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Curly eyelashes, frizzy bangs, soft brown eyes, and a coat like lamb's wool. A real horse? Not a cartoon character, or a stuffed toy?

You betcha, these are real horses! Known to their owners as "curlies," the appearance of this breed appeals to the softer side of the horse lovers; they are just so darned cute.

The curly hair is present from birth. It shows up in the ear hair, on the fetlocks, in manes and tails, and in the body hair. Each spring, the curlies shed their body curls, which then returns with the cold weather coat. But the flirtatious eyelashes, the wavy manes and the kinky tails stay all year.

No one is quite sure where these horses came from. Varying theories have had them descending from the Russian Bashkirs (until the Russians said they don't have curly horses) or from Iceland. Early Chinese hieroglyphics depict horses with curly coats. Some have professed that they came across the Bering Strait when it was ice covered, but that ignores the scientific fact data showing that all horses went extinct on the North American continent during the last great ice age, and were not re-introduced until the Spaniards brought them in the 1700's, nearly 10,000 years after the ice melted.

The earliest record of a curly horse in America is in the book of years of a Sioux chief in what is now North Dakota. In 1802, he recorded, "curly horse stolen from Crow." In those days of sparse records, an event had to be important to be recorded; the curly animals must have meant much to the chief to be so specifically noted.

The curl comes from a specific gene in the DNA. It differs from regular horsehair in that it shows up as round, rather than flat, under a microscope. Because of this distinction, even the smooth summer coats won't achieve the shine of normal, healthy horsehair. But to curlie lovers, that slight disadvantage is out-weighed by the other endearing characteristics of the breed.

Something about curly hair makes it hypoallergenic. Whether that's due to the curl holding dust and dander closer to the body, or to some other thing, isn't yet known. But it is known that many people who are allergic to horses can tolerate the presence of curlies without reaction.

The discussion about whether the curls, which can range from a slightly wavy mane to all-over kinky, indicate a breed or a style of coat, is a lively one among the owners, the registries, and scientists. The curly coats show up randomly in all horses, all over the world, from ponies to draft horses, and some breeders, preferring a sleek look to a fuzzy one, consider it to be a defect. But curly horse lovers have claimed that along with the curly gene, their beloved animals have, as a group, other special traits.

Their trainers swear they are smarter, with longer memories, than other breeds. Once they learn something, they don't forget. This makes them easier for people to train even if they can't work with their horses every day. There's no need to go back to "square one" and re-learn old lessons.

Some owners love the playfulness of curlies, and their more-than-usual willingness to become a part of "their" human's lives. "I swear he has a sense of humor," said one participant on the curliestrue message board at elist.com. They also say these cute critters are more patient, more forgiving of beginners' mistakes, have the stamina of three other horses on a third less food, and are more creative than other horses. "They're easier keepers," the owners say, "and they figure out how to get out of situations that another horse would panic over."

Rather than run from a new situation, as is typical of a horse's "turn tail and flee" tendency, curlies tend to stand and face the world with curiosity and calmness.

The breed was near extinction when, following an especially severe northern Nevada winter, Benny Damele noticed that his curly stock, gathered from the wild herds of the southwestern desert, had survived better than any of the others. He discovered that stamina and sturdiness went along with the curly look, and he began them as the foundation stock for his ranch herds.

Even though they are on the small side, averaging approximately 15 hands, and they are solidly built, with short backs and beefy haunches. The hooves usually are so firm they resist chipping even on the roughest terrain or pavement and rarely need to be shod. Their eyes are almond shaped and set far back on the sides of their heads, which gives them outstanding peripheral vision.

In 1978, the American Bashkir Curly Association established a registry headquartered in Eli, Nevada, in an effort to promote and save the unique horses. Until January 1, 2000, any horse showing evidence of a curly coat could be registered with the ABC as foundation stock. After that date, no horse could be registered unless it came out of the ABC listed horses, which totaled about 3,000 at the time of closure. Another group of curlie promoters formed a second registry, expressing the opinion that, among other things, any horse that had a curly coat was a "curly," that the gene pool at the ABC was too small, and it was too early to limit the research base.

The two groups sometimes work together, sometimes embroil themselves in feuds fueled by ongoing DNA studies to determine not only which genes do what, but also, where the ancestral breeds might exist in modern times.

Whether or not the owners are active politically, they are part of a horse culture that borders on the obsessive. Few curlies remain in the wild herds; the word that a curly has been included in a round-up of horses to be put up for adoption by the Bureau of Land Management brings wanna-be curly owners in droves. The charm of these remarkable horses, combined with the drama of a wild horse, is an irresistible combination.