The Many Faces of Dressage: A Curly’s Perspective

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Join us on an exclusive first hand account of dressage riders, owners, and breeders and their unique mounts! This series will explore the dressage experience across a full spectrum of unconventional breeds, both large and small, with some familiar faces and some potentially unknown. These are the real life stories, from the humans that know and love them best.

The exact origin of the American/Bashkir Curly Horse is unknown, but they are thought to be an ancient breed. They have been depicted in art and statuary in early China as far back as 161 AD. A unique gene that gives the breed their distinguishable curly hair. Research indicates a protein is missing from the hair of Curlys which may be what causes allergic reactions to horses in allergy sufferers, possibly making them hypoallergenic. The Curlys are known for their calm, intelligent and friendly personality.

Two Curly owners, Lynda McNeely and Abigail Anna May Pulling, give us a glimpse of what life is like with these teddy bear horses.

By Lynda McNeely

How did I get started with a Curly? To tell the truth, I had never heard of the breed until I was looking for a horse. My trainer, Sue Kolstad, had trained several Curlys for a breeder, Sandy Hendrickson, from Indianapolis. Sue knew I needed a non-spooky horse as I was coming from a very spooky Arabian. She arranged for me to try two of Sandy’s Curlys, both of which proved their wonderful disposition to me. However, one of them did not pass the vet and the other one was way out of my price range.

A baby teddy bear horse named Spar Trek.

I became drawn to the breed from the uniqueness of their coats and their calm personalities. Sue knew of Spar Trek from when he was a weanling and discovered he had just come on the market, and he was in my price range. However, buying a three-year-old unbroken stallion was not on my list of to-dos… I put blind faith in Sue and took the leap. And quickly had him gelded!!!

As far as health and conformational issues go, I am not aware that this breed has any issues other than normal problems that occur with all horses everywhere. I do know the Baskir Curly supposedly originates in a cold climate with speculation that they come from Russia, and they have smaller nostrils so the cold air doesn’t interfere with their breathing as much, at least according to one theory but I have no scientific evidence to support that. Some theories support the claim that the curly coat comes from a specific gene and can show up in any breed. I have competed against a purebred American Quarter Horse that had a curlier coat than my horse!

Marley’s curls are visible in his mane and tail.

One of the more interesting characteristics of the Curly breed is that they are considered the poodle of the horse world. Many full-blooded Curly horses are hypoallergenic, and they have become a popular choice for many horse lovers who are allergic to other horses.

Sandy Hendrickson created a Curly sport horse bloodline from her famous stallion, Spartacus. Although he was homozygous, he did have some Arabian in his bloodlines, and he was more refined than many Curlys I have observed elsewhere. Due to his athletic ability which he passed on to his foals, there were no major issues in dressage as I would expect there to be from the body types of many other stouter Curlys I have seen.

As far as trainability and temperament issues are concerned, the Curlys I have met from Sandy’s breeding program, including my own, have been very trainable and easy to deal with. Sandy crossed her stallion mostly with a Morgan mare, a few Thoroughbred mares and an occasional warmblood, so her Curlys were not purebred. However, they were all curly coated because of their father being homozygous.

Because Sandy’s sport horses were a mixture of many other breeds, her Curly horses were more a coat than a body type. The only specific attire or considerations regarding my Curly, who was a black and white paint, would be matching my jacket and saddle pad! He had very good feet, and I kept him barefoot until he got to Third and Fourth Level. Since there was so much variation in footing at shows I was just being careful by shoeing him.

Lynda and Marley in the show ring.

The best part of owning and showing this breed was all the attention I got at the shows for having a Curly! It was so fun! And when I let his mane grow he had dreadlocks! He had so much hair that I put braids on both sides of his neck; it was really cool! The other highlight was that there was not a lot of competition for Horse of the Year in the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards! So my horse won it every year through Prix St. Georges.

When I first purchased Spar Trek, my goal was to get to Second Level and maybe do a freestyle. My trainer had other ideas! With her help, I competed through PSG and got all my scores for my USDF Bronze and Silver Medals, on my 15h paint “pony”! I then “loaned” him out to 3 other riders so they could get their final PSG scores for their silver medals. Spar Trek (barn name Marley) became known as Marley the Medal Maker.

Due to injury, he was retired at 18 and is now living out his retirement at my daughter’s farm in St. Louis.

“Medal Maker” Marley teaches the next generation of dressage riders.


By Abigail Anna May Pulling

I’ve owned Curly for two and a half years. As his name suggests, Curly is a Bashkir Curly.

Nobody knows where the Bashkir Curly breed originated, though there are some hypotheses. Curlies will grow a curly or wavy coat in the winter versus the straight/flat coat of other breeds. Most Curlies have manes and tails that grow in ringlets/waves but there are some that won’t grow manes or tails more than an inch long. Some of them have manes and tails in the winter but shed them out in the summer. The hair usually does require a bit more maintenance than other breeds. Curlies are also known for being incredibly intelligent and not spooky.

I purchased my gelding from a hunter-jumper barn in South Carolina just before he turned 8. He was used in their lesson program and was consistently jumping 2+ feet. To my knowledge, he’d had no dressage training before I bought him, so we were venturing into new territory together when I decided to take dressage lessons.

Most Curlies won’t have the typical build/conformation that you would look for in an upper level dressage prospect. They tend to be shorter and stockier. Although I wasn’t looking specifically for a dressage horse, I got lucky with Curly. He is quite a bit taller than most Curlies, taping at 16.1 hh, and has a naturally uphill build.

He is very clever, a good quality to have, but also a bit of a pain when he doesn’t want to do something. He learns new activities very quickly, but he also learns every possible way he can to take the easy route out of things! I can imagine with the breed being known for their intelligence that it would be something a lot of other Curly owners would encounter with their horses. Curly is incredibly well tempered and a sweet, sweet horse. He is loved by everybody who meets him and is just an awesome horse to have around the barn!

I started dressage lessons with Curly about 7 months after I purchased him. It was amazing seeing the difference in how he carried himself. He went from hollow with his head straight in the air to learning how to use himself properly. He started putting his head down, lifting his back and using his hind end properly. He went from a horse that was unhappy to be doing work to a relaxed, happy horse who was willing and much more comfortable to ride. If you’ve never ridden the trot of a horse that is rounded, lifting its back and using its hind end properly, you are seriously missing out He’s a much stronger, happier and healthier horse and it makes for a much more enjoyable ride.

I’ve only participated in two shows with Curly thus far. But we came away with a first place and two second places! Luckily for me, dressage doesn’t dock points on whether or not my horse has a tail, haha! He’s not the most commonly seen breed in dressage (or anywhere for that matter) but he does really well with dressage and I’m going to keep with it!


Do you compete on a Curly? One of USDF’s Particitpating All Breeds Organizations is the Curly Sporthorse International. For more great resources for Clydesdale owners and future owners, visit the Curly Sporthorse International website.

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