If you learned to ride as a child there's a good chance you began your riding career on the back of a Shetland pony or a pony that was at least part-Shetland. Although diminutive, Shetlands are tough, wily, and strong. They're also smart, which means that for young riders and older handlers, they can still be a challenge. There's no disputing the cute factor, but don't let that fool you; these are hardy little critters are capable of outworking the largest draft horse.
The Shetland Pony Stud Book of the UK outlines the breed standards for all Shetland ponies, although the American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) exists with slightly different (larger) size standards. The pony's head should be well defined, sometimes dished, with upright and short ears, a keen and bright eye, and a broad muzzle with open nostrils. The neck should be well set onto the body and the shoulder should be well sloped, as desirable in all riding and driving horses. The withers should be well defined and the overall body should be strong, with a wide chest, broad across the back and haunches.
The tail should be high-set. While the action of the Shetland's gaits aren't high, when moving, the hooves of the hind limbs should track in or in front of the front hooves—so the gaits are brisk and ground covering. The whole impression of a Shetland pony's body should be of strength, alertness, and stamina. They were bred to work hard, and their attitude and confirmation should reflect this. The American bloodlines tend to be lighter boned and more refined than their Shetland Island kin.
Registered Shetland ponies are a maximum of 42 inches at the withers. In the United States, the ASPC allows ponies up to 46 inches. Shetlands are measured in inches or centimeters, not hands as other horses.
The weight of the Shetland Pony depends on its height but generally is about 400 to 450 pounds.
Shetland ponies are named for the Shetland Islands off the coast of northern Scotland where they've existed for centuries. In the harsh climate of their native island, with scarce food and rugged terrain, they developed into very hardy ponies, able to work hard and thrive in difficult conditions. They have been used extensively as draught animals to carry peat, pull plows, carts, and buggies. As mining became an important industry in Britain, they were used in coal mines replacing women and children when the Mines Act of 1842 prohibited female mining. For the better part of a century, they were used in mines in both the British Isle and the United States.
Now, Shetland ponies are used for pleasure driving of all types, are used as riding ponies by young children, and there is even a Shetland Pony Steeplechase where Shetland ponies race on a track with various hurdles to jump. In addition, wild herds still exist on the Shetland Islands.
Colors and Markings
Shetlands are almost every color including pinto combinations (but, not leopard spotted or Appaloosa blanketed patterns). The most common coat colors are black, chestnut, grey, bay, brown, roan, palomino, buckskin, dun, cream, and champagne with every variety of face and leg marking.
It is said that pound for pound a Shetland pony can pull more weight than a Clydesdale. Shetland ponies are also very long-lived. Many breeds have Shetland ponies in their background including the miniature horse, National and American show ponies, and Falabellas.
It's far easier to overfeed a Shetland pony than to underfeed one. Because the breed evolved in such harsh conditions, with little fodder, Shetlands can thrive on very little food. Rarely does a Shetland need grains or concentrates and this tendency makes them prone to founder and obesity.
Shetland ponies can grow a very thick, soft winter coat. Often they're the first to "coat up" in the fall and the last to lose their winter coats in the spring. The outer hair is coarser and the undercoat is silky soft.
Champions and Celebrities
In 1976, Disney released a movie called "The Littlest Horse Thieves." The movie was about a group of children planning to steal the pit ponies from a mine whose owner planned to destroy them as he mechanized his mine.
The Shetland's longevity has resulted in several claims to the world's oldest pony with Twiglet living to 50.