The Shetland pony is a breed of pony (a type of small horse) that is very strong for its size. Shetlands range in size from a minimum height of approximately 28 inches to an official maximum height of 42 inches (10.2 hands, 107 cm) at the withers. (11.2 hands for American Shetlands) Shetland ponies have heavy coats, short legs and are considered quite intelligent. They are a very strong breed of pony, used for riding, driving, and pack purposes.
Shetland ponies developed in the Shetland Islands, located northeast of mainland Scotland. Small horses lived on the Shetland Islands since the Bronze Age, and while the roots of the ancient wild pony are unknown, it is believed that they are related to the ancient Scandinavian ponies; the islands were once physically connected to Scandinavia up until the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 8000 BC. People who lived on the islands domesticated the animal and later crossed the native stock with ponies imported by Norse settlers. Shetland ponies also were probably influenced by the Celtic Pony, brought to the islands by the Celts between 2000 and 1000 BC. The harsh climate and scarce food developed the ponies into extremely hardy animals.
Shetland ponies were first used for pulling carts, carrying peat and other items, and ploughing farmland. Then, as the Industrial Revolution increased the need for coal in the mid-19th century, thousands of Shetland ponies travelled to mainland Britain to be pit ponies, working underground hauling coal, often for their entire (often short) lives. Coal mines in the eastern United States also imported some of these animals.
The Shetland Pony Stud Book Society of the United Kingdom was started in 1890 to maintain purity and encourage high-quality animals. In 1957, the Shetland Islands Premium Stallion Scheme was formed to subsidize high-quality registered stallions to improve the breeding stock.
Today, Shetlands are used as children's ponies, are shown in harness classes, and in the United Kingdom are also featured in the Shetland Pony Grand National, galloping around a racecourse with young jockeys.
Shetland Ponies are hardy and strong due to the fact that the breed evolved in the harsh conditions of the Shetland Islands. They are possibly the strongest breed relative to their size, and one of the toughest breeds of pony in the world. They are also especially long-lived.
Shetlands can be almost every colour, including Skewbald and Piebald (called Pinto in the United States), but are mainly black, chestnut, bay, brown, gray, palomino, dun, roan, cremello, silver dapple, champagne and pangare. Registered shetlands are not leopard spotted (appaloosa).
In appearance, Shetlands have a small head, sometimes with a dished face, wide spaced eyes and small, alert ears. The original breed has a short, muscular neck, compact, stocky bodies, and short, strong legs and a shorter than normal cannon bone in relation to their size. A short broad back and deep girth are universal characteristics as is a springy stride. Shetlands have long thick manes and tails and a dense double winter coat to withstand harsh weather.
Shetland ponies are generally gentle, good-tempered (though they can become impatient and snappy if poorly handled), and very intelligent by nature. They make good children's ponies, but can be very opinionated or "cheeky," and, if not handled properly, can be flat-out stubborn. Due in part to their intelligence and size, they are easily spoiled and can be very headstrong if not well-trained.
For its size, the Shetland is the strongest of all horse and pony breeds. It can pull twice its own weight under circumstances where a draft horse can only pull approximately half its own weight. Shetland ponies are found worldwide, though mainly in the UK and North America. In general, UK ponies tend to preserve more of the original characteristics of the breed and are often stockier than their American cousins.
The first Shetland ponies for which there are written records were imported to the United States in 1885 by Eli Elliot. These ponies provided the foundation stock for the development of the American Shetland, and were crossed with ponies of other breeds, including the Hackney pony, Welsh pony, and Harness Show Pony. The breeding of the ponies was mainly centered in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.
In 1888, the American Shetland Pony Club was formed and now has two studbooks: Division A and Division B. Division A registers ponies with 12.5% or less outcross (non-Shetland) blood, and Division B is open to any pony with 12.5% or more outcross blood. Foundation Certification is also available for ponies from 4 generations of Division A breeding.
American Shetland Ponies are more refined than the traditional Shetland. They often have a long, thin, "hooky" neck, a more refined body, and longer legs. The breed tends to be long and narrow through the back, with broad and muscular hindquarters and high withers. The shoulder has good slope, allowing for extravagant action. These ponies are most often used for harness work and as children's ponies. They can be seen show jumping in classes for young riders, at horse shows in both Western and English riding classes, as well as many other competitive events, including gymkhana, novelty harness racing, and shown at halter.
However, the compact "classic" type of Shetland is still more prevalent in overall numbers in the USA, though such ponies are not always registered.