Despite being the smallest of the UK’s Native breeds, the Shetland is more like a miniature draft horse. Strong and intelligent, they make great ponies for young children as well as field companions.
The Shetland Pony developed on the island of Shetland, an island on the Scottish coast. They have existed on the island for over 2000 years in relative isolation due to the difficulties in transporting horses over the sea. They are believed to have their origins in the Mountain Ponies of Southern Europe and the Tundra Cob, which migrated over the ice fields and land masses. Celtic people later introduced their own ponies, which produced a finer Shetland. Two types therefore evolved on the island. One was a stockier, heavy boned pony; the other was a lighter type with a high tail carriage. Both of these types still exist today.
With the scarcity of food on the island, the breed evolved to become hardy and able to survive harsh winters, with only the strongest surviving. Islanders would use the ponies to harvest peat, work the land and transport the owner around the island. Fishermen also used their tail hair as fishing lines.
When children were banned from entering mines in the 19th Century, Shetland Ponies were used in the coal pits. Their strength and docile temperament made them perfect work ponies. Studs started to be developed to improve their conformation and strength. During this time Shetlands also became popular children’s ponies. Their popularity grew and soon thousands of ponies were exported from the island to the UK and America. This exodus caused the first Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society to be created. A large volume of the ponies registered today trace back to those mentioned in this first Stud-book.
The Shetland is now a popular breed across the world, with 2000 foals registered per year in the UK alone. The breed has also been used to create small breeds across the world including the American Shetland.
All Shetlands must be under 42 inches (10.2 hands). Those over 34 inches are known as Standard Shetlands; under 34 inches are called Miniature Shetlands. Shetlands have a wide forehead, with a straight or sometimes dished profile. Their ears, although small, should be forward and alert. Being the strongest of all horse and pony breeds, their build is very similar to a draft horse. Shetlands can pull twice of their own weight, whereas a draft horse can only pull half their own weight. Shetlands have a short broad back, deep girth and wide chest. Their neck is short and muscular, with strong legs. A Shetland’s cannon bone is short in relation to their size but their pasterns are elastic – this gives them a springy stride.
During the winter a Shetland will grow a double coat to protect them from harsh conditions – living on a Scottish Island means they can survive most weather. Their coats are waterproof, and their mane and tail will be thick to keep them warm in the wind. When showing them, their mane and tail must be kept straight, long and full. Despite their winter protection, in the summer they will shed to short silky coat.
Shetlands come in a wide variety of colours. The only colours not registered are appaloosa and champagne.
Most Shetland ponies do not realise how small they are. As a result they are very brave, but can be stubborn and opinionated. As a children’s pony they are however intelligent and gentle, looking after their owner as well as leading the herd. The mistake many new owners make is to spoil them due to their size and sweet nature. This can make them very headstrong and snappy, as they will work out how to avoid situations and ignore your commands. You must treat them as a pony and not a house pet.
Despite their size they make the perfect pony for young children. With the strength of a draft horse, they can carry up to 9 stone and have the lightness of stride making them easy to ride. They are incredibly brave and will jump in classes for young riders, as well as compete in junior gymkhanas. Shetlands are safe to hack, and are even taken out hunting.
One of the most exciting spectacles only a Shetland can enter is the Shetland Grand National. Shetland ponies and their jockeys can compete in qualifiers across the country, with winners racing at the annual Christmas show - Olympia. This is always shown on television, and is fast, frantic and fun. Children and ponies who wish to enter can even attend training days across the country. Like the real Grand National it is run over fences, and includes tight turns and tactics.
Shetlands also excel as carriage ponies – either for pleasure or competition. Their strength makes them able to pull a variety of gigs. Their speed and bravery also makes them very good at Scurry driving, where a pair of ponies will navigate a course of cones in the fastest time possible.
Tack will need to be fitted to their small stature, as well as the child who is riding. Saddlers can obtain Shetland size tack and bits, which may not always be available on the shelves. Very young children may require a felt saddle with a pommel strap to hold onto. Normal saddles can be used, but if the pony is a bit round you may need to use a crupper around the tail to keep the saddle from slipping forwards.
If you plan to teach a child to learn to ride on a Shetland, you will need to use a lead rein that can clip easily onto the bit or headcollar. Lead ropes are OK to use, but can be quick thick to hold and lack sophistication when showing. Leather lead lines with brass fittings are easier to hold, and will not soak up water when it rains.
Growing up in the wilds of Scotland, they are hardy and can survive on scarce pasture. Owners must be careful when new grass comes through in spring as Shetlands are prone to laminitis as well as obesity. As their coat adapts to winter conditions, they can be kept outside all year round with adequate shelter and water.