The Shetland pony hails from the Scottish Shetland Isles, and it is these rugged islands that created this sturdy, resilient, small breed of pony. They are hard-working and good for children to ride. It’s not uncommon to see much-loved family ponies teaching whole families of children to ride! They are also great as driving ponies capable of pulling small traps.
Small horses have existed on the Shetland Isles since the bronze age, but it is thought that Celtic ponies, as well as horses brought by later Norse settlers, were bred with the native stock to produce what we now know as the Shetland Pony.
The harsh conditions of the isles encouraged them to become extremely hardy, and they sport a heavy coat, are intelligent and have characteristic short and sturdy legs.
Their characteristics makes them well-suited to hard work with the breed having a strong history of pulling carts and ploughing land on the islands. In the Industrial Revolution the breed was imported to Britain in their thousands to serve in the coal mines as pit ponies.
Shetlands are simple horses to keep. They will be perfectly happy with an acre of paddock each and a friend for company, access to a shelter and an automatic drinking trough. They will be happy to live on a diet of grass or good hay in the winter when grass is short.
Shetland Ponies are hardy, strong and like all equines, social animals.
- Size: 28 inches (7 hands) to 42 inches (10.2 hands) at the withers.
- Weight: 400-450lbs
- Life expectancy: around 30 years is common.
Exercise and nutrition
Shetland Ponies are intelligent animals requiring a decent amount of work and exercise in order to stay happy. As working animals, they are happiest when focusing on a task!
They love to pull small carts or traps or being ridden by children. They can be taught to jump small obstacles and you’ll know how competitive they are if you’ve seen one of the Shetland pony grand nationals often held at family race days, country shows or Equestrian events.
Obesity is a particular danger for Shetlands. They can survive on such slim pickings in the wild it is all too easy to over-feed and under-exercise them. A busy Shetland is a happy Shetland so allowing them to get over weight will only cause your Shetland health problems, both physical and mental.
Shetlands should be fed either grass, or good quality hay. It is also advisable to keep a mineral salt block available to them, to supplement their diet.
Common health problems and illnesses
Shetlands are susceptible to the same diseases that their larger relatives suffer, but due to their size they are more prone to certain conditions. It is worth considering Equine insurance as soon as you get a new Shetland, to help pay for vet care, personal injury or Third Party Liability costs should your Shetland damage someone else’s property while out and about. Personal injury cover is available for adults and children so take a look at our comparison table for more information on the options available.
This disease, also known as PPID, is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland. It is more common in older horses and can be spotted by an array of symptoms including a change in body shape (such as loss of muscle or the formation of a potbelly), a lack of energy, formation of fat deposits along the neck and over the tail, increased drinking and urination, recurring infections, abnormal sweating and sometimes blindness.
Treatment will usually consist of a dietary change, and nutrient supplements supplied by your vet. Consult your vet for advice if you believe your Shetland has this disease.
Mini horses are more prone to skeletal problems, such as dislocated joints, malformed bones (particularly in the shoulder) and osteoarthritis. Obesity will increase the likelihood your Shetland will develop skeletal problems. Regular exercise and keeping a close eye on their diet and weight will help prevent these conditions and will limit the discomfort of those ponies that suffer from such conditions, but always consult your vet for bespoke advice if you believe your Shetland suffers from skeletal problems.
Laminitis is a painful and serious disease with the potential to permanently cripple horses of all sizes. It occurs when the blood flow to the laminae (the inner layers of the hooves) is disrupted, causing inflammation and swelling, and severe pain. The laminae become permanently damaged due to restricted blood flow, and unless the cause is addressed and treatment is begun immediately, the laminae can begin to die.
The laminae play a key role in the stability of the hoof, and in extreme cases the degeneration of the laminae will cause the pedal bone to sink through the sole of the foot. In most cases, by this stage the damage is irreversible and the horse will have to be euthanised.
There are many causes of laminitis and include excessive travel and travel stress especially in over-weight animals, a significant change in environment causing stress, severe infection, over feeding and obesity, Cushing’s disease or excessive concussion to the hooves from jumping or excessive and repeated hard work on hard ground such as prolonged trotting on roads.
Warning signs of laminitis include noticeable discomfort when walking (and the horse may prefer to lie down rather than stand), visible lameness, increased pulse in the foot, and in some cases a habit of leaning back on the hind feet in order to relieve pressure on the front feet.
In advanced conditions, watch out for the heel of the hoof growing faster than the toe, as well as the widening of the white line in the hoof wall.
If you notice any signs of laminitis, it is crucial that you call a vet immediately for a diagnosis and treatment plan. This needs to be done as soon as possible to prevent as much permanent damage as possible.
- In their native islands, Shetland ponies will eat seaweed that washes up on the beaches when grazing is scarce.
- Shetland Grand National’s are hugely popular in UK. Ridden by young, aspiring jockeys these ponies show a competitive streak when given a chance!
- If you visit the Shetland Isles, you will see hundreds of ponies across the isles. However, none of these are wild - they are all owned and cared for by local crofters.
- Shetlands can be any colour except spotted.