SALEM, Ohio – Chuck and Mary Mead have grown accustomed to the stares their horses often get during trail rides and public appearances. And the Salem couple can usually answer their most-asked question before they even hear it: It’s not a perm.
The Meads are one of few Ohio breeders of American Bashkir Curly horses, a breed with limited exposure but growing interest.
“Even people who are familiar with horses ask about them,” said Chuck Mead.
Curly coats. The horses are unique because their coat, mane and tail more closely resemble a poodle than a Quarter Horse.
The animals’ coats vary in curliness depending on their genetics as well as the season. Tighter curls that cover the animal during the winter shed throughout the spring and summer to reveal a more wavy and smoother looking coat. The fine, silky hair in the horses’ manes and tails also thins out during warmer months.
The animals are also unique because their coats seem to be hypoallergenic, which means people who otherwise have allergic reactions to horses can tolerate this breed. Chuck Mead is one of those people allergic to horse hair.
“I can’t stand to brush out the other horses because I get watery eyes and get to sneezing. With the Curlies, I don’t have any of that trouble,” he said of the three Curlies and two Tennessee Walkers he owns at Misty Moon Stables.
Breed history. The Bashkir Curly gets it name from an ancient Russian breed, the Bashkir, from which the modern Curly is believed to have descended. The prevailing theory of their existence in the United States explains the horses came across the Bering Strait land bridge from Russia during the last Ice Age.
Evidence also shows that Sioux and Crow Indians had Curly horses in the early 1800s, and the horses are also found among the Indian tribes in present-day Alaska.
Trail riders staked claim to the breed’s modern-day discovery in 1898 in the mountains of central Nevada, and the lineages of many Curlies in the United States can be traced to that herd. Other lineages are traced to Indian reservations in the Dakotas.
Curlies have been acquired from the wild horses that roam the lands of the western United States, and have been domesticated, bred and raised by ranchers across North America.
Blood registry. The American Bashkir Curly Registry was established in 1971 by breeders to protect the unique animals from extinction. Today there are roughly 2,500 Curlies registered worldwide. According to Mead, there are only three breeders in Ohio. Other horses are registered from Canada, Australia, Germany and Sweden.
Research examining blood types has also found that the modern horse is not a genetically distinct breed, but has been crossed with many other breeds, particularly Quarter Horses and Morgans. The closed association registers full-blooded animals by blood type only.
“Every time there’s a new baby, we’ve got to send some hair from the mane or tail so they can test that to be sure” of the animal’s heritage and qualifications for registry, Mead said.
The group tests animals in order to ensure the breed doesn’t get too ‘watered down’ in crosses with other breeds. Because the horses transmit the curly characteristics to offspring half of the time, even when mated to horses without the curly coat, preserving some degree of breed purity is a goal. A registry formed in Kentucky, however, will register half-blooded Curlies, Mead said.
Stable start. Growing up in East Palestine, neither Mead had much horse experience, although Mary used to clean stalls and go riding with a neighbor. Chuck never had an interest and admittedly was “scared to death of horses.”
Soon after their marriage in the early ’70s, the couple got their first Tennessee Walker. Through the years, the couple has also owned Quarter Horses.
After seeing Curlies on the cover of Horse Illustrated magazine, Chuck Mead returned from a meeting of the Beaver Creek Horseman’s Association and announced to his family that he would someday own one. The search started in 1997, and after months of searching and phone calls to the national registry in Nevada, Mead found a horse for sale in southern Ohio.
“We drove down to see him, and he was standing in the corner of the pen, kind of caked with mud. My first reaction was to wonder if we came all that way just for that,” Mead said. However, two weeks later, the family returned to close the deal and brought the 10-month-old stud, Geronimo, home to Salem.
Rounding out Mead’s Curlies are 4-year-old Rose and her foal, Saddie Mae. Mead intends to maintain and increase the number of animals in his breeding herd, but also has plans to sell the foal this year.
Horses listed in classifieds on the national registry’s Web site are selling between $1,500 and $4,500, though other sites list animals as low as $550.
Pleasant attitude. “The best thing about the Curlies is their unbelievable disposition,” Mead said, noting the horses are known for their gentle nature, curiosity and need for human companionship.
The couple frequently takes their horses riding at Beaver Creek.
“We always let everyone know we’re riding a stallion, but I wouldn’t hesitate to let children ride him,” Mead said. The breed has been described as “strong enough for a man but gentle enough for a child” by breeders and the national organization.
The breed has also been featured in the Rose Bowl Parade, as well as at various equine events, including Equine Affaire in Columbus.
Intelligence. The breed is also known for its “ability, durability, and intelligence,” Mead said, who also describes them as easy keepers.
“It doesn’t take much to feed them, even when there’s a ton of snow on the ground. That’s how they survived in the mountains of the West when everything else died, because they knew how to find food,” he said.
Both Meads also believe the Curlies are more content during colder weather than their other horses.
“Even on the coldest winter days, the horses are out there running around. We hardly ever see the stud inside,” Chuck Mead said.
The couple also enjoys trail rides with the Curlies, which they describe as “stronger than all the other breeds.”
“We take these guys out for hours, up and down hills and through the water, and when the Walkers are tired, these guys want to keep going,” Chuck Mead said.
The breed is also valued by trail riders because of their hard hooves – adapted to the rocky and mountain conditions – that don’t require shoes. The Meads, however, shoe their horses as a precaution.
No intentions. Pleasure seems to motivate the Meads to keep the Curlies, and they have no intentions to show the animals.
“It’s just not in me to get into serious showing. I like to ride and have fun,” Mead said, noting his commute to Cleveland, where he teaches middle school social studies, and his wife’s commute to Akron General Medical Center, leave little time for show ring dreams.
“There’s something in the curl of their hair that keeps you going back for more, and it’s a shame some people don’t realize what the breed is all about. For us, they really are a treasure to have,” Mead said.
Chuck Mead welcomes visitors to his Salem-area stable. For more information, contact him at 330-222-0068.
(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)