Shetland ponies are one of Scotland's most recognisable animal breeds. So much so that 2 local ponies wearing Fair Isle cardigans, found global fame as the unofficial mascots of the ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’ tourism campaign. Traditionally, they were very important to Shetland families and are now much loved by enthusiasts and visitors alike. I have never owned horses or ponies, so this blog is written from the perspective of an interested amateur. During my 17 years in Shetland, I have come to appreciate how important the breed has been to the Islands over the centuries, and how much they are an intrinsic part of the landscape.
Archaeological excavations in Shetland show that small ponies existed in the islands in the Bronze Age - about 2800 years ago (a pony shoulder bone was documented in excavations at Jarlshof in the South Mainland). Over the years, Shetlands developed into strong, adaptable animals, living outside all year whatever the weather. They have long thick manes and tails, and very dense winter coats to withstand the harsh conditions. Owners often struggled to feed their families, so the ponies had to survive bleak winters when there was little grazing and no additional fodder available. During the worst winters, ponies often foraged for seaweed along the shores and it was the small ponies that survived when larger horses did not.
Shetlands like to work and traditionally were the work-horse on the crofts, helping cultivate land, carry peats and transport its owner and goods. For their size, they are the strongest of all horse breeds, able to pull twice their own body-weight – historically it is known they would carry two adults if necessary. They were also used for ploughing, but larger horses or oxen were preferred for this purpose if they were available. Fishing was vital to subsistence crofting life in Shetland and the men used hair from ponies’ tails for fishing lines.
The 1st recorded exports of Shetlands came in the 16th century, but it was quite limited in numbers until the 1850s, when demand increased massively. New legislation in 1842 banned younger children from working in British coal mines and soon male Shetland ponies took their place and were highly-prized. (The Act prohibited all underground work for women and girls, and for boys under 10. The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1860 raised the age limit for boys from 10 to 12). Ponies were used to pull the coal-wagons and their size to strength ratio, plus their willing nature meant they were invaluable to the mine-owners. Their lives were tough: stabled underground and only bought to the surface for about two weeks each year. Despite the harsh conditions, they were generally well treated by their human co-workers, as the men recognised that they were vital to the smooth running of the mines.
Several studs were set up in Shetland in the late 1800s to ensure the best stock was available for the mines. The Marquis of Londonderry set up a stud in the 1870s on the islands of Bressay and Noss to supply ponies for his collieries in County Durham. As many as 1,000 ponies per year were exported in the 1890s, supplying both the UK and US markets. With such a rush of breeding activity and concern that the breed would be changed forever, the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society of the United Kingdom was established in 1890. It aimed to maintain purity and encourage breeding of only high-quality animals, by publishing the Stud Book. This was the first for a native pony breed in Britain and ‘Jack’ of Noss was the first pony registered. The Noss stud was closed in 1899, but many ponies today can trace their ancestry back to this time.
Nowadays to be classed or shown as a Shetland, all ponies must be registered in the Stud Book and not exceed 42 inches (107 cm) at the shoulder. There are three recognised sizes; standard (38”-42”), midi (34”-38”) and miniature (<34”) – generally the smallest are around 28”. All registered ponies are named and prefixed with the name of their stud – the new method of naming (the pony Jack of Noss, would now be Noss Jack). Each has a micro-chip in the shoulder (recording pedigree and breeding details) and all have a passport, with a diagram of their markings and colours. The passport can be updated, but often isn’t - even if markings change (which they can), but it does include details of medication administered in case an animal ends up in the food chain. In the USA, a different pony breed has developed, known as The American Shetland, but this is quite a different pony. It can be up to 46” tall, with a finer bone structure and more of a "horse" appearance.
Shetland stallions must be examined by a vet before breeding, to ensure no significant physical defects exist that may be passed on, thus helping to preserve the breed-quality and standard. From 2017, colts cannot be passed as a stallion until they are 3 years old and fillies must be 3 years old before they can foal – most breeders now do not put a mare to the stallion until they are 3-years-old, so foal at 4 years. The gestation period is 11 months and the foals must be 18 weeks old before they can go to the pony sales on the first Friday in October at the Shetland market; breeders therefore try to ensure they are born in May. Mares often give birth unaided, but there can be complications with the loss of the foal, so breeders try to be on-hand to assist if necessary. Twins are very rare.
