Shetland Pony Origin and Characteristics

The Shetland Pony is a horse with a unique look. They are highly intelligent horses, but with a small size. Their height is why they are referred to as a “pony” instead of as a “horse.” They are sturdy, stocky in appearance, and have a thick coat thanks to the breed’s development in the Shetland Isles. When looking at a Shetland Pony, you’ll see an animal that is compact and strong.

An American sub-type of the Shetland Pony has been developed since the 20th century as well. American Shetlands tend to have more refinement to their general appearance. They also tend to be a little taller and have longer legs.

The average Shetland Pony can pull up to twice its own weight and many are able to support a rider that weighs up to 130 pounds. They are also one of the longer-lived breeds in the equine world today. It is not unusual for a Shetland to reach the age of 30.

Nutrition is extremely important when caring for a Shetland Pony. Their size and physical structure makes them susceptible to laminitis, especially when the horse’s diet is primarily carbohydrates.

Today, you will find Shetlands working in a number of venues. They can be ridden by children and make an excellent training horse. They often work at carnivals or fairs to offer a short ride. Some ponies can be trained as a certified support animal, helping individuals with disabilities. Shetlands are routinely part of a petting zoo experience as well.

What Is the Origin of the Shetland Pony?

Small horses and ponies have been kept in the Shetland Isles of Scotland since at least the Bronze Age. It is believed that at one point, the native horses on the islands were crossbred with horses and pones that were brought to the region by settlers from the Norse regions of Europe at the time.

Additional influences from the Celtic pony are possible as well, but it is the natural environment of the region that had the greatest influence on these horses. It is a harsh climate that offers a scarce food supply, so these ponies needed to develop an extreme hardiness just so they could survive.

That hardiness turned the Shetland Pony into an intense worker. Their strength is comparable to horses of a more traditional size. They would carry peat, coal, or pull carts for miners from the 17th century to the 19th century. Many ponies worked underground in coal mines, often for their entire life, which was shortened because of the difficult conditions in the mine.

Even some “pit ponies” made their way to the United States. The first Shetland ponies were exported to the US in 1885 by Eli Elliot. Elliot would begin to improve the breed from an American perspective, bringing in bloodlines from the Welsh Pony, Hackney ponies, and the Harness Show Pony to improve the height of the horse and give it more strength. 

It wouldn’t be until 1971 when the final mine using pit ponies would finally close. 

A breed registry, called the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society, was formed in 1890 to encourage breeders to produce high-quality animals. The goal was to maintain the purity of the breed despite the high demands for work horses at the time. In 1957, the Shetland Islands Premium Stallion Scheme was formed so that the best registered stallions could be subsidized so that breeding stocks could be improved. 

What Are the Characteristics of a Shetland Pony?

To qualify as a Shetland Pony, the horse must have a minimum height of 7 hands. The official maximum height for the Shetland Pony is 10.2 hands. Different breed registries around the world have different standards on height, however, so there are regional differences. In the US, for example, a Shetland Pony still qualifies for registration at 11.2 hands. 

Shetlands have heads that are strikingly small compared to the stoutness of their body. Their faces are sometimes dished. Eyes tend to be widely spaced and their ears are small, but always seem to be alert.

Strength is found within the neck of the horse. It is a short neck, but with good definition, leading to a body that is stocky and very compact. The cannon bone is shorter than average when comparing the size relation of the horse, but the back is broad and the girth is deep universally within the breed.

A Shetland Pony will grow a thicker winter coat to help withstand the colder weather, supported by a thick tail and a thick mane. The double coat falls out before the warmer months.

The coat can be almost any color within this breed. The most common colors seen are black and chestnut, with bay, gray and roan somewhat common. Dun, cremello, pinto, or silver dapple coats are also possible. Shetlands do not carry the leopard spotting gene like Appaloosas do or the champagne gene, though some horses do have a coat color that is similar to breeds that do have that genetic profile.

Despite their size, Shetlands are cold-blooded in their temperament and personality. They are patient with children, intelligent by nature, and usually possess a willing spirit. There are some individuals that have low patience levels with circumstances they do not like, which can cause the horse to become uncooperative. These horses are often described as being “opinionated” or “snappy.”

Training is important for the Shetland Pony. Because of their size, many owners tend to inadvertently spoil their horses. Should this occur, some individuals can become very headstrong and demanding.

Differences Found in the American Shetland Pony

Beginning in 1888, just 3 years after the first written records of imports to the United States, the American Shetland Pony Club was formed. It had two stud books that were used, creating Division A and Division B ponies. Shetlands in Division A had 12.5% or less outcross, while Division B had 12.5% or more outcross. If 4 generations of Division A breeding could be proved in the lineage of an individual, then foundation certification would be awarded to that pony.

Since 2009, the division designations have been eliminated from the registration process.

American Shetlands tend to have a neck that is somewhat longer than their counterparts. Their body structure tends to be a little longer and narrower through the back as well. Noticeably high withers are present, along with hindquarters that have distinct power. Shoulders should have a good slope to them so that the horse can show a dynamic level of action.

The American Shetland Pony Club recognizes four specific types of Shetlands.

#1. Modern. These ponies tend to be the tallest of the breed. When shown, they tend to offer a higher head set than the other types. They also tend to have higher stepping action.

#2. Pleasure. These ponies are bred in the same fashion as the modern-type American Shetland, but don’t have the same level of action. It tends to be somewhat more subdued.

#3. Classic. These ponies offer the taller, more refined look of the American Shetland and are treated as being the typical type sought after. They lack the action of the modern-type pony, but have the highest levels of refinement. The classic-type pony also tends to have a gentler disposition and prefers higher levels of social activity with humans.

#4. Foundation. These ponies are classified through their lineage instead of their physical characteristics. A foundation-type pony cannot have any Hackney influence within its lineage for a minimum of 4 generations. All ponies within this type must also be 10.2 hands high or less. These ponies are closest to the international standard for the breed.

For American Shetlands, because it is listed as a sub-type, many owners choose not to register their horse because they believe it does not meet the international standard. American standards are somewhat different, so the American Shetland Pony Club believes there are several more classic-type ponies in the US than their registration numbers indicated.

Differences Found in the German Shetland Pony

Beginning in 1965, German breeders began to import American Shetlands to develop their own sub-type. Their goal was to create a sporting-type of horse using Shetland lineage. They wanted to improve the temperament of the horse, add more refinement to the head, and give it a better gait.

In 2000, the UK registry for the Shetland Pony refused to register any horse with American bloodlines as a purebred. Because of this action, the Germans who had imported American Shetlands begin their own registry.

All coat colors are listed as being acceptable in the German registry, but horses with a chestnut coat and a flax mane tend to be the most common. 

Cross registration between the various international Shetland Pony associations and registries is allowed, assuming the pedigree or conformation meets the expected standards in each location. There may be variations within this breed, but one thing is for certain: the Shetland Pony will continue to be a popular breed because of its unique look and brilliant temperament and personality.