence on Curly breeding, although very few Fredell bred Curly horses exist today.


The West wasn't alone. In the Southeast, a horse named Curly Jim began breeding Missouri Foxtrotter mares in the 1950's. The origin of this stallion is completely unknown. And, unlike the other lines of Curly Horses, which tend to shed their mane and top of the tail in summer, the Curly Jim line of horses generally keep a full mane and tail. It is thought that this line may be genetically a different sort of Curly Horse (16).


All of this does not answer, however, the question about the prehistoric origins of the Curly. One theory suggest that Norse and Celtic Iberians brought them to the continent during their North and South American landings in the 1500's. This is supported by the existence of large numbers of Curly Horses in Paraguay at the turn of the century. These are described in several historical reference books, and were culled by the 1930's.


By 1971, enough horses had accumulated that a group of breeders and enthusiasts formed a registry, the American Bashkir Curly Horse Registry. All of the sources of bloodlines discussed above were used as founding stock to develop this new breed. Included in the founding were Damele, Fredell, Warrior, Canadian, Curly Jim and Mustang horses of unknown origin. Together they formed a mixed pool of horses as a base through which the modern American Curly Horse was derived.






Curly Horse Characteristics



  The original Curly Horse was small, being depicted and photographed as two thirds the size of a U.S. Calvary horse. It had a long, shaggy, curly coat, that ranchers (and porbably Indians) noticed was hypo-allergenic; a thick, spiraled double-mane and came in many colors. Hard hooves, primitive elliptical eyes set to the side, shorter backs, heavy bone, and an uphill build were beloved traits, in addition t o the rare horse that had a very easy going gait called the Indian Shuffle, which could travel long distances quickly and with more ease. The Curly Horse has traditionally had a very mild temperament. The average Curly is quiet, highly intelligent, and does not spook easily. It is not hard to understand why the Indian and these few ranchers so loved the animals.


There are also two types of Curly genes, a dominant gene and a recessive gene. In this discussion wr are presenting Curlies, which pass on their characteristics in a dominant genetic fashion. The recessive Curly is a pure-bred horse (Arabian, Quarter Horse, etc.) that develops a Curly coat even though both of it's parents are straight- haired. These horses are NOT related to the North American Curly Horse. There are some instances where a recessive curly may have health issues. You do NOT want to breed a Dominant Curly Horse to a Recessive Curly Horse!!!!!


Today's Curly Horses retain most of the original Curly characteristics, although they have increased in height and size for modern work and riders. Curly Horses have a height range between 135-162cm, and come in Classic (Damele), Stockhorse (Quarter Horse), Sport Horse(Morgan/TB/Arabian Base), Missouri Foxtrotters, Native American, Mustang, Miniature and Draft lines. Each of these types has a quality blend of Curly Characteristics. The body styles of these different types vary, however, all should share substantial/heavy bone (good cannons), primitive elliptical eyes, good withers, well sprung ribs, a deep jaw, short mouth, and of course curls - although there are straight haired Curlies too! The straight haired Curlies should not be considered inferior to their Curly haired counterparts!! Straight haired Curlies are also hypoallergenic, and can offer much in the way of breeding stock, as well as offer a non Curly alternative to allergy sufferer's who may not appreciate standing out with a Curly haired horse.


The Curls of the Curly Horse are quite varied. Some are extremely curly with short manes and tails, while others have wavy coats and long spirally, or fuzzy manes and tails, sometimes with double manes and sometimes not. Horses obtaining a curly gene from both parents will often display "extreme" curly characteristics: a very curly coat, with very sparse mane and tail hair. These horses are considered homozygous for curl, and generally product 100% curly offspring even from an out-cross. Breeding heterozygous horses generally produces 50% heterozygous offspring (curly), 25% homozygous offspring (extreme curly) and 25% smooth coat (straight haired offspring). Interestingly, many of the smooth coat horses produced by two curly parents are hypoallergenic and with a "bunny-hair" coat.




Curly Horse Successes


The North American Curly Horse owes its success to a small number of North American breeders who fell hopelessly i love with the Curly's charm and character. The breed is still very rare today, taken up by hobbyists and professional breeders. At this time there are two Curly Horse Registries: The American Bashkir Curly Horse Registry (ABCR) and the International Curly Horse Organization (ICHO).


The versatility of the Curly Horse has been proven in the dressage arena, the working ranch, in mountain rescue, riding clubs, hunts and rodeos. From a top quality pirouette to the fastest barrel racing time, to searching miles of wilderness in the Rockies, while in foal, to save downed mountain climbers. The Curly gives heart and soul to please. While other breeds have lost their mental capacity, or their bone, to over breeding and intense selection for the show ring, the Curly has a strong, healthy mind and body, mild temperament, perseverance, guts and a beautiful build. Additionally, the hypoallergenic coat has opened doors to some allergy sufferers to the sport of riding. Selected breeding over the years has produced fine quality animals that are something very special and unique. Something the Northern Plains Indians appreciate centuries ago.


