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Shetland Ponies hold a special place in the hearts of equestrians worldwide. Because of their small size and friendly nature, they are often a young horse rider’s first pony.
The Shetland Pony originates from the Scottish Shetland Isles, located 105.6 miles (170 km) northeast of the mainland. This fluffy pony breed is easy to recognize from its short legs, deep girth, and springy stride.
Often called “Shetties” in the horse world, they can be of any color except spotted. The most common colors in the breed are black, bay, chestnut, and pinto.
Shetland Ponies are equally suitable for riding and driving and are still used as pack ponies on their native islands.
Here are ten facts about Shetland Ponies:
The Shetland Pony Breed Is Thousands Of Years Old
Researchers believe the ancestors of Shetland Ponies have roamed the Shetland Isles since the Bronze Age (3300 BC – 1200 BC).
It’s believed Shetland Ponies are descended from Celtic and Norse settler Ponies brought to the Shetland Isles between 2000 and 1000 BC. This makes them one of the oldest horse breeds in the world.
Due to the Shetland Isle’s relative isolation, Shetland ponies are one of the purest breeds in existence.
Shetland Ponies did not influence modern horse breeds and still retain their original looks from thousands of years ago.
Shetlands Are The World’s Most Popular Pony Breed
Every horse lover has heard of the adorable and cheeky Shetland ponies. They have been exported to all parts of the world and are widely used as kids’ riding ponies.
According to current estimations, there are 100,000 Shetland ponies in the world today. A surprising 50,000 ponies live in Holland and 15,000 in Britain out of the whole population.
Around 1,000 ponies live on the Shetland Isles, bred by 150 Shetland Pony breeders.
Did you know that Shetland Ponies are allowed to roam free on some of the islands? However, this doesn’t mean they are wild, as the ponies belong to local landowners or “crofters” who care for them.
Also Read: 15 Native British Horse and Pony Breeds
The Maximum Height Of Shetland Ponies Is 42 inches (107 cm)
In the United States, Shetland Ponies can be up to 46 inches (117 cm) tall. However, American Shetlands are different from the original Shetland Pony as they were influenced by several horse and pony breeds.
Shetland Ponies Are Very Strong For Their Size
Shetland Ponies are small but strong. These compact little horses can pull up to twice their body weight, which is 400 to 450 pounds (181.4 to 204.1 kg) on average.
Due to their impressive strength and ability to travel on rough terrain, Shetland Ponies used to carry peat in large saddlebags, an abundant fuel source in the Shetland Isles. Today, the islanders mainly keep them as riding and driving ponies.
Shetland Ponies Are Extremely Tough
The Shetland Isles are not exactly a welcoming place for horses to live. The climate here is cold and windy most of the year, the winters are harsh, and the landscape is rugged with scarce vegetation.
All native animals living here must be extremely tough and resilient to survive, such as the Shetland Pony.
Over the last few thousand years, the ponies have adapted perfectly to their hostile environment. They became small, strong, and developed thick double winter coats. Their long manes and tails also keep them warm when the temperature drops.
Another superpower of Shetland Ponies is that they can survive on little forage. They are the ultimate good doers and have excellent conversion rates for food. The ponies also nibble on the seaweed that washes up on the beaches, an excellent source of minerals to supplement their diet (Source: Shetland.org).
Shetland Ponies Used To Work In Mines
Shetland Ponies were originally used for farming, carriage driving, and carrying peat and other materials. Their strength, good work ethic, and economical upkeep made the ponies a valuable workforce to local islanders.
Since the 1840s, a new law in Great Britain banned the employment of women and children in coal mines. As a replacement, miners used Shetland Ponies that could easily transport coal through the small underground tunnels.
As the demand for “pit ponies” increased, thousands of Shetlands traveled to mainland Britain. The United States also imported Shetland Ponies to work in coal mines on the east coast. This new role has boosted the breed’s popularity and increased the number of Shetland Ponies worldwide.
However, life in a coal mine is far less than ideal for a pony. Many pit ponies worked underground for their entire lives, never catching a glimpse of the sunlight.
