What is a Shetland Pony?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2019
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A Shetland pony is a type of very small horse, native to the Shetland Islands of Scotland and probably one of the oldest breeds of horse in Britain. Because of its gentle nature and small stature, the Shetland pony is one of the most famous breeds of horse, and a popular choice as a first pony for children learning to ride or drive. The incredibly strong, plucky ponies can be found all over the world, and are primarily used recreationally, although some are still used for draft work and hauling.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Shetland pony has been around for hundreds of years. The islanders used the ponies to haul heavy loads of material, and also took advantage of their thick manes and tails to make fishing nets and other useful tools. Because the environment of the Shetland Islands is very rugged, the ponies developed shaggy coats to withstand formidable winters, and are know today for being very hardy and low-maintenance. Farmers would turn their ponies loose on common ground to forage for food when they were not needed, and round them up to complete tasks, resulting in an intelligent, independent animal which is capable of fending for itself when it needs to.


In the 1800s, the Shetland pony found a new use in Britain, as a mine or pit pony. Laws cracking down on the use of child labor in the coal mines led to a need for more hauling ability in the mines, and the Shetland pony was considered well suited for the job. The small ponies are capable of hauling large amounts of weight proportionate to their size, and can also fit in the cramped environment of the mines. Life as a pit pony was probably extremely unpleasant, but it did popularize the breed, leading to an increased demand for the Shetland pony and the establishment of breed standards and preservation schemes in 1890.

To be considered a Shetland pony, the pony must be under 46 inches (117 centimeters) tall, with a small head and a compact, stocky body. The classic Shetland pony has short legs, although some ponies have been bred with longer legs and neck for a more horse -like look. Any coat color is considered acceptable for a Shetland pony, although the coat may not be spotted. In the summer, the Shetland pony tends to look a little peculiar, as it loses its extremely thick, shaggy winter coat in large unsightly clumps.

In addition to being gentle and loyal, the Shetland pony is also known for having a stubborn streak. Like many other ponies, the Shetland pony is highly intelligent, and will disobey a command which it thinks may be dangerous. This is a desirable trait in a children's horse, but a poorly trained Shetland pony will take advantage of an unskilled rider, and can prove difficult to handle. However, if well-trained, a Shetland pony will make an excellent riding and driving animal, and is an excellent starter pony for children interested in pursuing horses.


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