People visiting the Oakesmuir Bashkir Curly horse website belonging to Gregory and Sonja Oakes will find that it offers services in German and French, as well as English.
That seems somewhat fitting since the Oakes family will be hosting the annual general meeting of the American Bashkir Curly Horse Registry this summer at their farm – and they expect to attract people from all over the world who have fallen in love with the Bashkir Curly horse.
Sonja speaks German and will help translate for those who have difficulty at various seminars that will be part of the annual meeting program. The meeting will take place at their farm and at other venues in Guelph, where members will attend lectures and seminars with horse experts.
There are many theories about where the curly horse originated, and many think the “curly” part of the horse came from the Bashkir region of Russia, hence its name. Others think it came from the Lokai horses, of Tajikistan.
So far, there is no definite proof of the horse’s origin, but what is known is the earliest documented curly horses in North America were with Native Americans in the Winter Count of 1801-02.
Gregory Oakes said the Lakota Sioux and Crow, traditional feuding tribes, were documented as stealing curly horses, one from the other. And, he noted, curly horses were kept for generations by several ranching families in the United States.
The breed may go back even farther than that. He said a tomb found in China by archeologists had pictures from the Shang Dynasty of Six Heavenly Horses of the Warrior King. The dates for the Shang Dynasty, one of the first in ancient China, are given as c. 1600 – 1046 BC. One of the horses in the pictures had curly hair.
Gregory said there are lots of references to the curly horse in Europe, particularly Germany and Austria, and there are tales that Napoleon captured some of them and took them back to France.
He said because of their odd coats, many American ranchers mistakenly thought the horses were diseased, and slaughtered them.
Gregory Oakes is the current president of the American Bashkir Curly Registry, and he said there were many good horses lost to the breed due to that mistake.
He remembers Peter Paint, a famous curly, who was rescued by association members and who was in such poor condition he had to be nursed back to health for two years before he was in any condition to take up his career as a stud. He lived another five years.
It was a family in Nebraska, Gregory said, who saw a picture of a curly horse in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and decided that since they had a horse with similar curly hair, a curly horse is what it must be. Hence the “American” in the breeder registry name. That registry is recognized all over the world, and it accepts only offspring of curly horses.
Curly horses have several traits that make them unique.
They are hypo-allergenic, which means the horse is less likely to cause a person who is allergic to horses to have an allergic response. Often those symptoms are less severe – if they are present at all, and that allows people with allergies to enjoy curly horses when they cannot go near other breeds.
Of course, one of the dominant traits of the horse is its beautifully curled hair, but some horses with the curly horse genetics do not show much in the way of curly hair. Others, as Sonja puts it, “look like sheep,” because their hair is so curled.
Further, the horse is desirable because it comes in all the colours of the horse world, from roans and buckskins to paints and palominos. As for their abilities, curlies seem to do well in just about every discipline desired of a horse.
They are known for being versatile, hardy, gentle horses. They are actively used in most of the standard disciplines for other horses such as: competitive and classical dressage, hunter-jumper, eventing and combined driving. There have been curly horses used in the western disciplines of barrels, reining, gymkhana and Western pleasure.
They are also used as trail horses, pack horses, and search and rescue horses.They compete in endurance and competitive trail riding. Many are used as 4-H and Pony Club mounts or as therapeutic horses, and they are wonderful with children due to their gentle nature.
Sonja works with children who have difficulties relating to others, and she uses the curly horses for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning. She said it is amazing that children who have difficulty relating to people can bond so easily with a horse.
She said when those kids get onto the horse and are nervous, the horse seems to become nervous, too. Fortunately, the curly horse has a great temperament and can sense the mood of the rider.
She said it was instructive to watch as a nervous child became more confident on the horse, and the horse became more confident and easy to handle.
Sonja also noted the curly horse seems to be able to take its very competitive and athletic nature from competitions, and transfer to being docile when it comes to being with children. Her own daughters, Emily and Elana have been riding curly horses since they were 3 years old.
Curlies are also incredibly hardy.
Gregory said the farm’s horses are bred to foal in late May or early June, but one time a stallion got through a fence on the farm and, unknown to anyone, met up with a mare. Oakes said he was going to work early one morning on the coldest day of February, and he could not believe that he saw a foal in the pasture. The mare had the foal, and kept it alive all night in -32 degrees temperatures.
“It’s the perfect kind of horse for this weather,” said Sonja of the horse’s hardiness.
Elana and Emily immediately dubbed the new foal Chilly Willy.
It is alive and well on the farm today. Sonja said it simply goes to show how hardy the curly horses are.
She and Gregory started their farm in the mid 1990s. When they saw a picture of a curly horse, they considered buying it for a couple of days, and found they had waited too long.
It was sold. But they were intrigued and started looking for other curlies and wound up with the sire, dam and brother of the horse they had missed buying. The business was on its way.
They now own the largest herd of curly horses in Canada on their 94-acre farm along County Road 7, just north of Highway 6 and south of Ponsonby. The Oakesmuir Curly Horse operation has had as many as 80 head there, but it was down to 75 in February because the breeding and sales operation recently found new homes for several curlies. Sonja said they sell curlies all over the world and sales are particularly brisk in Europe, the southern United States and Alberta.
As the herd grew, so too did the farm operation. It now contains several paddocks and a riding ring, plus a trailer office. The business is coming together one piece at a time and, as Gregory noted, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Sonja said the Oakesmuir farm sold one curly horse to Germany, and that horse won the reining championship of Europe, in a discipline that is normally dominated by quarter-horses.
Others the farm has bred became top competitors in dressage and eventing, and one horse they sold “clears five feet [in jumping competitions] like there’s no tomorrow.”
Bringing in people
Sonja and Gregory Oakes are looking forward to hosting the 40th convention of the American Bashkir Curly Registry meeting July 31 to Aug. 2. The meetings have been held recently in Nevada, Calgary, Kentucky, Texas and, last year, in Germany.
Gregory has attended the last ten meetings, and said their bid to act as host was finally accepted. “Quite a few breeders want to showcase the convention.”
He said one reason the farm was chosen is, “People want to come here.” He cited Guelph’s educational facilities and the beauty of Centre Wellington Township. He said it is famous and the convention will be arranged so visitors can sightsee.
“It just seems right,” he said. Sonja added, “There’s just so much to see here.”
Gregory noted the Minto Cup of lacrosse will be held on that weekend, and at the Grand River Raceway’s Industry Day, the Battle of Waterloo will be run – another feature that is likely to attract horse lovers.
The Oakes family agrees that Wellington County is becoming a key horse area.
Sonja said horse operations have always been in the county, but the expansion of the equine program and facilities at the University in Guelph, the race track in Elora and easy shipping and airport access in Toronto means the area will continue to be important for horse breeders and other horse operations for a long time to come.