Due to protests throughout the 20th century, operations using ponies started to shut down, and the last pony mine in the US closed in 1971.
The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society Formed In 1890
As the demand for Shetland Ponies increased from the mid-19th century, locals started to breed them in Shetland. In 1890, they founded the Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society to keep track of breeding operations and maintain the purity and quality of the breed.
In 1957, breeders launched the Shetland Islands Premium Stallion Scheme to encourage the use of high-quality stallions. The purpose of the scheme was to improve the existing breeding stock further.
The Shetland Pony played a vital role in the foundation of several pony and miniature horse breeds. These include the Pony of the Americas, American Shetland Pony, German Classic Pony, American Miniature, and Falabella breeds.
From the late 19th century, the need for small working ponies increased in other parts of the world. The first Shetland Ponies made their way to the United States in 1885.
Three years later, the American Shetland Pony Club was formed to record Shetland Ponies in the country and develop a distinct breed.
The American Shetland Pony is more refined and lighter in build than the traditional version. This is due to crossbreeding with Welsh Ponies, Hackneys, and the Harness Show Pony.
Shetland Ponies Live Long Lives
Similar to the Haflinger and Fjord Pony breeds, Shetland Ponies are also famous for their long lifespan. Scientists believe this is due to more efficient regulation of the respiratory system during exercise and a denser bone structure. Ponies also live a generally “slower” life than horses, contributing to their higher life expectancy.
It’s typical for a Shetland Pony to live beyond its 30th birthday. The oldest pony on record was a 10 hand Shetland cross Exmoor gelding called Sugar Puff.
Included in our oldest horses in history guide, Sugar Puff lived to be 56 years old, approximately 145 in human years!!
Sugar Puff was owned by Sally Botting from West Sussex, England, since he was 29 years old. Sally’s daughter, Claire, even learned to ride on him!
“He was a safe, reliable pony – we used to teach children to ride on him at school fetes. He was also an old hand at gymkhana and Pony Club,” she told Horse and Hound.
Shetlands Are Popular Riding School Ponies
Riding Schools all over the world use Shetlands as their young riders’ first pony. Its small size and laid-back temperament make the breed ideal for introducing children to the world of horses. Although, you could argue that Shetland Ponies can be cheeky and stubborn, they are rarely dangerous.
Children as young as 2.5 years can ride ponies, according to the Shetland Pony Club in Surrey, England. By this age, most children have developed the core strength necessary to sit upright in the saddle and can start riding under careful supervision. Shetland Ponies can comfortably carry children up to 5′1″ (155 cm) tall and 105 pounds (47.6 kg).
However, Shetland Ponies are not exclusively for children. Adults can show them too at horse shows and driving competitions. Shetlands can also be trained for therapeutic riding and even as guide ponies!
Also Read: How much do Shetland Ponies cost?
There Are Shetland Pony Races
Who would’ve thought that Shetlands could turn into racehorses, too?! In the United Kingdom, the Shetland Pony Grand National is held at several major equestrian events each year.
The Shetland pony races always attract huge crowds and are the highlight of the Olympia Horse Show in London and the Liverpool International Horse Show, for example.
The young jockeys competing in the Shetland Pony Grand National must be between 8 and 14 years old and less than 5 ft (152.4 cm) tall. The Shetland Pony Grand National is the first step towards becoming a professional jockey for many children who make the team.
Seb Garner, who organizes pony races across the UK, told Pony Magazine that children train very hard before setting foot on the racetrack. They need to be experienced riders and demonstrate good control of their ponies before they can race.
“The ponies really do go very fast so we need riders who have plenty of experience are used to riding at speed, jumping, and turning tight corners on small ponies!” Seb Garner revealed in Pony Magazine.
The Shetland Pony Grand National organizes both jump and flat races for children. Moreover, Junior Harness Racing in Queensland, Australia, provides children aged 6-16 an opportunity to drive their Shetland Ponies under race conditions.
Watch these young riders race down the track on the Grand National below: