Another traditional dairy breed of the Swiss mountains, the Saanen (pronounced SAW-nen) takes its name from its native Saane Valley located in the canton of Bern. It was in this region that the Saanen was bred to produce milk in abundance on the summer mountain pastures of Switzerland. However, it is interesting to note that the Swiss did not select exclusively for production or for hardiness—they also bred for the hallmark white coat. Read More
The Nubian goat is typically thought of as an African breed. In reality, it traces back to late 1800s England. As the British Empire expanded to new regions, ships brought back native bucks from many environments. Many of these bucks were large, hardy animals that promised to improve British dairy goats. In particular, bucks from Egypt, Arabia, and India were favored. Read More
The Great Pyrenees, or Pyrenean Mountain Dog as it is called in Europe, has guarded sheep in the mountains of France and Spain as long as history records. Its lineage has been entirely lost in time, but it is probably related to the other ancient flock guardian breeds. Its ancestors may have been giant Asian dogs, perhaps the white dogs of Asia Minor or the Tibetan Mastiff from farther east.
In any case, the Great Pyrenees has been preserved intact for thousands of years in fossils and art. The breed has changed surprisingly little since the days it stood guard alone in the mountains. On the French side of the Pyrenees range, the dogs were built identically to modern specimens, but with large black patches in their coats. On the Spanish side, white was the predominate color, but the dogs were more lightly built with tapering noses.
While the Great Pyrenees had an important role in guarding the châteaux as early as the 1400s, it officially became the breed of nobility later, when Louis XIV took one home as a pet. Louis named the Great Pyrenees the Royal Dog of France in 1675, making it a popular choice for many aristocrats.
Lafayette sent the first specimens to America in 1824, when he gave two to a friend. A few more dogs followed in subsequent years, but the breed did not catch on at this time.
By the early 1900s, the Great Pyrenees was in a serious plight. The French Revolution had previously toppled the aristocracy and thus caused the loss of Royal Dog status, returning the breed to its role as a working dog. The Great Pyrenees fared little better in the hands of the commoners, however. The country folk made made some easy cash for a time by selling their poorer-quality puppies to unsuspecting tourists, but in the end eliminated their own canine export market through their unscrupulous practices. While some dogs were still scattered across France, many of these were drafted into the military in World War I, where they served as pack animals, some paying the ultimate price.
The Great Pyrenees was rescued from the brink of extinction after the war through the efforts of Bernard Senac-Lagrange, dog expert and vice president of the French Kennel Club. He searched France for the best specimens, and then created the first written standard for the breed to promote a focus on quality dogs, not the animals that had ruined the breed’s reputation among tourists.
Lagrange made every effort to help breeders in other countries purchase good breeding stock, so it was not long before the Great Pyrenees appeared in America once again. The breed was recognized by the AKC in 1933, bringing it further attention as a show dog.
It was extremely fortunate that the Great Pyrenees was firmly established on our shores by the time World War II hit, as in France it was pressed back into military service. The United States military considered the breed too cumbersome to make a good war dog, preferring breeds such as the German Shepherd. This ensured that the future of the Great Pyrenees was secure.
In fairly short order, American breeders managed to sand off some of the rougher edges of this livestock guardian’s temperament, creating a dependably sweet pet and show dog. However, this has not spoiled the breed’s working abilities. The Great Pyrenees is probably the most popular guard dog for sheep and goats in the United States today, as it is both familiar and readily available across the country. Today, the Great Pyrenees ranks 69th in AKC registration statistics.
There is no question that the Great Pyrenees is an excellent pet and therapy dog. If given his choice, however, he would probably prefer to live outdoors and protect his territory and possessions. He is not only a guardian of livestock, but is a reliable family watchdog, as well.
In cold weather, the Great Pyrenees can do extra work as a pack or draft dog, able to haul a cart full of firewood, tote a sled for the children, or pack along supplies on a hiking trail.
