The tiny Shetland developed out of ponies native to the Shetland Islands and those brought across by the invading Vikings. The result is a hardy, intelligent and resourceful little pony. Although Shetlands are often used as show ponies or for novelty events such as Shetland races at horse shows, they are far more than just cute novelties and are impressively athletic for their size.


There have been ponies in the Shetland Islands for thousands of years and since the Shetlands lie geographically between Norway and Scotland it was perhaps inevitable that Viking horses would find their way there. Given the harsh environment, including the incredible severity of the winters, the lack of shelter and grazing and the challenging terrain it is understandable that the ponies stayed small in stature but mighty in character and strength. Shetland islanders tamed them and used them to haul peat and for other agricultural work. As the world industrialized they were brought to the mainland and exported overseas for use in pits. These days however the Shetland is mainly a recreational pony. It is much valued as a children's pony due to a combination of its small size, overall ability and outstanding temperament. It is also hugely popular as a driving pony, frequently excelling in “scurry”races where nimbleness is at least as important as speed. Shetlands are also popular choices as partners for entertainment. They are staples at riding schools and trekking centres as safe mounts for young children and are also popular at fairs and other places where children can be taken for short rides. Their high intelligence and presence means they can be star performers themselves. One won hearts on TV dancing to Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac and they are popular choices when animals are required for theatre productions such as pantomimes.


The Shetland Pony is unmistakeable. They are the smallest of all the native breeds and amongst the smallest ponies in the world, standing a maximum of 11.2 hands high. They are unique among the native breeds in that almost all colours are permitted including skewbald and piebald. The only exception is that Shetlands can not be spotted. Physically the Shetland of stocky build, rather like a very small cob. They do, however, have pony-like faces which are short and broad with large eyes and short ears. Interestingly they often have dished faces although there is no evidence of Arab blood being used on this breed. Although sleek in summer they retain their long and thick manes and tails and in winter develop extraordinarily thick coats. Perhaps surprisingly they do not have feathering around the lower leg. Their sturdy bone structure and dense hooves add to their sure-footedness.


While the Shetland has undeniable cuteness they are much more than pretty toys and need to be treated with respect. To understand just how intelligent the ponies are, not only are they capable of learning complex movements and routines for showing but they also function as assistance ponies in the same way as dogs do. The advantages of using Shetlands as opposed to dogs is partly that they are better for people with allergies and partly because they live (and therefore work) for longer. Their small size and sure-footedness means that they can cope capably with everyday hazards and their common sense and courage means that they can handle everyday hazards from traffic to shopping in crowds. This adds to their appeal as children's ponies. In spite of their intelligence they are gentle and reliable. As long as they are treated fairly by their owner, they will respond in kind. It should be noted, however, that over-feeding Shetlands can lead to behavioural issues as they will need some outlet for their excess energy. If only being used as children's mounts they are unlikely to need any extra food unless the child is competing heavily.

Shetland Health

The Shetland pony is a robust and healthy little animal; however their small size does present some unique issues. Basically their small bodies house small organs, which need to work hard to keep their sturdy bodies healthy. Occasionally Shetlands will have heart issues which will unavoidably cut short their working lives of some 30 plus years. More commonly however their small stature and small organs mean that they suffer more acutely from obesity-related issues than other larger animals. In addition to laminitis, which is a scourge of all overweight horses, the extra weight they carry puts extra strain on their small hearts. If a pony becomes overweight it is important to put it on a diet but it must be a controlled diet. If food is withdrawn too quickly, the pony's body will turn to its resources of fat and if too much fat is used too quickly their small livers are unable to cope and they develop a painful and potentially fatal condition called Hyperlipeamia. In short, as long as a Shetlands weight is well-managed there should be few reasons to call the vet, but because of their small size if there is any sign of the animal being in any pain or even discomfort, it's best to call the vet immediately.

Caring for a Shetland

Shetlands are easy to care for and children should only need minimal assistance from adults. They need regular time outdoors and can safely be kept with much larger horses. To keep their weight down, however, they are likely to need time out in summer either in a starvation paddock or in a stable to stop them from over-eating. If they are to be worked in winter they will almost certainly need some sort of clipping, which may mean they need to come in at night. They may need extra food if they are working hard but never ever feed them haylage (unless they are really off their food and it is the only way to tempt them to eat and even then only for a few days). Although horses love it, it often contains mould and bacteria which is too much for Shetlands' small livers to handle. Salt licks on the other hand, will encourage them to drink more, which helps keep their organs in good condition. Otherwise their requirements are much the same as for their larger counterparts – constant access to clean water, regular grooming (even in summer), care of their feet and worming.

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