Rare Horse Breeds

Perhaps you’ve seen them only in books and magazines. Or you’ve glimpsed a flash of gold through a wooded trail that became a Norwegian Fjord. Or you’ve encountered the fairy-tale horse with ringlets, whose patient owner explained that was indeed a Bashkir Curly.

This issue, we look at five rare and unusual equine breeds that excel on the trail: the Bashkir Curly, the Kiger Mustang, the Mangalarga Marchador, the Montana Travler, and the Norwegian Fjord Horse. Read on to learn more about these breeds and discover why you’ll enjoy taking them down any trail.

Bashkir Curly
Number registered:
4,900 worldwide. (U.S. numbers unavailable.)

History highlights: According to the American Bashkir Curly Registry, curly-coated horses were immortalized in Chinese art as early as 161 A.D. But it remains a mystery how the breed arrived in the Americas. Some theorize the horses crossed a former land bridge over the Bering Strait; others say they arrived in the Northwest with Russian settlers in the 1700s. Still others believe they arrived along with the horses of Spanish explorers, then established wild herds in the American Southwest. Pictographs from the early 1800s show Sioux and Crow Indian tribes riding horses with curly coats.

There’s less mystery, however, regarding when the modern-day history of the American Bashkir Curly began: In 1898, a young man named Peter Damele and his father were riding in the Peter Hanson Mountains of central Nevada’s high country when they came upon three horses with coats of tightly curled ringlets. The family used these horses to begin a breeding program. Many of today’s Bashkir Curly horses trace back to the Damele herd.

Bashkir Curly Resources

American Bashkir Curly Association
(775) 289-4999; www.abcregistry.org

Bear Paw Ranch Curly Horses
(406) 295-4482;

Curly Horse Ranch
(661) 944-4820;

CSHA Trail Trials (559) 325-1055;

Oakesmuir Curly Horses
(519) 822-1211;

Rocky Ridge Farm
(859) 356-0479

In 1971, the American Bashkir Curly Registry was founded to register qualified horses, save the breed from extinction, and promote the breed.

Breed description: The Bashkir Curly has a short body coat that feels like crushed velvet. Over the body coat, he grows a thick, curly winter coat that often has ringlets several inches long. Individual hairs are round instead of flat, like other horsehair; tests reveal that Bashkir Curly hair is more closely related to mohair than common horsehair. The breed has wide-set eyes with curled eyelashes. The horse’s back is short, and he has a deep heartgirth, heavily boned legs, and short cannon bone. The Curly averages 15 hands high, and 800 to 1,000 pounds.

Marks of distinction: With tongue-in-cheek, Greg and Sonja Oakes of Oakesmuir Curly Horses in Ontario, Canada, tell us that their horses are nothing to sneeze at. “People with allergies to other breeds often discover that the Bashkir Curly is totally different,” Sonja says. In fact, the breed’s thick, wavy coats don’t trigger the allergic reactions other breeds may cause.

“The horses’ coats also provide them with a unique heating and cooling system,” adds Greg. “Their thick, curly winter coat repels rain and snow. Underneath, air is trapped near their short haircoat next to their bodies, keeping them warm. In spring, they shed their outer coat, so they’re cool in summer. It’s an exceptional feature, really.”

Owners also extol the breed’s calm, gentle temperament; dense bone; tough, round hooves; intelligence; and remarkable memory.

On the trail: Marni Malet of Bear Paw Ranch Curly Horses in Troy, Montana, owned Thoroughbreds until she bought a Bashkir Curly for her grandchildren. “They’re like potato chips: You can’t have just one!” she says.

Malet, who lives in the Purcell Mountains, has bred trail-ready Bashkir Curly horses since 1997. Three of her broodmares trace to the Damele herd. “The Curlys are awesome trail horses,” she says. “They’re strong and have tremendous endurance. Here in the mountains, you never know when you might come upon elk, deer, moose, cougar, or bear, so I also appreciate the calm nature and common sense these horses have. They’re versatile, too. I sold one horse to an owner who rides in Pasadena’s Rose Parade every year.”

Jim Washington of Southern California can confirm that, as he and his family also traditionally ride their Curlys in the Rose Parade. Washington, his wife, their two children, and his mother-in-law are all devoted to the breed. “It’s the glue that binds us,” he says. “The Curly’s sweet, calm disposition and solid bone structure make him exceptional for the trail-riding family. And they’re great competitors – we’ve won many [California State Horsemen’s Association-sanctioned] Trail Trials with our Curly Horses.”