In some parts of the world, the Great Pyrenees is a common choice for search and rescue in the wake of avalanches.
“Gentle giant” may be a cliche, but it is perfectly applicable to the Great Pyrenees. He is a dog that can be trusted implicitly with the safety of the entire family. He is confident and serious, but perfectly sound in disposition. He has a soft place in his heart for anything small, whether a newborn lamb, a young toddler, or even a cat. He can put up with the most feisty little dog, although he may stubbornly resist the addition of another Great Pyrenees of the same sex to the household.
Owners marvel at the intuition of this breed. This trait serves him well. Not only can he readily distinguish between friend and foe, he can be a true companion, as well, responding quietly and kindly to the moods of his people. The Great Pyrenees may not be very demonstrative, but he will often use a paw or a gentle nudge to display his affection.
Just because he is a sweet, loyal dog, do not assume that he can be easily controlled. The Great Pyrenees was bred for millennia to think independently and make his own decisions. He has little interest in taking orders, especially when he sees no purpose for them. Arbitrary obedience exercises might amuse a herding dog, but the Great Pyrenees will view the whole process with obvious disdain. Fortunately, he is naturally quite mannerly, and any additional training in etiquette he needs can be taught naturally during the daily routine, provided that his respect has been earned.
The Great Pyrenees does not have to be a working dog to have a strong territorial instinct. He absolutely must be kept within a fence or on a leash, as he will periodically wander off to expand his range. He strongly distrusts unfamiliar people, dogs, and wild animals of the large, threatening type. However, he will readily learn to accept visitors that you welcome in person. He will regard trespassers with suspicion, particularly if he is of a working bloodline, ever so much more so if he hails directly from France.
No training is needed to shape a Great Pyrenees into a successful livestock guardian—he comes fully equipped with all the instinct he needs. Your role will simply be to introduce him to his flock at a young age. He bonds quickly, and may be ready to work as early as six months of age. On the job, he may appear to be lazy, spending his entire day sleeping. Don’t be fooled, however. The Great Pyrenees can sleep with one ear open. He may patrol at night, but mostly he prefers to deter predators by marking his boundaries. When a potential threat is sighted, his first line of defense is his deep bark. The Great Pyrenees only goes on the offensive if he is convinced that life-threatening danger is impending. Then watch out, because his speed and agility will astonish you.
The Great Pyrenees is usually structurally sound, but he does have special needs. He is susceptible to both heat and intense sun. Although it may sound like a good idea, do not shave him down in the summer, as he is prone to sunburn and hot spots. Instead, help him beat the heat by letting him rest in the shade and drink plenty of cool water.
He will continue to physically mature until he is about 1 1/2 years old. To avoid “growing pains” and joint damage, do not roughhouse with him on hard surfaces or let him jump above his elbow height at this time. Fortunately, Great Pyrenees puppies are typically calmer than those of most breeds, so this should not be too much of a problem.
The most common inherited problems in the Great Pyrenees are:
- Entropion (eyelids that turn inward).
- Hip dysplasia.
- Luxating patellas (slipped kneecaps).
- Cancer, particularly of the bones and reproductive system.
- Suitability for families with children and most other pets.
- Little doggy odor.
- Low exercise requirements.
- Suitability for the coldest climates.
- Surprisingly low food requirements relative to size.
- Minimal training needs for working dogs.
- Surprising agility.
- Unsuitability for small homes and yards.
- Remarkable ability as an escape artist.
- Night barking.
- Difficulty of training.
- Extensive shedding.
- Grooming needs.
- Unsuitability for hot, humid climates.
- Short lifespan.
As far as we can tell, the Anatolian Shepherd was a fixture on the landscape of rural Turkey from the most ancient times. Its ancestors are not known for certain. It can undoubtedly be traced to various dogs of Mesopotamia, possibly including both sighthounds and mastiff-like hunting dogs. It may also have ancestors among the Tibetan Mastiffs and the Roman dogs of war.