The market for Shetland ponies has been erratic for many years. One season may yield good prices, but other years see foals being sold very cheaply or not at all. There are always good prices for excellent stallions, but folk are breeding fewer Shetlands locally and there are now only just over 1000 ponies in the isles. There used to be about 600 ponies sold at the local Markets annually – but now only about 50-60 each year.
In 1971, local enthusiasts agreed there was a need for closer communication amongst Island breeders and also with the Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society, and so the Pony Breeders of Shetland Association was born – with the aim to encourage the improvement of Shetland Ponies on the Islands, and to promote them within the Islands and Worldwide. Several schemes to improve the breed were operated - one such scheme was the Scattald Stallion Scheme whereby stallions were specifically selected to run with mares on the scattalds (common grazings) in summer. Another project was the Filly and Colt Schemes whereby breeders were encouraged to retain their best young stock and to allow their maturity to develop fully before breeding from them. Neither of these schemes are now in operation, but their legacy remains.
The ponies are generally long-lived, often living more than 30 years – possibly 40. They can easily develop laminitis if given too much green grass in spring and autumn. Laminitis can lead to abscesses in the feet, and can be very difficult to treat if not caught early. Diets are often supplemented with hay or haylage in the winter, but irrespective of weather, ponies are happiest outside all year and are rarely housed, unless unwell or very old – hence you do not find ‘stables’ for them.
Shetlands can be almost any colour, but are mainly black, chestnut, tri-colour, skewbald (chestnut and white) or piebald (black and white) but never spotted. Their colour at birth is not necessarily an indicator of their adult colour or markings, and winter coats can even be a different colour to the summer coat – no wonder the passports aren't always updated!
Shetlands are very intelligent and are generally good-tempered, but they can be unco-operative and headstrong if not well-trained. Today, they are mainly used as children’s riding ponies, shown at harness and are kept as companions for other horses. They like company and get bored if kept alone. Many enthusiasts simply keep them as ‘pets’ or for showing, although it's a very expensive hobby. They feature in Shetland Pony Grand Nationals around the UK, galloping around a miniature jumping arena with young jockeys, competing for a place at the annual International Horse of the Year Show in Olympia, London each December. Several young riders from Shetland have made the trip to London with their ponies for this prestigious event.
In 2019, a different prestigious pony event was held here in the Islands. Saturday 27th July 2019 saw the 37th Annual Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society UK National Breed Show take place in Lerwick. It was the highlight of a 10-day celebration - visitors came from all over the globe to visit studs, attend the show, watch the sales and immerse themselves completely in all things ‘pony’ here in Shetland. Glorious weather greeted the participants with 408 entries, consisting of 301 ponies, across 5 show rings. Exhibitors attended from across Shetland as well as Orkney, Scotland and England - the farthest travelling from Gloucestershire. Many European countries, as well as Australia and Canada were all represented by the hundreds of spectators. The international flavour of the show was also mirrored by the judges, with 3 international judges officiating alongside 4 from the UK. There was strong competition across most of the classes with a very good standard of ponies overall.
After many classes and much deliberation, 3-year-old chestnut colt Merkisayre Julian from Merkisayre Stud in Burra, Shetland was named the overall Supreme Champion. The whole event was a great success thanks to the tireless work of so many volunteers and the sponsors helping to make it happen. Despite being a small community on a rock in the North Atlantic, Shetland manages this size of event very well, as everyone pulls together - the islands have previously held Tall Ships events and the Island Games – all events receiving plaudits for the friendly atmosphere and great organisation.
Shetland ponies remain one of the most iconic images of Shetland and are a ‘must-see’ for most visitors to the Islands. Local enthusiasts continue to promote the breed and the widespread interest in these hardy little ponies should ensure they remain a popular feature of the landscape for years to come.
Although you will see ponies in many places as you travel around the Islands, the best way for visitors to meet them is to arrange a visit to one of the Studs. Go Shetland Tours works closely with Breckenlea Pony Stud and Croft to enable our clients to get close to Shetland ponies, as well as their Shetland sheepdogs and native, coloured Shetland sheep. They have several mares and a stallion, and in 2019 they had 4 foals. They hope to have 3 more foals in 2020 – keep an eye on our Facebook and Instagram feeds for photos of new arrivals and you can also follow Breckenlea’s news on Facebook.
Photos - by Sophie Whitehead-Robertson, June Brown, Roselyn Fraser or myself - Gill Nadin. Thank you to the other three ladies for letting me use their photos.