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The Shetland pony is one of two native pony breeds that heralds from Scotland, the other being the Highland pony. The Shetland pony as its name suggests, derives from the Shetland Islands. The Shetland can probably lay claim to originating from the most inhospitable of all terrains, the rugged islands which lie to the north of Scotland. It is also the smallest of the nine native breeds of pony which can be found in the United Kingdom. Some have claimed that the pony is small due to the harshness of its environment which prevented it from thriving. But raising ponies in more temperate areas of the southern United Kingdom has not resulted in any difference to either height or build. Rather the correct theory seems to be that larger animals could not survive the difficult conditions on the islands hence the size and to some extent, the purity of the breed; there was little point in cross breeding to provide a bigger pony and the location meant that there were hardly any other breeding influences available anyway.
The Shetland pony was originally used as a pack pony to cart seaweed which was valued for its rich fertilisation properties. Seaweed is also a natural food choice for the Shetland as there is little to be offered by way of diet in these bleak and inhospitable islands located to the north of Scotland particularly in the winter time. This rugged landscape has given rise to a very strong and hardy pony which seems to have been present on the islands for hundreds if not thousands of years. There is fairly strong evidence that it dates back to at least the time of the Bronze Age. With the development of mining in the nineteenth century, the Shetland pony was in great demand as a pit pony, its tiny size making it an ideal choice to haul coal underground.
Part of a thriving native pony scene in the UK, the Shetland pony has always had a universal appeal because of its size and cheeky appearance. Who can forget Socks the famous moon walking Shetland pony who featured in a television commercial in 2013 for a mobile phone network. More recently, the very cute pony with its own pony flap in the back door, again on prime time television for an internet retailer.
Shetland ponies are a popular choice as driving ponies; it can be hard to find small enough jockeys for them so what better idea than to drive them either in single or double harness. They do however also make excellent children’s ponies under saddle and there are always two or three representatives of the breed at the famous Mountain and Moorland final held at the London International Horse Show at Olympia just before Christmas. This is not the only event at Olympia in which the Shetland makes an appearance. Rather quaintly for a pony of such small stature, they have a racing series called the Shetland Pony Grand National named after the famous steeplechase run at Aintree in Liverpool every April. A series of qualifiers around the country throughout the year, leads a group of ponies to the finals at Olympia in December. Every night, there is a race where the tiny ponies and their jockeys race over mini brush fences in the same style as the original steeplechase after which it is named. The races are partly a crowd pleaser with money raised going to charity but many of the ponies present carry the prefix of the best known Shetland studs and this first taste of race riding can lead their small jockeys onto the real thing later on.
The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society which governs the breed today was formed in 1890 at a time when demand for the ponies was at its height, both as driving ponies and for use in the mines as pit ponies. There was also a thriving trade in the export of the ponies across the Atlantic to the United States. Nowadays the Shetland Pony Stud-Book oversees the breed as a pleasure and leisure animal and the Shetland certainly punches above its weight on the native pony circuit. Unlike some of the native pony breeds which seem to have got bigger over the years, the breed standard restricts height to 42 inches or below. And unusually again in comparison with the other native breeds, any colour is permitted other than spotted and so it is not uncommon to see both piebald and skewbald Shetlands at the big native pony championships. As a breed, the Shetland pony could be termed a little bit “marmite”; it seems to evoke a strong response from most people in either a positive or a negative way. For any little girl however, the cuddly factor is just too irresistible.