Whatever its origin, the Anatolian Shepherd was a product of both environmental and human selection. It was the ultimate shepherd’s dog, a stalwart guardian of flocks of sheep, and this job frequently placed it in danger. It had to survive the vagaries of the weather and the attacks of wolves and bears. Furthermore, it had to hunt for its own food. On the other hand, the shepherds actively took a hand in shaping the breed. They expected their dogs to be absolutely trustworthy with the flocks, and they also insisted that the dogs mind their manners when traveling to a village for a sale of sheep. Any dogs with vicious tendencies were promptly culled.
For centuries there was little uniformity among the Turkish flock guardians. Each region had its own distinctive type. The creation of the standardized breed that we now think of as the Anatolian Shepherd came about due to the intervention of American exporters.
The first Anatolian Shepherd arrived in the United States in the 1950s as a gift from Turkey to the United States Department of Agriculture. This gift aroused a level of interest in the breed’s ability to guard livestock from coyotes and other predators, but did not create sufficient public awareness to firmly establish the dog in America.
An active breeding program did not come until the late 1960s, when Lieutenant Robert Ballard of California imported a pair of dogs, the breed having caught his eye while he was in Turkey. His efforts led to a greater appreciation of the Anatolian Shepherd across the country.
Further support came from universities and the government during the 1970s and 1980s, as researchers sought ways to protect livestock from predators without harming endangered animals. With the spread of information on livestock guardians, the Anatolian Shepherd earned itself a place on many farms and ranches. New imports of different types were mixed together, creating one uniform breed instead of many local variants.
Soon afterward, pet owners adopted the Anatolian Shepherd out of appreciation for its loyalty and ability as a household guardian. This rise in ownership prompted the American Kennel Club to recognize the breed in the Working Group on August 10, 1998. Despite the Anatolian Shepherd’s presence in the show ring, its breeders continue to emphasize its abilities as a guard dog, eliminating the rift between working and show bloodlines seen in so many other breeds.
There are several thousand Anatolian Shepherds in the United States today, making it the 84th most popular dog according to 2016 AKC statistics.
The Anatolian Shepherd prefers work to a life of leisure. However, he can channel his protective instincts into guarding his home and family. While most of these dogs are not exactly outgoing, a few can qualify as therapy dogs.
But the Anatolian Shepherd is definitely at his best when guarding livestock. Sheep are his traditional charges, although he can offer protection to anything from chickens to horses.
Finally, the Anatolian Shepherd is good at pulling carts and sleds.
The Anatolian Shepherd is a serious working dog. Even as a puppy, he spends relatively little time playing. He is thoroughly devoted to his family and is gentle with his own children, but prefers to keep a dignified reserve even with members of his household. While bold, he is also calm and steady. He is intelligent and capable of learning with extreme rapidity. However, he is rarely motivated to obey, being used to making his own decisions while on the job.
The gentleness of this giant extends strictly to members of his own family. The Anatolian Shepherd can be aggressive with animals he does not recognize as part of his flock, particularly other dogs. He can learn to accept another dog as part of his family, but only if the other dog is willing to take a submissive role. He is naturally suspicious of strange people. Guests and veterinarians should be formally introduced to him before any attempt to touch him is made. Even after introductions are made, the dog may block the movements of guests unless the owner is present as an escort. While the Anatolian Shepherd will not display aggression unless provoked, if teased or threatened, he will respond swiftly and surely.
The Anatolian Shepherd has a strong instinct to expand his territory, so he must be kept on a leash or in a fenced yard at all times when he is outdoors. A six-foot fence is necessary to keep him contained, and the bottom wire must be sunk into the ground far enough to discourage digging.
