Breed Organization Information
About the Breed
Evolution of the Breed
One of the earliest laws recorded in Shetland cautioned would-be thieves not to “cut any other man’s horse-tail or main (sic)– under the pain of ten pounds.” The exorbitant fine reflects the seriousness of the crime and the Shetland dependence on their fishing and their ponies to live. Shetland ponies provided the raw materials for fishing nets and lines; fishing provided the main diet for most islanders. An old Shetland proverb states that an Orkney man is a farmer who has to fish and a Shetland man is a fisherman who has to farm. The Shetland pony bridged the gap between the two sustaining ways of life.
Better documented than most breeds, the history of Shetland ponies reads like the history of the islands. At least two thousand years ago, there was a pony like the modern day Shetland pony living on the islands. Like the islanders, the pony mixed British with Viking to create a distinct Shetland type. Most likely, it was a hybrid breed, containing the blood of the British Hill type pony, like a Highland or Fell/Dale of Scotland, and a Scandinavian breed influenced by some Oriental bloodlines. The resulting pony was represented in a ninth century stone-carving found on the island of Bressay. It depicts a hooded priest riding a very small pony.
On the basis of this and other archaeological finds, researchers concluded that the pony on Shetland was long domesticated. How it came to be on the islands is still a mystery. Everybody loves a good story, and some surmise that ponies arrived with the first settlers on the islands. Or it could be that shipwrecks stranded ponies from the Spanish Armada flagship, the Gran Grifton that foundered off the coast of Fair Isle. Perhaps crusaders returning from Jerusalem and Constantinople led Arabian stock back to the islands, or Viking marauders from Iceland left their signature in the white markings that characterize Shetland ponies. Nobody knows for certain.
How such a diverse stock background could produce such a resilient, constant breed depends on the relative isolation of the islands. Romance aside, the ponies had to cope with an environment that howled hostility in every breeze. They had to live on bad grass, hard, wet ground, and in the continual path of the driving wind. The cold climate encouraged them to conserve body heat — the resulting pony had short limbs, a short back, a thick neck, and small ears. Big stock starved; fragile stock broke; only the small, quick, hardy, and intelligent animals survived.
The first stud book stated that Shetland ponies ‘are foaled in the fields, live in the fields and die in the fields’ and so they are still seen today on their native islands. The flowing mane and tail, coupled with the thick furry winter coat, are not accidents of nature — they are the Shetland pony’s insurance for survival. The hills are stony and very uneven and often steep, so sure- footedness and a flowing long-striding gait covering miles daily on the poor grazing has become an inbred trait.
For hundreds of years the common grazing, or scattald as it is known in the islands, has been used by crofters to supplement their few acres of arable ‘in-by’ land. These acres of rough heather clad moorland look to be scant keep for any animal but even so the Shetland pony and Shetland sheep have both developed good conversion rates for food and a comparatively high milk yield for nursing their offspring. Due to the rough hilly conditions, shelter from most wind directions is available whether it be behind a hillock, an old stone wall or a peat bank. In recent times, many crofters have enclosed their share in the common grazings with wire fencing which has drastically cut down the animals scope to find shelter or to range freely.
Many scattalds have access to beaches and both ponies and sheep can enjoy a meal of seaweed at low tide to supplement their normal diet and boost their intake of minerals.
Today most crofters have their ponies on ‘in-by’ land during the winter months putting them out onto the scattald in May, foaling, to run with a stallion until about September. Each mare keeps to her own region of hill and groups are generally found bunched and herded by the stallion. In more recent years as the result of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society and the Department of Agriculture, a premium stallion scheme operates whereby good stallions are selected and placed on various scattalds during the summer months.
Generally, most crofters did not ride their ponies. Some accounts mention ponies used by doctors or ministers to visit their neighborhoods, but the majority of ponies lived on the scattalds. Ponies remained on the scattald until required for use “flitting the peats,” carrying recently cut peats from the hills to the homes of the crofters for use as the main fuel. As there were few roads, the ponies were required to navigate cross-country in all weather and at all times of year, carrying heavy woven saddlebags called ‘kishies’ hung from wooden ‘klibbers’ on their backs.
Shetlands remained pack and saddle animals for most of their history. Ponies were used for draft purposes only after roads were created so wheeled carts were practical. But the use of Shetlands was fairly limited to the islands until the Mines Act of 1847.
Ponies in the Mines
The Mines Act of 1847 barred children from much of the heavy underground labor in mines throughout Britain. At that point, the Shetland’s small stature made the ponies very valuable and many hundreds of geldings were sold south. They entered the mines at the age of four, to emerge years later into a pasture of grass and retirement. Though many different kinds of ponies worked in the mining industry, Shetlands were a vital component, as only they could travel into the narrowest shafts.
Imagine the tens of thousands of ponies and young men laboring underground. At the end of the day, the men went up to the surface to be with their families, but with the exception of a brief ‘holiday’ once a year, the ponies stayed underground all the time. Accounts of that time describe well-cared for ponies in mines with good worker/managerial relations. Mines with poorer relations or worker abuse often had poorer conditions for the ponies.
