The History of The Shetland Breed

Ponies in Shetland
Shetland Ponies in Shetland

  The Shetland pony is one of the oldest and purest of Britain's native breeds. The earliest known illustrations of Shetland ponies are depicted on the carved Bressay and Papil stones, dating from around the 9th century. Each shows a man astride a very small pony. The former was found on Bressay, the island off Shetland Mainland, where Lord Londonderry was to found his famous Londonderry Stud in the late 1800's. Most Shetland ponies of today, are descended from Londonderry stock.
Many allusions are made to Shetland  ponies in documents through the centuries, but our best knowledge of the breed comes from the records kept by the Shetland Islanders and travellers to the Islands in the last 200 - 300 years.

It is probable that ponies came to Shetland from Iceland with the Vikings, so Shetlands come  in most of the colours found in Icelandic ponies. As with Icelandics, they are never spotted in colour.  Shetland ponies are some of the hardiest of equines. For centuries, they have  existed on a sparse diet in a tough climate. Ponies foraged on the 'scattold', the open heather hills, in summer and supplemented the winter ration with seaweed from the shore. On this meagre diet, mares produced a foal only every 2nd year. The essential features of this pony, the extra thick double winter coat, long dense mane and tail, and ability to thrive on a very poor quality diet, ensured the survival of the fittest.

Shetland ponies did much of the hard work on the Islands, from pulling carts loaded with hay or seaweed, to carrying home the peats from the hills, for winter fuel. Adults and children rode them, just as they do today. Mr. Brand, a traveller to Shetland, wrote in 1700 that "there were some whom an able man can lift up in his arms, yet will carry him, and a woman behind him, 8 miles forward and so many back." Hair from the mane and tail was valuable and used for a number of purposes including the manufacture of fishing line. Indeed, it was an offence, punishable by a large fine, to cut the mane or tail of another person's pony.

Loading mares with peats.

Mare being loaded with peats in 1938. The foal has a wall eye.

Ponies laden with peat, making their way home across sands on Fetlar, about 1930.

Photographs by kind permission of the Shetland Museum, Lerwick.

When a law was passed in 1842 to ban the employment of children in coalmines, the Shetland pony found a new market. Mine owners bought hundreds of the strongest colts, mostly black, to pull coal carts underground, where they gained a reputation for being docile, easy to train, and had unequalled strength for their size. The smaller ponies, which would be called miniatures today, were employed in the smaller tunnels.


Photograph "Shetland Ponies in Shetland" copyright of Beth Mead