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Horse Articles :: Shetland Pony

Shetland Ponies

Perhaps the oldest breed of horse in the United Kingdom is the Shetland Pony that was named after the Scottish islands where the breed originated. It is one of the most popular and well-known ponies in the world today and is recognized as the strongest Equid relative to its size in existence. The Shetland Islands lay off the northern coast of Scotland and are mostly barren with a harsh climate. For centuries the Shetland Pony lived in the open islands, protected from the weather only by shaggy thick hair, long mane, and forelocks. The harsh environment also contributed to the Shetland having a thick neck, short ears, and strong hooves. The Shetland Islanders domesticated the ponies and used them to carry peat from the bogs that was used as fuel in the cottages; and to haul seaweed from the shore to the fields that was used as fertilizer.

Americans fell in love with Shetland Ponies the minute they arrived from the islands over 120 years ago and that love affair continues today.

The Shetland Pony's origin goes back to equines that were larger than the modern breed and that lived in the Shetland Islands as early as the as the 8th and 9th centuries, during the Bronze Age. When the Norsemen invaded the Shetland Islands, they brought ponies with them which were the ancestors of the modern Dole Pony. These ancestral ponies were crossed with native stock which created the Shetland Pony that is similar to the breed as known today. The isolation of island life allowed them to become a distinct breed all on their own.

When the coal mining industry became extensively developed in Britain in the 1800's, Shetland Ponies were imported in great numbers to haul coal cars in the pits. Many of these ponies were born in the mines, lived underground and died in the mines. Some never saw daylight. Many Shetlands were subsequently exported to the United States to work in the coal mines but by the mid-1900's mechanization rendered the pony inefficient. In the American Midwest, Draft Shetlands are still common and compete in weight-pulling contests at the county fairs similar to those in which heavy draft horses compete.

There are four varieties of Shetland Ponies in the United States. The American Shetland Pony Club recognizes two distinct types of Shetland Ponies: the Classic Shetland Pony and the Modern Shetland Pony. Additionally, there are registries for the two types of allowable Shetland pony crosses: the American Show Pony and the National Show Pony. The ASPC's goal is to have a pony suited to almost everyone's needs. Overall, Shetland Ponies are athletic, quick learners and extremely hardy. They generally have excellent hooves.

The Classic American Shetland Pony is the original breed that dates back to the Shetland Islands. These ponies were brought to the United States in the 1800's and were first registered by the American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) that was founded in 1888 to preserve the bloodlines of the Shetland Pony, while improving and refining the breed. After having been in the United States for more than 120 years, it has been selectively bred for refinement which resulted in a sturdy, versatile, yet elegant, pony.

No larger than 46" (11.5 hands), the Classic American Shetland is the perfect starter size pony for a child. In contrast, the British Shetland is smaller and stands an average of 9.3 hands, and does not exceed 10.2 hands. Since the ponies were bred to pull ore carts in the coal mines in the mid 1800's, Classic Shetlands excel at driving and halter classes. Classic American Shetland Ponies have been used in therapeutic riding programs for the physically and mentally challenged. The love and devotion that a Shetland Pony can offer is giant-sized.

The Modern Shetland Pony combines the hardiness of the Classic Shetland Pony with an outcross of an animated and superiorly refined breed. However, just what this "superiorly refined breed" was has not been mentioned in the literature. Whatever this cross was, it produced a long shapely neck and a fine-boned sophisticated pony with extreme action and spirited that works well in the show ring. Like all Shetlands, the Moderns come in all colors. They can be no taller than 46" and are shown in two height divisions: the under 43" class; and the 43" to 46" class and in breeding/halter classes along with performance classes, which include roadster, harness and pleasure driving.

The Modern Shetland is agile and quick thinking, and can be used for everything from gymkhana ponies to hunter/jumpers. This equine has the high action and elegance of a carriage horse and the hardiness of a pony.

American Show Pony are similar to the Modern Shetland Pony, however the American Show Pony is allowed to be a maximum height of 48" (12 hands) at the withers and are the result of a cross with the Hackney. The American Show Pony can be of either Shetland or Hackney breeding or a combination of both. These larger, flashy ponies are especially suited to driving and tend to draw a lot of attention in the shows.

The newest equine in the Shetland Pony family is the National Show Pony. These are required to have one purebred Shetland parent and can measure up to a full 14.2 hands at the withers. Again, there is no mention of the breed(s) used or allowed in the cross that creates the National Show Pony. Show divisions for hunters, western, and driving are currently being developed and integrated into Shetland Pony shows and these larger National Show Ponies will enable growing children to enjoy riding a pony with Shetland attributes over a longer period of time in their lives. The National Show Pony can be used by adults as a larger carriage pony.

Because of their small size and hardiness, Shetland Ponies are often the choice for young children to ride. But their short legs give them a very rough, bouncy trot that is difficult to sit. Moreover, most Shetlands can be very difficult, stubborn and hard-headed; they like to do things their own way, and in their own time. So, young children can be discouraged from riding when their pony is rude; has a bouncy trot; or refuses to do as their owner says. This all makes them more suited to adults, but it has been said that if a child can learn to master the Shetland, they can ride anything later.

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Crystal Eikanger is a writer for, classifieds










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