A working Anatolian Shepherd may appear at first glance to be lazily dozing in an elevated location. Do not be fooled—this dog is extremely vigilant. Nothing can escape his notice. Periodically he will patrol his boundaries, but mostly he waits and watches. On the edges of his territory is an invisible buffer zone. If anything appears within the buffer zone, or if he hears a strange sound at night, the Anatolian Shepherd will rise to his full height to reveal his imposing presence and give a few deep, commanding barks. If the intruder persists in going through the buffer zone and entering the dog’s territory, the Anatolian Shepherd will usually bark with increasing rapidity, then resort to menacing snarls. He will only attack if he feels it to be necessary. He cannot be trained to attack on command, nor can he be recalled from an attack if he feels that the situation calls for extreme measures.
In keeping with its low-maintenance past, the Anatolian Shepherd is a tough dog with few health problems. He matures slowly, reaching adulthood at four years of age, but he lives longer than most dogs of his size. All of his senses are particularly sharp. He does not suffer from bloat as frequently as other large dogs.
The only major health problems in this breed are:
- Ear infections.
- Injuries acquired in the line of duty.
- Sensitivity to anesthesia; risk of allergic reaction increases if dog is wearing a flea collar.
Although canine hip dysplasia (CHD) is not a common problem in this breed, breeding stock should still be tested to prevent CHD from gaining a foothold in the gene pool.
- No slobber.
- Little doggy odor.
- Minimal grooming requirements.
- Surprisingly low food requirements relative to size.
- Moderate exercise needs.
- Adaptability to extremes of both heat and cold.
- High risk of lawsuits.
- Size unsuitable for small homes and yards.
- Unsuitability for homes with dominant dogs.
- Ability as an escape artist.
- Digging tendencies.
- Night barking.
- Need for an assertive leader.
- Heavy shedding.
The withers yoke is only used with humped zebu-type cattle, such as Brahmans. The yoke is a wooden pole resting on the hump of the animal and is held in place by a rope or leather strap around the neck. Note that the rope does not take any of the weight of the load. Sometimes wooden staves projecting downward from the pole add extra stability; these do not bear any weight, either.
This yoke is by far the simplest and is easy to make, repair, and fit to a team. Unfortunately, its very simplicity tends to invite some slipshod construction that will inflict pain on the oxen. This is quite unnecessary—the withers yoke is easily modified to allow for maximum comfort.
On the other hand, the withers yoke is also easily broken. It tends to give the teamster less control of the animals than other yoke types.
A good ox collar is made out of wood with leather pads lining the inside surfaces for comfort.
One of the most critical differences between an ox collar and a horse collar is the way the power of the draft animal is applied. A horse pushes into the lower part of its collar, while an ox pushes into the upper part. The ox also has more prominent, mobile shoulders, which are accommodated in the design of the proper collar.
A major advantage of an ox collar over a yoke is that the teamster can use one ox instead of two. From the ox’s perspective, it is probably more comfortable, as well, as the force is applied over a larger (and better padded) area. The result is greater efficiency.
However, cattle are herd animals. While one ox can provide sufficient pulling power for a small farm, it will probably be calmer and more content working with a friend. But a whole team of oxen can still be worked with collars. In fact, collars are easier to fit to oxen than yokes.
Probably one of the biggest disadvantages of the ox collar is its cost. Due to its complexity, it can be difficult to manufacture at home, as well. Please do not try to economize by putting a horse collar on your ox—it is guaranteed to rub and cause painful sores.
The ox collar frequently requires more maintenance than any of the three types of yoke.
A Final Note
Perhaps even more important than the type of yoke is the fit of the yoke. No ox can work efficiently if his yoke or collar does not fit properly. If the ox tosses his head frequently or is unwilling to work, he is probably uncomfortable.
Proper training and conditioning is also important for best results, regardless of yoke type.
When most of us think of an ox yoke, we tend to envision the long, gracefully bowed piece of wood resting on the necks of a pair of oxen. This traditional neck or bow yoke certainly has had an important place in American history, but it is not the only option for aspiring teamsters today. In fact, it may not even be the best yoke in some situations.
