Shetland Pony

  • HEIGHT: Maximum in the United States, 11.5 hands; in Canada, 11 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Shetland Islands, Great Britain, with probable ancestral roots in Scandinavia
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A small, sound, versatile breed of great hardiness
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Driving; traditional child’s mount

The Shetland Islands lie about one hundred miles off the north coast of Scotland. The landmass of the entire island group is approximately 550 square miles, about one tenth the size of Los Angeles County, California. The climate is cold, wet, and endlessly windy. The tough native grass provides relatively low nutrition. In spite of these conditions, archaeological evidence indicates that small ponies, quite like the modern British Shetlands, lived on the islands at least two thousand years ago. These ancient ponies probably had origins similar to those of the small ponies found in Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Wales. Historians believe that the very first ponies may have arrived on the Shetland Islands from Scandinavia before water divided the lands, around 8000 BCE, and later crossed to Scotland with the early Celts. Whatever the true origin of these ponies, they are one of the oldest distinct breeds and have long been domesticated. A ninth-century carving from the island of Bressay in the Shetlands depicts a hooded priest riding a very small pony.

The climate and conditions on the islands shaped these tough little animals. To conserve body heat in the bitter cold, the ponies developed short limbs, a short back, a thick neck, very small ears, a dense coat, and an extremely heavy mane and tail. Big animals were likely to starve and delicate animals to succumb to accident or illness. Only the small, smart, quick, tough ponies survived. The hills were rocky, steep, and very uneven, so they developed sure-footedness and a long, striding gait to cover many miles each day in their search for food.

Even today, nearly all of the people of the islands work as either fishermen or small-scale farmers known as crofters. For hundreds of years, the crofters on each island have maintained communal grazing ground for their ponies and sheep in order to keep the animals off valuable farming acreage, known as “in-by” land. This common grazing ground is called the scattald, which is rough, heather-covered moorland. Remarkably, both the ponies and the sheep have developed good nutritional conversion rates for this poor-quality food and provide fairly high milk yields for their young. Many scattalds have access to beaches, and the animals eat seaweed at low tide, which supplements the scant pasturage and boosts mineral intake.

Historically, crofters did not ride their ponies. They left them on the scattalds until they were needed to carry peat, which was used for fuel. There were few roads, and the ponies worked in all sorts of weather carrying woven saddlebags called kishies hung from wooden klibbers, or pack frames, on their backs. The ponies often carried half their body weight in peat over several miles of difficult terrain. Until better roads made wheeled vehicles feasible, Shetlands were almost exclusively pack ponies. Today, most crofters leave their ponies on in-by land during the winter and put them out on the scattald in May, after foaling, to run with a stallion.

For many people, the Shetland Pony embodies the ideal child’s pony.

The Era of the Pit Pony

Until 1847, Shetland Ponies were hardly known or used outside of the islands, but when the Mines Act barred children from doing heavy underground work throughout Britain, they were replaced by these small, hardy ponies. Other breeds also worked in the mines, but only the Shetlands could travel into the narrowest shafts. Hundreds of Shetland geldings were sold to the mines, along with most of the best stallions.

The herds on the islands were greatly depleted, and the quality of the remaining island ponies suffered. In the late nineteenth century, Lord Londonderry and various mine owners and island breeders recognized the need for improvement and took action. In 1891, they published the first studbook, with 457 ponies that had been inspected by the committee for correctness of type and conformation. The upper height limit was fixed at 42 inches, and all colors other than spotted were allowed. (“Spotted” in this case means Appaloosa-like coloring. Pinto coloring, which the British call piebald [black and white] and skewbald [brown and white], is permitted.)

Ponies worked the mines until World War II and were still being used in small numbers up until the 1970s. When the ponies became known outside the islands, they became the playthings of the wealthy. The royal family was very fond of Shetlands, and the late queen mother became the breed’s patron. Many children throughout Britain and later Europe and North America learned to ride on Shetland Ponies. But in the Depression years of the 1920s and ’30s, the market crashed.

In time, Welsh Ponies replaced Shetlands for entertainment, and gasoline-powered engines replaced them for transport. Island mares and fillies were hard to sell, because it cost more to ship them off the islands than they were worth. Even after the boom’s collapse, however, a sustained level of interest in Shetlands continued. In Britain, the Shetland Pony Society developed a system of awards for ridden and driven ponies, and they can still be seen competing at shows throughout the country. There is also a Shetland Grand National in December.

Not your typical Grand National competitors, these Shetlands and their riders nonetheless take their jobs seriously.

The Shetland in North America

Shetlands began to make an appearance in the United States around 1850. The first animals were not registered with any breed association. The American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) was founded in 1888, three years before the British association, to protect and preserve the breed in this country. A number of the first ponies to arrive were superb harness animals and were immediately selected to be tiny, fashionable driving teams. Excellence in harness has continued to be an emphasis of the breed in this country.

In the 1970s, interest in traditional purebred Shetlands as children’s mounts fell, and prices dropped to the point that breeders could not afford to stay in business. The American Shetland Pony Club then opened a division that emphasized fine harness and show ponies, more than children’s mounts. The short-legged, stocky, British Shetland was crossed with Hackneys and Welsh Ponies to add height, length of leg, and neck refinement. This variety came to be known as the Modern American Shetland, sometimes casually known as show Shetlands. Today, Modern American Shetlands compete as high-stepping driving ponies. At the same time, the ASPC designated the more traditional variety as the Classic Shetland. The ASPC continues to maintain show divisions and breed standards for these ponies as well.

Breed Characteristics

Classic American Shetlands are excellent mounts for children and fine family pets. They are good movers, nice jumpers, and make first-rate, fun driving ponies for the whole family. Modern American Shetlands are more animated and refined in type than the Classics. They are particularly well suited to fine harness and show classes but also make nice pleasure driving ponies.

Over the years, the original Shetland type (center) has been developed into other types, as seen in the Modern American Shetland on the left and the Classic American Shetland on the right.

Conformation

Over the years, the height limit for the breed in the United States has increased to 46 inches and in Canada to 44 inches though it remains 42 inches in Great Britain. The United States has a separate breed standard for each variety. According to the ASPC rulebook, the Classic American Shetland possesses style and substance. The short head is clean-cut with a fine muzzle, large nostrils, brilliant eyes, wide forehead, and sharp, small ears. The length of the neck is in proportion to the body, and the shoulders are sloping. The Classic is more refined than the original imported Shetland, with a well-balanced, strong, sturdy body and substance in the chest and hindquarters. The legs are set properly under the body, the forearms well muscled, knees and cannon bones broad and well defined with ideally shaped pasterns with proper size and angle of pasterns and feet. Strong, short cannons support the knees and hocks. The tail is set high on the croup. The mane, foretop, and tail are full. The coat is fine and silky. Extremes in length of neck, body, legs, and action are undesirable.

The Modern American Shetland should be a strong, attractive pony blending the original Shetland type with refinement and quality. The head is carried high on a well-arched neck. The pony’s structure should be strong but show refinement, with high withers, sloping shoulders, springy pasterns, and sturdy feet.

Color

Shetlands may be of any color, either solid or mixed, except Appaloosa. No particular color is preferred. Recognized colors are albino, bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, cremello, dun, gray, grulla, palomino, perlino, pinto, roan, silver dapple, sorrel, and white. No discrimination is made because of the color of the eyes.

No matter what type, Shetlands are lively, intelligent, and often playful companions.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Shetland Pony Club (founded in 1888):

  • There are about 95,000 registered Shetland Ponies.
  • The association does not track the number of new foals added each year.