Shetland ponies, also known as shelts, are small (on average up to 42 inches to the wither) but strong for their size. Ancient equids had lived in Shetland since the Bronze Age, and later breeders crossed them with ponies imported by Norse invaders. The islanders domesticated the resulting Shetland ponies.
History of the Shetland
The Shetland Pony originated from the Shetland - North East of Scotland. The ancient ponies' roots are unknown, though it is believed that they are related to the ancient Scandinavian ponies from when the islands were joined with Scandinavia (up until 8000 BC). They were probably influenced by the Celtic Pony, taken by the Celts between 2000 and 1000 BC. The harsh climate and scarce food developed the ponies into extremely hardy animals.
They were first used for carrying peat and ploughing. When the Mines Act of 1842 prohibited women and children from working in Britain's coal mines, a new purpose was found:
The demand for these hardy little animals has been on the increase for several years and the prices in consequence have been materially advanced. One dealer has taken about four hundred annually from off the Shetland Islands for the past five years, and the total number yearly exported may be estimated at one thousand. Taking the average price at five pounds, there is brought into these distant isles for ponies alone at least five thousand pounds per annum and nearly all this may be set down as the result of steam communications with Lerwick. Though we name five pounds as the average, there are but few good animals now to be had under seven pounds to eight pounds, and ten pounds are frequently paid for handsome beasts. It is not as riding ponies that so many of them leave the islands, but to supply the demand at the coal mines of England. Every coal mine, ever since female mining was abolished, requires the services of a number of ponies and though the transition might be looked upon as a severe and sudden one to the poor pony, which is carried from the heather hills to be immured in darkness in a coal pit, the little Shetlander thrives in it amazingly.
(from John O'Groats Journal, as printed in The Connecticut Courant, 1850)
Ponies would continue to serve in the mines of Britain and the United States for at least eighty years.
The Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was started in 1890 to maintain purity and encourage high-quality animals. In 1956, 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 and are also featured in the Shetland Pony Grand National, galloping around the course with their young jockeys.
There are two main registries for Shetland ponies, the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society (SPSBS) based in UK, and the American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) based in the USA. Shetland ponies registered with the SPSB cannot be taller than 42" at maturity. ASPC Shetlands range in height from about 30"(rare) to 46" (the breed is measured in inches, not in hands). There is now another blossoming registry for Shetland Ponies in America, the Shetland Pony Society of North America which has been formed to honor the traditional Shetland Pony of island type. Any pony registered with the American, British, or Canadian registry can be registered if it meets the pedigree and conformation standards of the SPSNA.
Shetland Ponies are hardy and strong due to the fact that the breed evolved in the harsh conditions of the Shetland Islands. Even 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, grey, palomino, dun, roan, cream, champagne and pangaré. They should not be 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. In America, a more refined Shetland Pony has been bred over the past 150 years. American Shetland Ponies often have long thin "hooky" neck, a more refined body, and longer legs. A short broad back and deep girth are universal characteristics as are 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 be snappy), and very intelligent by nature. Due in part to their intelligence and size, they are easily spoiled and can be very headstrong if not well-trained, and can make good children's ponies, but can be very cheeky.
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. Many, but not all, of the American Shetland Ponies are crossbred to Hackney Ponies resulting in not a true Shetland Pony but the so called "American Shetland". It's that crossbreeding that has produced the extremely refined body style, hooky necked, longer headed ponies.