Kiger Mustang
Number registered:
550 foundation stock, either from the wild, carrying a Bureau of Land Management brand, or the inspected offspring of foundation stock; 60 Half-
Kiger Mustangs, with one registered foundation stock parent.

History highlights: After the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, the BLM was entrusted with the wild herds’ protection, management, and control, notes Kiger Mesteño Association registrar Shauna Dingus.

In 1977, BLM wild horse specialist E. Ron Harding discovered that horses in the remote area of Beatty’s Butte in Oregon displayed the primitive color and conformation of Spanish mustangs. Eventually, genetic tests at the University of Kentucky confirmed Spanish markers in their blood.

Many of today’s Kigers can be traced back to foundation stallion Mesteño, which means “wild” or “unclaimed” horse in Spanish. The stallion and his band of mares were captured in the original Beatty’s Butte roundup. In 1996, at about age 27, the stallion was released in the Kiger Herd Management Area in southeastern Oregon, one of two such areas set aside by Harding to protect the Kigers in the wild. (The other is known as the Riddle Herd Management Area.) Mesteño’s life, from colt to aged stallion, is depicted in a Breyer Horse Series called “Mesteño.”

In 1988, the Kiger Mesteño Association was formed to protect and preserve both wild and captive Kigers. Depending on wild herd numbers, opportunity for adoption through the BLM usually occurs every three years. The Kiger Mustang gives hope that at least one herd of American horses seems well-managed in the wild and treasured in their adopted homes.

Breed description: The Kiger Mustang has dun and grulla coloration, with dun markings. His ears are pointed and slightly tipped in at the top; his head is clean-cut, with prominent eyes. He has a deep, well-muscled chest; crested neck; short, broad back; dense bone; and compact hoof. Breed members average 13.2 to 15.2 hands high.

Marks of distinction: The Kiger Mustang’s dun coloration is uniquely eye-catching. The breed carries dominant genes, which provide primitive dun factor markings, including dorsal strip, zebra-striped legs, arm bars, bi-colored mane and tail, and facial mask.

Kiger Mustang Resources

Kiger Mesteño Association
(530) 865-1584

Flying D Kigers
(530) 865-1584

Horse Springs Kiger Ranch
(253) 887-7954

Mud Ranch Kigers
(530) 778-0241

Owners say that while the Kiger’s beautiful coat may initially catch one’s attention, the breed’s calm temperament and athletic toughness make it particularly suited for the trail. Natural selection, which strengthened the herds and ensured their survival in the wild, now benefits captive Kigers and their offspring.

On the trail: Kim Kellogg of Horse Springs Kiger Ranch in Auburn, Washington, who owns a baker’s dozen Kiger Mustangs, adopted her first in 1993. She’s explored many trails in the Pacific Northwest, but her favorites are in the Tiger Mountain State Forest near Issaquah, Washington. There, 36 miles of trails through dense forests of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, and vine maple provide a relaxing respite for riders only 40 minutes from downtown Seattle.

“Kigers are sound, sturdy, and surefooted, and they pay attention to where they’re going,” Kellogg says. “And they don’t panic.” She’d know: She was aboard her 4-year-old Kiger filly when they encountered a cougar on Tiger Mountain. “It was only my filly’s second trail ride, and she calmly allowed me to guide her out of danger.”

Kellogg also owns popular stallion My Kiger Tiger. “He’s the horse I give kids rides on, a testament to the Kiger’s wonderful temperament,” she notes.

Simon and Joan Gross of Mud Ranch Kigers in Lewiston, California, own both BLM-adopted and captive-bred Kiger Mustangs. “We ride in the Trinity Alps of northwest California, to Buckhorn Summit and Grass Valley Lake,” she says. “Kigers are level-headed and interested in the trail. They like having a job and seeing new sights. And I trust them to be surefooted and get me where we’re going. I simply can’t imagine a better partner on the trail than the Kiger.”

Mangalarga Marchador
Number registered: 90 in the United States.

History highlights: The Mangalarga Marchador originated in Brazil in the early 1740s, when the foundation stallion Sublime was crossed on Spanish Jennets, Andalusians, and Criollos. His offspring were used to work on Brazil’s vast cattle ranches and haciendas. Today, the Mangalarga Marchador is the national horse of Brazil. Strict inspection procedures in Brazil, comparable to Warmblood inspections in Germany, require that only horses of sound conformation, excellent gait, and good attitude are allowed to breed.

