A short history of the Shetland pony

Women working with ponies on Shetland around 1900
Women working with ponies on Shetland around 1900
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THE harsh climes of Scotland’s far north helped create a strong, clever and adaptable beast.

The ponies are thought to have first arrived in Shetland more than 2,000 years ago after trekking from southern Europe over the ice fields.

Shetland ponies one of Scotland's most recognisable breeds - used here  in a Visit Scotland campaign

Shetland ponies one of Scotland's most recognisable breeds - used here in a Visit Scotland campaign

Shetland Ponies are now one of Scotland’s most loved and recognisable breeds having evolved to suit the harsher climes of the country’s most northerly reaches.

Although they never stand more than four-feet tall, they are the strongest of all the horse breeds with an ability to pull twice their own body weight.

They are also considered to be fiercely intelligent.

Excavations on Shetland have suggested that small ponies have existed on the islands since the Bronze Age with the small, stout pony possibly a result of Celtic settlers crossing the southern European beast with an Oriental breed.

It is legendary that during the worst winters lack of grazing on the scathold would drive ponies to forage for seaweed

Spokesman for Shetland Pony Stud Breed Society

A spokesman for the Shetland Pony Stud Breed Society said conditions on the islands had helped to secure the hardiness and purity of the breed.

He said they had survived the worst of winters even when owners had been unable to feed their animals due to lack of available fodder.

He said: “No place in Shetland is further than four miles from the sea and it is legendary that during the worst winters lack of grazing on the scathold would drive some ponies to forage for seaweed along the shores.

“The ponies however were not small due to sparse living conditions but rather it was the small pony that was able to survive this, whereas larger horses did not. Shetlands bred in milder climates which are given ample food do not increase in size at all.”

Shetland ponies - on Shetland

Shetland ponies - on Shetland

Shetland ponies stand between just over two feet and four feet tall and are able to carry around nine stone in weight.

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For centuries, the pony was the workhorse of the north, cultivating land, carrying peat and seaweed and transporting its owner across the islands.

Hair from the pony’s tail could also be used for making fishing lines.

A change in law in the mid 1800 that banned children from entering coal pits signalled a new era for the Shetland pony, with many “exchanging the freedom of the hills for the darkness of the mines,” the society said.

It was their “docile and willing” nature that allowed them to adapt well to their underground environment.

Around this time, several studs were set up to insure the best stock was available to work.

The Marquis of Londonderry set up a stud in the 1870s on the islands of Bressay and Noss to supply ponies for the collieries he owned in County Durham.

He is said to have produced a much improved animal in a remarkably short time with the society believing these ponies had the most significant effect on the type of ponies seen today.

Around this time, interest in the pony was huge and thousands of ponies left the islands, perhaps as many as 1,000 a year in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. Many were exported over the Atlantic.

The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society was formed in 1890 with the aim of publishing a Stud-Book which was the first for a native breed of pony in Britain.

From these records, Jack 16 emerged as the most lauded pony, who had 49 direct descendants out of the 58 mares recorded in Volume I and II of the book.

The stud was wrapped up in 1899 but the main breeders of the day acquired teh stock from the stud, including Lady Hope who transported a number of ponies to their stud in Sussex where they are still bred today.

Numerous ponies of today trace back to the Bressay stud through the Hope line, the society said.