There are actually three types of ox yoke:
- Neck yoke.
- Head yoke.
- Withers yoke.
There is also an ox collar. At first glance, it appears somewhat similar to the collar typically seen on draft horses, but there are substantial differences, as we shall see.
The neck yoke, as you probably know, consists of a wooden beam placed across the necks of a pair of oxen and attached with ox bows. The bows can be made of either metal or a durable wood like hickory. However, there are two variations on this design:
- Stationary—the kind you probably think of when you think of an ox yoke.
- Sliding—provided with a pivot in the center of the yoke to allow each bow to move independently.
The design of a well-built and well-fitted neck yoke distributes the load across the neck, shoulders, and chest of the animal. Oxen adapt to this type of yoke easily.
Both neck yokes are readily available and simple to use. The teamster can yoke the oxen and be ready for work in short order. The oxen do not have to have horns for attaching the yoke.
Both designs (but particularly the sliding yoke) also offer a good range of head motion, helping the oxen work more comfortably. Improved comfort for the ox generally translates to an efficient working day.
The stationary yoke keeps the team close together, allowing for better coordination between the oxen. This close connection, however, can cause difficulties on broken ground. The stationary yoke can make it difficult for each ox to find its own footing, and one may resort to leaning on the other to keep its balance, reducing the power of the team and creating the possibility of a serious accident. Using a sliding yoke will avoid this problem.
Be aware, however, that the range of motion that allows for comfort and safety in the ox team can also invite poor behavior, such as fighting or pulling in two different directions. Good training can prevent some of these problems.
Note that both types of neck yoke must be fitted carefully to avoid bruising or galling. A different yoke size may be necessary if the oxen in the team gain or lose weight.
If you are interested in making your own yokes, you may find this design somewhat challenging (though not impossible) to make. The beam piece is easy to build, as long as care is taken to avoid cracks and imperfections that will gall the oxen. The bows, however, are the main difficulty. They must be steamed and bent into shape.
The most common use of the stationary neck yoke today is in pulling contests, as this type of yoke lends itself well to hauling extremely heavy loads for relatively short distances. The sliding variety is excellent for a wide range of small-scale farming activities, from plowing to hauling logs. It is also suitable for pulling carts, as it can help the team navigate turns with good balance.
The head yoke comes in two variations:
- Yokes that distribute the load across the forehead of the ox.
- Yokes that rest on the back of the head and attach directly to the horns of the ox.
The yoke is usually made of wood and attached to the oxen with leather straps.
Pushing into a head yoke is a natural movement for oxen, since they frequently shove with their heads when displaying dominance over other cattle. Furthermore, an ox wearing a head yoke can make his own adjustments in the hitching angle by moving his head up or down, giving him an element of control over his load, particularly useful for braking on a grade.
One concern about the head yoke is the way the weight of the load is distributed. With a neck yoke, the soft tissues of the neck and shoulders can provide some padding. With a head yoke, particularly one that attaches to the horns, the weight of the load is pulled by the spine, which is tiring to the animal. Oxen wearing head yokes must be conditioned for peak strength, or they will wear out quickly and possibly become injured. The yoke also rests on some of the more tender parts of the skin, so it is essential that it fit properly. Remember—every shock will be absorbed by the head and neck of the ox.
Coordinating the movements of the team can be another challenge. Head yokes keep the oxen closely connected with minimal side-to-side head motion. For best results, the oxen must be similar in size and trained with skill. Also note that they cannot protect themselves from flies when yoked.
Finally, remember that a head yoke can only be used on oxen with horns strong enough to pull a load. A head yoke on an ox with weak horns is a recipe for disaster. The yoke must be re-carved to fit as the horns grow, and it must be strapped on with care to avoid slipping. A well-made head yoke generally fits one team so well that it is useless to any other team.