Lynn Kelley, a founder and president of the United States Mangalarga Marchador Association, tells us that the first Marchadors were imported to the United States in the early 1990s by Brazilians, who sold their stallion and three mares to the Guerra family of Miami.

In the meantime, Tresa Smith of Lazy T Ranch in Montana fell in love with the Marchador while working in Brazil. When she retired in 2001, she brought her breeding stock back to Big Sky Country. In 2004, Christiana Guerra, Tresa Smith, Lynn Kelley, and her husband, John Kelley, founded the USMMA. The most recent group of Marchadors was imported by Susan Neumann of Cascade Marchadores in Oregon. Today, the association is working to make possible the importation of frozen semen and frozen embryos from Brazil.

Breed description: “The long tradition of inspection before breeding has insured that the Marchadors have sound conformation, with lots of bone and very good feet,” says Lynn. “They have an easygoing nature and kindness that make them easy to train, and a wonderful family horse.” The Marchador stands between 14.2 and 16 hands high, and weighs 850 to 1,100 pounds.

Mangalarga Marchador Resources

Cascade Marchadors
(541) 480-4036

Montana Mangalarga Marchadors
(406) 225-3666;

Rancho de los Cielos
(951) 780-9389; tlongojm@aol.com

Summerwind Marchadors
(480) 683-8848;

United States Mangalarga Marchador Association
(480) 683-8848;

Marks of distinction: The Marchador is named for the smooth, marching gaits unique to the breed: the marcha picada and the marcha batida. “Both have four beats, and provide triple hoof support,” Lynn explains. “The picada features lateral movement of the legs, the batida is on the diagonal. Either provides a super-comfortable ride; personal preference and terrain determine which you use. The Marchador does not trot or pace, but moves easily from the marching gait into a beautiful canter.”

The Marchador has also been bred with a work ethic and stamina that suits the trail. In 1994, the Marchador entered the Guinness Book of World Records for longest endurance ride, 8,694 miles.

On the trail: The Kelleys own and operate Summerwind Marchadors, with a current herd of 14. “We live in the Southwest and love to ride trails in Monument Valley,” Lynn says. “We’re also moving some of our horses to our new ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and we’re looking forward to riding in the Rockies, too! They were bred to work, and their athleticism and surefootedness on the trail is reassuring.

“The smooth gait of the Marchadors seems to please riders of both gaited and nongaited horses,” Lynn adds. “But perhaps most of all, we love Marchadors for their intelligence and sweet temperament. They like to put their energy and enthusiasm to use! We’ve found our perfect horse in the Marchador.”

Montana Travler
Number registered:
568 in the United States.

History highlights: In the 1930s, Tom Eaton of Montana began combining the bloodlines of the Tennessee Walker, Morgan, American Saddlebred, Thoroughbred, and Hamiltonian in a search for “the perfect horse.” By the early 1970s, his breeding resulted in an eye-catching, ground-covering chestnut stallion.

Montana Travler (A1) walked at a brisk eight miles per hour, with a giant eight-inch-plus overstep. He trained easily and sired offspring of exceptional quality. This success motivated Eaton to found the Montana Travler Horse Association in 1979, writing, “Justin Morgan established a breed from one outstanding stallion. The Montana Travler is the result of not only a great stallion, but selective breeding over a period of many years.”

The Montana Travler Horse Association was formed in 1979. In 1989, the Montana Travler was selected to be the official Montana Centennial breed.

Montana Travler Resources

Diamond Hitch Outfitters
(800) 368-5494;

Mark Blomquist
(435) 201-2211;

Bridger Outfitters
(406) 388-4463;

Donovan Ranch
(406) 222-3352;

Miner Creek Ranch
(406) 222-8015

Montana Travler Horse Association
(406) 222-8015;

Penny Knoll ~ Mel Atkinson ~Montana Travlers
(406) 994-6139;

Spreading Winge Ranch
(406) 326-6970;

Breed description: The Montana Travler has great heartgirth depth, stamina, an excellent topline with withers that help keep a saddle in place, a strong back tied into a powerful hip, sound conformation, strong feet, and a willing temperament. They are narrow horses, but deep chested, which gives them enhanced lung capacity for endurance. Because it was bred to travel mountain trails, pack, and work cattle, the breed is surefooted and brave.