In some mines, the men would draw lots to determine who worked with each pony. They would then stay with that pony, hauling and grooming side by side, for a given number of months. A real affection existed between the men and their equine helpers. Anecdotes abound of men saved from cave-ins due to a balking or bolting pony. Their lives interlinked so consistently and obviously, abiding loyalty ran deep in the pits.
Shetlanders nearly lost control of their stock during this period, as most of the best stallions were exported for use in the mines. In the Statistical Account of Shetland in 1841, John and James Ingram noted already that, “the ponies are now much smaller in size than they were thirty years ago, entirely owing to the fact that all the best and stoutest are exported, and stallions of the most puny size are allowed to go at large.” Such large profits could be made selling for mine work, that many farmers operating at subsistence levels could not afford to keep their best stock for breeding.
This did not apply to major landowners. The Londonderry Stud, established in 1870 by Lord Londonderry, utilized the proximity of the islands of Bressay and Noss and the existing stock of local crofters. Bressay crofters ran their mares with Lord Londonderry’s stallions, from his facilities on Noss. If the foal was a colt, the owner of the stallion would buy it and export it for use in the mines. If the foal was a filly, it would be kept as breeding stock or sold to America where the demands from stud farms was high.
Ponies remained working in the mines, in greatly diminished numbers, long after mechanization made most of their work obsolete. Up until the late 1970’s, ponies could still be found in isolated underground outposts throughout Britain.
The boom in Shetland pony trading lasted until the First World War. Upper class children in Britain coveted Shetlands. The royal family was very fond of the ponies when Queen Elizabeth and her siblings were young for several decades, riding and driving Shetlands was popular for the rich. But in the 1920’s and 30’s, the market for Shetlands crashed. Welsh ponies replaced Shetlands for entertainment, and the internal combustion engine replaced Shetlands for transport. Mares and fillies born on the islands were unsaleable, as the cost of shipment to Aberdeen was greater than their total value.
Shetland Ponies Today
Today much is seen and heard of the Shetland Pony through the media. Properly broken, they make ideal children’s first ponies. As the result of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society Award Schemes for Ridden or Driven Ponies, the Shetland now competes and holds its own against all the other larger hairy native breeds in the show ring. The Shetland Pony competes in the Shetland Pony Grand National at the International Horse Show at Olympia in December and scurrying at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley in October, as well as hundreds of shows throughout Great Britain. Shetland ponies are shown off by proud owners and often winning against all comers.
At home in their islands, Shetland ponies can still be seen grazing by the roadside, on the beaches or on the heathery hills with their photogenic foals at foot delighting the tourist and photographer — looking wild but all owned and loved by a proud local crofter.
The Shetland pony can be seen in all colors except spotted — black, chestnut, grey, bay, dun, blue roan, piebald or skewbald. Unlike bigger horses, measured in hands, the Shetland pony is measured by inches in height at the withers. The smallest of the British native breeds, maximum height reaches 42″ with a minimum as small as 28″ or so.
Hardy and resilient, the Shetland is very strong for its size. It has a medium sized head, a rather dished face with a well-shaped muzzle and a jaw capable of grazing poor growth over an extensive area. The ears are medium sized and the eyes large and kindly. The coat is thick with a heavy mane and tail offering good protection against the local winter weather conditions. The action of the legs must be active and long striding to deal with local ground conditions.
Up until recently the heavy black Shetland pony probably dominated the show classes outside of the Shetland Islands, due to the fact that many Shetland ponies on the British mainland may have derived from the heavy black pony exported for use in the mines. The pony preferred by the islanders was of any color and tended to be slightly lighter boned and free moving to fit in with the natural conditions.
The Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was formed in 1890 to “maintain unimpaired the purity of Shetland ponies and to promote the breeding of these ponies.” Several far-sighted people, many from Shetland started it, because, due to the demand from male ponies for the coal mines in the 1850’s, the number of good stallions being retained in the islands was reduced.
The establishment of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was a major factor in the continuing viability of the breed. Because the stud book only accepted ponies less than 42 inches high, it assured breeders were not tempted to breed big Welsh-like children’s ponies. Keeping the breed small also assured that Shetlands would maintain a unique place in the world equine marketplace. As the smallest, strongest ponies, Shetlands encountered little or no competition for some of the most demanding mine work.
Despite the efforts of the Stud Book Society, the market for Shetlands continued to fluctuate. In years of over-breeding and low prices, breeders still felt pressure to sell their best stock south. A major stabilizing force was the implementation of the Shetland Islands Premium Stallion scheme in 1956. Since then, the Department of Agriculture has provided a high-quality registered stallion to seven Shetland Island common grazing scattalds, five on Unst, one in Walls, and one in the South Mainland, areas with long- standing studs. Coupled with a prohibition against running scrub stallions on the hill, the scheme regulates the production of the mares. Now all breeders know the sire of all their foals, and they rest assured that the foals produced will be of marketable value.
In 1983, following a major bust in market prices, a similar scheme was enacted for foals. Called the Premium Filly and Colt Scheme, it encourages breeders to keep their good foals for breeding. It does not affect the breed as much as the stallion scheme, but it does assist breeders in the lean years.