No one knows for sure when the Shetland Pony first arrived on its native islands, but it was unquestionably thousands of years ago. Its ancestors may have included ponies and small horses of Celtic, Norse, and even Oriental roots.
However the Shetland Pony came about, isolation on the Shetland Islands with their frequently inhospitable climate shaped it into a small but incredibly tough little breed. Not only could Shetlands live on seaweed alone if necessary, but they grew thick coats, manes, and tails to shelter them from cold, damp air. They worked for their living, too, pulling plows or carts as the occasion required.
When the Mines and Collieries Act was passed in 1842, the Shetland Pony received a new job. Women and children were no longer allowed to work underground in coal mines. To respond to the new demand for mine workers, small ponies, including Shetlands, were shipped to England to do the dirty work. The miners frequently benefited from their new pony partners, since the quick instinct of the little horses could alert the men to unseen dangers.
The pony population in the Shetland Islands dwindled dangerously as hundreds annually went to England for mining. Starting in 1885 with 75 ponies imported by Eli Elliott of Iowa, many Shetlands found their way to America, as well. Often the toughest ponies were sent to work, while the weak ones were left behind to reproduce. For a time, the survival of the breed was threatened.
Wealthy landowners responded by establishing pony studs to ensure that the Shetland would remain strong and hardy. In the process, they also created a sleeker, more refined-looking pony that became the darling of upper-class children everywhere.
As mechanization became the norm, machines gradually replaced ponies for mine work. The Great Depression also collapsed the demand for Shetland Ponies as pets for a time. From the late 1920s through the 1970s, the Shetland suffered a decline.
Over time, however, the Shetland Pony received new interest as it developed in several different directions, increasing its versatility. While the fuzzy classic type that has stood the test of time persisted as a children’s pony, a modern type with a high-stepping gait evolved as a show and pleasure-driving pony for adults. Also, a crossbred pony with one Shetland parent became known as a National Show Pony, a bigger pony suitable for older children.
Today, the Shetland Pony has resumed its place as one of the most popular ponies in the world.
The Shetland Pony is too small for all but the youngest riders. Nevertheless, it brings hours of pleasure to those little ones under either an English or a Western saddle. It is also suitable for therapeutic riding, and is typically the mount of choice for pony rides at fairs and other events.
But the Shetland Pony can serve adults in many ways, as well. It can provide companionship, pack small loads, or even act as a guide horse for the blind. It can be surprisingly useful on a small farm, since it can pull quite a bit of weight for its size. One pony can haul a cart of produce or firewood, and two ponies can even plow a field.
Finally, the Shetland Pony is frequently crossbred to create other ponies and miniature horses for a variety of purposes.
The Shetland has no idea it’s small—it practically bursts at the seams with personality. Spunky, mischievous, and independent, this pony is probably among the smartest of horse breeds. It can read people adeptly and analyze a situation with incredible speed. It absolutely must have something to do, or it will find its own entertainment. A companion is also a must, but the companion does not have to be another horse. A goat will do.
Much of the Shetland Pony’s disposition depends on its past experience with people. Too many Shetland owners forget that they are dealing with a real horse and not an oversized teddy bear. A spoiled Shetland is headstrong and snappy. On the other hand, when taught to respect human authority, it can be steady, trainable, and truly sweet.
The Shetland is incredibly hardy. It needs little in the way of health care, provided that its fast-growing hooves are kept trimmed and attention is paid to its weight.
Shetlands can fatten easy on nothing but grass, and they tend to lead fairly sedentary existences. Too many simple carbohydrates from processed feed or even extra-lush grass will cause obesity, which can in turn lead to laminitis, metabolic problems, and liver failure.
A few Shetlands also suffer from heart problems.
- Affordable prices for the classic type.
- Extreme hardiness.
- Resistance to harsh winter weather.
- Ability to thrive on minimal feed.
- Amazing strength for its size.
- Expense of the modern type.
- Ability as an escape artist.
- Need for ample mental exercise.
- Somewhat difficult personality.
- Tendency for weight problems.