The registry is open: A colt with one registered parent may be inspected to earn official registration. To be registered, a horse must be 3 years old, presented under saddle to three directors, inspected, and approved. At inspection, the horse must display conformation, gaits, and disposition characteristic of the Montana Travler. In the summer of 2005, a new provision insured that foals with two registered parents are assured official status.

Mark of distinction: The ground-covering walk, described above, is the breed’s hallmark. Mark Blomquist, MTHA secretary/treasurer, says the horses’ strong hips are key. “And their back stays completely flat while you eat up the ground,” he adds. “It’s a super-smooth ride.”

On the trail: Blomquist lives in Gardiner, Montana, just north of the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Even though his father was friends with Tom Eaton, who developed the Montana Travler, he tried other breeds. Then he met a Montana Travler on the trail.

“I was riding 23 miles into a beautiful spot called Carpenter Lake and, by chance, rode about 15 miles with a man aboard his Montana Travler,” Blomquist says. “I had to trot and lope my horse just to keep up with his walk; you can imagine that caught my attention. Later, I had the opportunity to ride his horse on the way out, and that was it. I decided to get a Montana Travler for myself!”

Today Blomquist owns 12 purebred horses. “I ride rocky trails and these horses don’t stumble, they’re very surefooted, and they stay sound. The downside? Turning down all the offers to buy them. I can’t bear to sell my Montana Travlers.”

MTHA president Mark Engle has the last word: “Montana Travlers are the ultimate mountain horse.”

Norwegian Fjord
Number registered:
5,078 in the United States.

History highlights: One of the oldest and purest equine breeds, the Norwegian Fjord Horse was domesticated more than 4,000 years ago, and has been selectively bred for half of that time. Ancient Viking burial sites reveal remains of these horses.

The Norwegian people consider the Fjord a national treasure, inextricably connected to their country’s pride. At an international conference in 1996, the Norges Fjordhestlag (the Norwegian Fjord Horse Association) released this poetic tribute to the breed: “The eyes should be like the mountain lakes on a midsummer evening, big and bright. A bold bearing of the neck like a lad from the mountains on the way to his beloved. Well-defined withers like the contours of the mountains set against an evening sky. The temperament as lively as a waterfall in spring, and still good natured.”Breed description: The Fjords’ small but powerfully built bodies exude substance and strength; their movement is elegant and collected. Owners extol their charming, kind personalities. Fjords are well-muscled, with broad backs, deep heartgirths, clean legs, and flat, substantive bone. Their gaits are straight, true, and well-balanced at the walk, trot, and canter; their hind hooves overstep their front hoofprints at the walk and trot. Generally, Norwegian Fjords stand 13.2 to 14.2 hands high, and weigh 900 to 1,000 pounds.

Marks of distinction: Mike May, registrar of the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry, says the breed is known for its upright mane and primitive dun coloration. Its eye-catching markings include a dorsal strip that runs from the forelock, down the back and through the tail; leg stripes; dark ear outlines with tips; light leg feathers; and dark hooves, sometimes with stripes. The most common color is the brown dun – a pale yellow-brown coat with a black or brown dorsal stripe. Fjords also come in red, white, yellow dun, and gray.

Norwegian Fjord Resources

Kjorsvig’s Fjord Horses
(605) 486-4677;

Field of Dreams Norwegian Fjords
(541) 485-2730;

Green Valley Farm
(815) 777- 6008;

Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry
(585) 872-4114;

On the trail: Pat and Gayle Ware have been involved with Fjords for 25 years, and have owned them for 18. Today, the breeders have a herd of seven at their Field of Dreams Norwegian Fjords in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“They’re thinkers rather than reactors, and are absolutely steadfast in challenging situations,” says Gayle. “I’ve never seen them in fright/flight mode. I’ve learned to ask them politely, and they just don’t refuse. Fjords are especially good horses for beginning riders, because they take care of you. A client who was new to horses bought a Fjord Horse from me. Later, he called to tell me that if he becomes unbalanced, his horse literally scooches under him to keep him onboard.”

Gayle also helps to maintain the breed’s purity. “To preserve the uniquely special qualities of the Fjord, outcrossing with other equine breeds is not allowed. I tell people they’ll just have to ride the real thing!”

Honi Roberts is an avid trail rider and co-author of Breed for Success, The Horseman’s Guide to Breeding Healthy Foals.

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