Because of the strain that this type of yoke can place on the necks of the oxen, it is generally not recommended for everyday farm work. However, it is probably safe to use with light carts on a smooth, level surface. If properly used, it can even be advantageous to a team pulling a heavy load for a short distance, thanks to the extra control it provides.
Are you ready for fall? Spend a little time watching the birds, caring for the animals, and stocking the pantry.
- Invest in a dog owner’s home veterinary handbook.
- Feed your backyard birds.
- Discover why people built round barns.
- Stock up for the winter.
- Learn about pH.
- Weigh the pros and cons of draft animals.
- Explore the K-State weather data library.
- Open up the breeding toolbox.
- Find out how to raise chickens.
- Do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.
The story of the Suffolk Punch is that of a quiet farm worker, lacking in incredible incidents, but nevertheless important. The breed’s lineage is obscure, but ancient, with written records tracing back to the 1500s, yet already referring to the horse as the “Old Breed.”
For centuries the Suffolk Punch worked the heavy clay fields of its home in eastern England. No one sought to improve it through crossing with other breeds for many years—it was invaluable exactly as it was. In fact, it was so invaluable few farmers could afford to sell their horses. So the Suffolk Punch remained relatively isolated in its native home, few in numbers but high in the esteem of its owners.
Because the breed’s population was always low, one sire came to the forefront. This stallion was Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, born in 1768. All modern Suffolk Punch horses trace back to him.
The modern Suffolk Punch may have been influenced by crossbreeding experiments in the early 1800s. Many breeders at this time were out to produce the perfect coach horse. The Suffolk Punch was crossed with trotters from Yorkshire and Norfolk, as well as the occasional Thoroughbred. The resulting coach horse was indeed an animal well suited to his task, with the strength and substance of the Suffolk Punch and the activity of the trotter. Many horse experts of the day, however, felt that the purebred Suffolk Punch suffered in the process, as it was allowed to die out and a new draft horse with coach horse influence took its place. This horse, they claimed, was indeed a willing worker, but it just couldn’t plow as much land in a day as the old horse.
Even so, the breed was still worthy of a place in America. Limited importations began in 1880. Farmers in New England and the Midwest appreciated the abilities and work ethic of the breed, but limited numbers in England meant that there were never enough Suffolk Punch horses to go around.
The rise of mechanization at the end of World War II drove the Suffolk Punch to the brink of extinction. The American population fell to a low of 50 horses, most of which lived on three farms in Iowa.
Fortunately, the 1960s brought renewed interest in draft horses of all breeds. Several Suffolk Punch horses were imported to the United States again in the 1970s, which provided England with an impetus to preserve the rare breed. Crossbreeding with Belgian draft horses was also carried out in America in the 1970s and early 1980s to prevent a genetic disaster.
The Suffolk Punch continues to increase in numbers today, although it is still rare. Its global population is estimated at 520 animals.
The Suffolk Punch has a long history of working on the farm, and it is in this role that it excels today. It is equally at home in the field or the woodlot. It has also earned a place in recreational driving, despite the fact that it is not as flashy as other draft breeds.
A purebred Suffolk Punch can make a good saddle horse for a heavyweight rider. Its crossbred offspring frequently have the strength and stamina necessary to perform well in jumping and eventing.
For work ethic and a sweet, loving nature, the Suffolk Punch is unequaled among horses. Due to its calmness and willingness, this gentle giant is easy to break and safe to work with. It is quiet and friendly around children. However, the Suffolk Punch can face its work with pluck. It will push its strength to the limit rather than give up.
The Suffolk Punch is the ultimate low-maintenance draft horse. It has a robust constitution, and it lacks the feathering that causes disease in most heavy horse breeds. Despite the scarcity of the breed, inbreeding has not become a problem thanks to the proportionately large number of breeding stallions to choose from.
- Heat tolerance.
- Surprisingly low feed requirements for a draft horse.
- Early maturity.
- Exceptional longevity.
