Shetland Ponies are one of the iconic images of Shetland. Being able to view ponies in Shetland is very popular for visitors; people never get tired of looking at a new born foal in the spring or a gorgeously groomed Stallion with a shining coat in the summer sun.
Shetland ponies were thought to have come to Shetland during the Bronze Age period. Various excavations around Shetland have revealed the smaller bones of the ponies, they have been used domestically on the islands ever since. Examples of work they have been used for is to plough fields, carry the cut peats home from the hill, carting and for general work on the croft.
The Stud of Lord Londonderry was established on the Islands of Bressay and Noss. Ponies from this stud were bred for export and used in the coal mines in County Durham after a law was passed in 1847 banning children from entering the coal mines. The ponies took over their roles as they were hardy, sure footed animals. Because of their size they were able to take the coal from the mines with very little problem. They were the big 42 inch ponies and were very well looked after by the workers.
After a period of huge popularity for the pony, the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was formed with the aim of publishing a stud book which was the first for a native breed of pony in Britain. Jack of Noss was the first registered pony in The Shetland Pony Stud Book in 1890.
There were probably up to 10 000 ponies between 1820 and 1890 but these numbers dropped to 5000 by the early 20th century. Today there are fewer than 1000 ponies in Shetland. The market goes up and down with demand and if there is no demand for ponies’ people hold off breeding them.
Shetland Ponies come in three sizes
Miniatures 28-34 inches – 86 cm
Midis 34 -38 inches – 96 cm
Standard 38 – 42 inches 107 cm
If a pony is above 42 inches it cannot be registered in the Stud Book
Each pony has a prefix and a name. These allow buyers to link the pony to the Stud where it came from and its breeding history.
Each pony also has a micro chip on the shoulder for identification purposes. A diagram of the pony is completed when it is born. All identifying marks must be marked up onto the diagram. This is used when applying for the passport.
Today ponies are used for pony riding for small children, before advancing onto bigger horses, also as companions to bigger horses. These are sociable animas, so if you have one Shetland pony you would probably have a second one as a companion. This role is sometimes met by a sheep.
Shetland ponies are not indoor animals. They are hardy and can endure the harsher weather. They can live till late twenties and into their early thirties.
Stallions have to be examined by a vet before being used for breeding. Head, feet, tail and teeth are checked for correctness. A stallion has to be three years old before he can be passed and a filly foal will normally not be bred till she is three. They still have to get their adult teeth during this time and they lose condition during this time.
Shetland ponies come in various colours; the most common are Skewbald, Piebald, Chestnut, Tri Colour and black.
A Mare will normally go to the stallion in May to foal in April. The female will carry the foal for 11 months. The foals have to be 18 weeks before it can go to the sale, and a sale is held once a year in October in Shetland. Breeders need to try and be about when they the pony is having a foal to make sure the sac the pony comes in breaks otherwise it could die. If all is going well it will take just minutes for the foal to be born.
When ponies are in foal they are given a special hard food to supplement their nutritional needs. There is one that is specially designed for Shetland Ponies that contain all the necessary minerals that they need to remain healthy.
Ponies should be fed on hay and not silage as they can develop Listeriosis. Ponies do not have the same digestive organs as a sheep or a cow. Laminitis can be a problem also if ponies spend too much time on green grass in the spring and autumn. Sugar in the green grass causes the problem. Blood gets trapped and causes a bubble that goes septic and causes an abscess in the foot.
The best place to keep a Shetland pony is in the heather hill. It is not as soft as keeping them on green grass. There is a rougher terrain which will keep the feet clean and this will help keep laminitis away. When the ponies lose their winter coats, the heather will act as a hairbrush. If, however, they are not in a heather hill, they will rub up against the fences of their enclosures and this often causes great frustration to crofters and pony owners.
If you are aware of ponies eating and the food falling out their mouth their teeth need attention. This involves rasping with a file.
There are various agricultural shows in Shetland through the year and one of the events is the pony show. It is taken very seriously by the breeders. They groom their ponies to the highest standard and they are then judged in various categories and winners announced.