A Shetland Pony
is a member of one of three specific breeds of small horses
whose ancestors lived on the Shetland
- Shetland Pony (UK)
- Classic American Shetland Pony
- Modern American Shetland Pony
These breeds were originally all the same type and it is only over the last 100 years or so that they have begun to diverge. That's quite a short period compared to the 2,500 year history of the ponies on Shetland.
The Shetland Islands are remote and windswept, far out in the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway. It may be because of the poor conditions that the ponies living there lacked in height but became very hardy. Reference to ponies of good quality living on the islands appear in some of the earliest historical accounts. The islanders made extensive use of the ponies, for riding, and as beasts of burden.
Small numbers were exported from the islands until the British Mines Act of 1842. That act outlawed child labour in British coal mines and created a demand for Shetland Ponies as pit ponies. Large numbers were exported and this had an almost immediately noticeable detrimental effect on the numbers and quality of those remaining on the islands. This was because the best and strongest were being selected for work in the mines and hence leaving the breeding pool.
A British mine owner, the Marquis of Londonderry, therefore set out to secure a supply of good ponies by setting up his own stud to breed the ponies on the islands. He brought the best of his stallions back from the mines and they have become famous as the effective founding fathers of the modern breed. In 1890 the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was formed and early volumes of the Shetland Pony Stud Book are dominated by Londonderry ponies.
Through production of the stud book the society has regulated the breeding of ponies in such a way that Shetland Ponies around the world, excluding North America, are today still very similar to the animals that the old mine owners were working with. You can look at photographs of, for example, Jack, Londonderry's most influential stallion, and compare them with modern champion ponies in the UK, and find very little difference.
Shetland Ponies have been exported to the United States since the early 19th Century and since 1888 the American Shetland Pony Club has controlled their breeding. Animals were deliberately bred for refinement and elegance. This has resulted in a loss of bone, an increase in height, from a maximum of 42 inches to 46 inches, and the gaining of a characteristic high kicking leg action. This last change could only have come about through illicit introduction of Hackney blood. Despite this some of these Classic American Shetland Ponies are still similar to their UK cousins.
The Modern American Shetland Pony represents a further divergence from the original island pony in that even more refinement and elegance is sought by the breeders and this may be achieved through the deliberate outcrossing with part-bred ponies from other breeds such as Welsh or Hackney. A Shetland Islander would be unlikely to recognise these as Shetland Ponies.
All three of these breeds are noted for strength and good constitution and temperament. They are ideal children's first ponies and are well suited to being driven.