- Uniformity, which makes it easy to find a matching team.
- Tremendous stamina.
- Fast working pace.
One of the largest horses in the world is the ancient Shire of Great Britain. Its precise origin is unknown. It may have had ancestors among the heavy horses of the Bretons at the time of the Roman invasions. Probably it also traces back to the Great Horse ridden by armor-clad knights of medieval times. It may be linked to the ancestors of the Belgian and the Friesian, as well.
However the Shire came about, it was prized in England for centuries, first as a war horse, and later, with the advent of gunpowder, as a draft horse. It was bred in the Midland counties (shires), such as Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, where soils were deep and heavy. Oxen had previously plowed these soils, since it would take a substantial horse to stand up to the work, but the mighty Shire proved that it could take on the task—and complete it far quicker than the plodding oxen could.
The dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England only increased the demand for the Shire. Livestock breeder Robert Bakewell took the Shire in hand during this time and refined it with Friesian influence, but without sacrificing its size or strength. Throughout the 1700s, and more so in the 1800s, the improved Shire was the draft horse of choice. It could farm, but it could also aid in the shipping of England. Shires hauled barges and wagons full of merchandise to and from seaports for years.
The first Shire to come to America arrived in Massachusetts before 1844, but the second importation in 1853 proved to be more influential. This was an impressive horse named John Bull, who made Illinois his new home. His strength and size convinced others to import Shires over the next few years, and by the 1880s hundreds of horses were arriving in America annually.
Although a few farmers and ranchers favored the Shire, many found grooming a large horse with feathered feet to be too onerous. A partbred Shire was typically used for farm work. The purebred Shire generally made its home in the city, where its striking looks attracted attention to whatever company it worked for.
All draft horses faced the risk of extinction after World War II, when mechanization took place. The Shire died out across most of America, persisting only among the Amish and a handful of Western farmers and ranchers.
Interest in draft horses for sustainable farming awakened a Shire revival during the 1960s and 1970s. The breed’s fortunes varied perilously over the next few decades, and it is still far from safe on our shores. However, the Shire may be represented today by as many as 1,000 animals in America, particularly in the Western and Midwestern states.
The Shire’s legendary strength comes in handy in all types of draft work. It is equally at home pulling heavy loads in the arena, the woodlot, or the field.
However, the Shire is also suitable as a saddle horse for long-legged riders. It has proven itself capable of satisfactory performance in pleasure, trail riding, dressage, police work, and even some basic cattle work. The Shire can also provide a foundation for crossbred sport horses able to take on jumping and eventing.
“Gentle giant” may be a cliché, but it is certainly applicable to the Shire. This horse loves people. Its sweet, mellow disposition makes it a pleasure to work with, and its desire to please makes it highly trainable.
The Shire is also famous for its calmness. Loud noises and fast movements rarely spook it. Although this trait can make it appear sluggish, the Shire does not shirk its duty—it is just one of the most stable of horse breeds.
The legs and feet of the Shire are high-maintenance due to size and feathering. The hooves need regular trimming to keep them in peak health, or the weight of the horse will cause them to crack and break down. Also, the feathering must be kept clean and dry to avoid mites and fungus.
The Shire is prone to chronic progressive lymphedema, which at first may appear to be a skin infection related to the leg feathering. However, this disease is actually a partly genetic condition that affects lymph tissue and is eventually fatal.
Like many other draft horses, some Shires suffer from equine polysaccharide storage myopathy. This condition causes carbohydrates to accumulate in the muscles, leading to tremors. Fortunately, a high-fat, low-starch diet can keep an affected horse in good health.
- Easy-to-handle personality.
- Extreme strength.
- Surprising athleticism.
- Relative scarcity.
- High grooming requirements.
- High maintenance costs due to large size; needs ample feed, large shoes, a roomy stall, etc.
- High impact on pastures.
- Slow working pace.
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 were sent annually 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.