Horse Breeds Series: Shetland Pony

If you were to ask most people to name a breed of miniature horse, the first to spring to mind would probably be the Shetland Pony. This diminutive animal has achieved widespread fame thanks to its famously stumpy frame, and for its intelligence and friendliness – particularly with children.


Like the overwhelming majority of animal breeds, the Shetland pony takes its name from its birthplace: the Shetland Isles, off the coast of Scotland. Being set in such a remote backdrop, the details of the Shetland’s origin story are scarce. What we do know from archaeological discoveries is that small horses were present on the islands since the Bronze Age. Since then, the islands have seen plenty of action (at least, relatively speaking). Norse invaders brought with them their own horses, and these were cross-bred with the natives, and so too did Celts centuries prior.

The geography of the island had a profound influence on the eventual horses that would be bred there. The conditions were harsh and blustery, and the food scarce, particularly during winter. Clearly, keeping an enormous animal like a shire horse would have placed an extreme burden on the delicate island economy during this time. Instead, a smaller, hardier animal was called for – one which could navigate the island’s ragged terrain with ease, and which could survive on just a small amount of food each winter.

And with such a small amount of animals to draw from, inbreeding became not only necessary, but desirable – as it would help the islanders to produce the physical attributes that would define the breed. Shetland ponies proved themselves useful in a number of ways. Their incredible strength made them essential in pulling heavy ploughs across farmland. They would help travellers to ferry large amounts of goods across the islands – and without the aid of a well-maintained road system!

But the horse’s size was to eventually prove useful in other areas of society. When the industrial revolution struck in the mainland in the 19th century, the demand for coal skyrocketed. The miners needed a means of carrying through tunnels – and the Shetland pony would provide exactly such a means. They would spent their lives underground, ferrying coal back and forth. Of course, this practice would appeal the modern equestrian; but the Victorian thirst for coal was such that the welfare of the animals was not considered.

Happily, modern Shetland ponies enjoy far more prosperous lives. They’re able to live for far longer, and to spend their lives out in the open, with the fresh air in the faces and the sky over their heads!

Physical Characteristics

Shetland Ponies are instantly recognisable thanks to their diminutive size. They have short, stumpy legs and large, stocky bodies, with broad backs. Their heads are small, and their necks enormous and muscular. Atop the neck you’ll typically find an extensive and fluffy mane, which matches their double winter fur coats, which adapted to protect them from the extreme cold and wind of the Shetland Isle winters.

They’re incredibly heavily muscled: pound-for-pound, Shetland ponies are thought to be among the strongest breeds of horse, being capable of pulling their entire body weight. It’s capable of pulling its entire body weight, with some being able to pull twice their own body weight. When you consider that the average draft horse can manage only half this, the feat becomes all the more impressive.

Shetlands are available in a number of different colours, ranging from grey to black to roan to brown. There’s therefore a colour to suit all tastes.


Shetland ponies are a warm-blooded animal. This means that they represent a happy middle-ground between the larger, cold-blooded horse, which is so utterly relaxed that it can’t be persuaded to do anything in a hurry, and the hot-blooded horse, which will panic if not handled properly. It’s therefore perfect for intermediate riders looking for a step up.

At the same time, however, the Shetland is a great option for small children who’ve yet to make their first foray into horse ownership. Unlike larger horses, which can be more intimidating and difficult to handle, the Shetland can be easily maneuverer by children. Perhaps more importantly, they’re easier to ride than larger horses, and can be mounted without the aid of a stepladder!

Shetland ponies are very intelligent and headstrong. For this reason, they need to be given the right training if they’re to avoid developing a ‘cheeky’ streak. If they’re allowed to get their own way all the time, they can easily become spoiled. Giving a child this responsibility can help to ensure that both horse and master learn a great deal from one another.

Shetland ponies are often seen in entertainment – they’re used in zoos and ‘other animal’ attractions, and are often used to pull carriages. They’re also used to give children their first experience of horse riding, and are often seen as an alternative to the famous beach donkey-ride.

Medical Problems

Generally speaking, Shetlands are a healthy breed. That said, they are at an increased risk from certain sorts of medical problem. Let’s examine them.

Heart Problems

Like many ponies, the Shetland is capable of living for an extraordinarily long time, with many surviving well past thirty. That said, they are also capable of dying prematurely as a result of heart problems, to which their smallness predisposes them. In order to guard against this, Shetlands should be fed a diet rich in fibre, and free from simple sugars.


Shetland ponies are also prone to laminitis, a condition which effects their feat. Affected horses will suffer from an inflammation of the laminae (the layers of skin which hold the bones of the hoof in position). The end result of this is lameness.

In order to guard against this outcome, it’s important to place special consideration on the Shetland Pony’s diet. Fortunately, Shetland ponies require less food than their larger contemporaries, and breeders can easily ensure that the feed they are given is of a higher, more nutrient-rich quality.

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