LUNENBURG - The American Bashkir Curly can do for horse lovers what the Bichon Friese has done for dog lovers, removing the problem of allergies from the equation of ownership.
The Curly, named for its tightly curled winter coat, is now being studied in the U.S. for its hypo-allergenic qualities but for a breeder near this Stormont County community the verdict is already in.
Karalee Bell, who along with her husband, Ron, runs Whirlwind Farms, has eight of the rare breed - there are only 3,000 worldwide - and says "they're like peanuts. You can't stop at one." The Bells also raise Herefords and Hereford crosses on Whirlwlind Farm.
They displayed all eight, including the newest addition, a May 21 foal named Whirlwind Whisper, at the Stormont County Fair over the Labour Day weekend, drawing a steady stream of the curious despite being tucked away back among the farm implement dealers.
Bell, who loves horses despite her allergy and has had to give up on owning other breeds, happened on the American Curly about four years ago and began the arduous task of tracking down breeders.
He managed to find one in Indiana who sent her a bag of hair clipped from one of her own Curlies and when Bell's allergies didn't kick in she was sold on the breed. They then tracked down another breeder in Blomingdale, NY, and purchased two mares. They now have a stud, four mares and three foals, including Whisper.
She's done likewise for others who have contacted her through her website and breeder groups and has watched as in the past few years the Curly's popularity has increased, especially in Europe.
The Curly is usually about the size and has the conformation of the early Morgan - - although it can come in pony and draft sizes. It has a distinctive winter coat, ranging in texture from tight curls resembling a Persian lamb astrakhan to the less distinct look of crushed velvet. Its summer coat varies from short and sleek to longer wavy hair.
And the distinctiveness doesn't stop with the coat. Its tail and mane fall in Shirley Temple-like ringlets, the double mane falling on either side of the neck.
And it has curled eyelashes that Maybelline would die for.
Foals are born with the curly coat regardless of the time of year they arrive and gradually adopt the dual coat of adults. Some also shed their tails and manes, which always grow back.
The uniquely round-shafted hair has the same qualities as alpaca wool and is commonly used for spinning and weaving, Bell said.
The Curly's origins are obscure although they've been depicted in Asian art dating back to the second century A.D. The Bashkir in the breed's name comes from Russia, where a curly Bashkir was photographed in 1938.
How they got to North America is shrouded in the mists of prehistory and the earliest reference to them is in an early 19th century aboriginal pictograph showing that in the winter of 1801-02 the Sioux relieved the Crow of some of the animals.
A significant location of the Curlies has been traced to reservations in North and South Dakota and many of the animals have been acquired from the herds of wild horses that still roam parts of the western U.S.
Work on establishing the breed started in the mountains of Nevada late in the last century and they've been domesticated, bred and raised by ranchers throughout the U.S. and western Canada. Because of their rarity they have been outbred, resulting in them coming in a wide palette of colourings including Appaloosa and Pinto. The breed registry was established in Ely, Nevada, in 1971.
The tightly curled winter coat - which has the same qualities as alpaca, according to Bell - is not the only indication that it evolved as an animal admirably adapted to the cold.
The curly hair extends into the ears, the horse has perfectly round hooves, it has an extra layer of body fat and a high concentration of red blood cells, which make up for the animal's small nostrils.
Information provided by the American Bashkir Curly (ABC) Registry and corroborated by the Bells show that the Curly is a hardy, curious, well-dispositioned breed that responds well to handling and which can perform any number of tasks, ranging from trail riding to ranch work to English equitation, dressage and pleasure driving. The ABC's motto for the breed is that it is gentle enough for a child and tough enough for a man.
The Bells' horses attest to the breed's mountain or cold weather origins, staying outside year round and coming into the barn only to foal
They are among a handful of breeders in Ontario and the only ones east of Toronto, although with the internet they are in contact with breeders, fanciers and the just plain curious around the world.
Karalee has also returned the favour of the Indiana breeder who mailed her the hair several years ago to test her allergies, sending out similar packages, especially to Europe where the Curly is gaining a devoted following.
She pointed out that those with very severe allergies to horses will still react to the Curly, just as those with severe allergies to dogs will react to the generally hypo-allergenic Bichon Friese or other curly-haired dogs.
There are several Curly breeders in western Canada and the breed's growing popularity in this country will be recognized next year when the breed association holds its convention in Calgary, marking the first time it has ever met outside Nevada .
Bell has her own web page at www.angelfire.com/on/whirlwindcurlies, and the ABC's internet site is www.abcregistry.org/