Background Notes: The popularity of the Curly Horse grew in the 1950's - 1970's as more ranchers and breeders became involved with the Curly Horse. During these years, a movement to form a registry began and focused mainly on the Damele Family stock. Outcrosses to the Quarter Horse were strictly forbidden in the registry and thus several pedigrees are incomplete due to omission of Quarter Horse ancestors by breeders, especially in Canada. Historically, the Damele's have been given credit for the discovery and development of the Curly breed, although later research in Myth & Mystery shed light on other Euro-American breeders and their contribution to the Curly Horse. Only recently, have breeders begun to examine the Native American origins of the Curly Horse and give credit to the breeding skills of the Northern Plains and Central Basin Tribes. This article presents the first in -depth look at Native American relationships to the North American Curly Horse and shows that a sweeping arc from the Crow in Northern Wyoming, to the Sioux in the Dakotas and the Cheyenne in Southern Wyoming, to the Nez Perce in Idaho on down to Nevada can be drawn. Most likely, the distribution of the Curly Horse followed Native American Trade routes.


Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Donna Vickery for proof reading, fact checking and encouragement; Jackie Richardson for sources and information regarding the Fort Berthold legend; Bunny Reveglia for prompting discussion of Native Curly origins; and Sharon Williams for extensive discussion about John Knappes, copies of the Knappes letters and images, and information on the Native American relationship to the Curly Horse.


About the Author: Karen Zierler began working in Accounting, however, moved to the sciences completing a B.S. degree in Chemistry at the University of California, Irvine in 1990 under the direction of Dr. John J. Wasmouth, specializing in Human Genetics of the Huntington's Disease Gene. She went on to the University of Connecticut Health Center and the University of Cambridge England to work on her doctorate focusing on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to determine three dimensional protein structures. During the computer gaming craze between 1999-2001 she worked as a journalist, reviewer and editor for Games Domain Review. In 2003, she solved the protein structure of Human Cofilin in cooperation with the University of Cambridge, England and the FMP Berlin. Karen rode horses until the age of 20 when she became allergic. She is presently the first breeder of hypoallergenic North American Curly Horses in Austria.


Dedication: This article is dedicated to the memory of Sharon Williams.



 1. Myth and Mystery: The Curly Horse in America, Thomas, Shan, CS Fund, Inc., 1989

2. From the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institute Lakota Indian Winter Count Exhibits "...explanations of the entries in this exhibit are from information published by Garrick Mallery in 1893. This information came to Mallery from Lt. Hugh Reed, who got it  from Basil Clement, an interpreter at Ft. Sully, Dakota Territory, who had gotten the explanations from the original keeper, Lone Dog" according to records kept at the Smithsonian Institute.

3. "Ode to Ernie Hammrich" a short biography published as a eulogy by the International Curly Horse Organization, 2000

4. The Chief Red Horse (Tasunke Luta) ledger drawings (41 in total) documenting the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 1881. From the Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institute.

5. Indian Warriors at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 25-26 June 1876, Custer Battlefield Historical  & Museum  Association: the Cheyenne Agency 1926 and the Crazy Horse's Surrender Ledger. Also, Friends of the Little Big Horn Battlefield Warriors at Little Big Horn list with the additional reference: "Ledger", p.167; "Craige Letter"

6. The Chief Black Hawk ledge drawings (79 in total) documenting a dream and Lakota ways of life, 1880-1881. Smithsonian Institute.

7. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull, Robert M. Utley. Henry Hold and Company, Inc. NY, New York 1993.

8. The legend comes from three sources: The Niederhardts of Neidhardts Training Stall who received Eli Bad Warrior/Slim Berndt bred horses from Ernie Hammrich: Sharon Williams, who interviewed Ernie Hammrich for the report, Myth and Mystery: Te Curly Horse in America, and Donna Vickery who regularly spoke with Ernie Hammrich and received a large portion of his herd upon his death.

9. Bureau of Land Management  (BLM) records. The BLM routinely gathers wild horse herds at Standing Rock (as well as other locations), culling out selected horses for adoption to reduce  the population. The culled horses are listed on the BLM webpage during the adoption process, and generally several Curlies are in the group after each roundup - these are considered Curly Mustangs, or BLM Curlies

10. Following the Nez Perce Trail, Cheryl Wilfong, Oregon State University Press, 19990.

11. Sharon Williams, letters from John Knappes describing the Curly Horses of his herd, the Laramie Stud and his son, Rocket.

12. Verbal tradition, Joe Mead, renowned Curly Horse breeder who was married to a Nez Perce woman, Corrinne.

13. Article: History of the Curly Horse, by Sandy Hengstler (date unknown), sources listed: The Curly Horse in America - Myth and Mystery, Shan Thomas, with special assistance from David Gaier & Dr. Ann Bowling, 1989 C.S. Fund, Inc. This is a summary of the research project conducted in 1988 by the C. S. Fund Conservancy of Freestone, California, USA.

14. Verbal communication from Ole Skjonsberg to several Curly Horse breeders, including the published version by Deanna Johnson upon visiting the breeder, 2003.

15. ABCR pedigrees; and Canadian Curly Horse bloodline histories as personally communicated o the author, by sources wishing to remain anonymous.

16. ABC Registry records.