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Shetland's Youngest Pony Breeders

by Deborah Leggate -

Shetland's most famous residents are not people but ponies. Marsali Taylor talks to one of the islands" youngest pony breeders, Charlotte Cree-Hay, owner of the Redsand Stud.

Wherever you are in Shetland, it's not hard to see our famous ponies. You'll spot them grazing in fields by the road, or in herds on a distant hill. They're chunky, shaggy, with faces hidden by a whirl of mane; in summer, the mares are accompanied by a playful, inquisitive foal, whose tail waggles as if run by clockwork. They may look wild, but every one has a pedigree as long as your arm, registered with the Shetland Pony Stud Book.

A good way to get closer to them is to visit one of Shetland's studs. The Pony Breeders in Shetland Association website lists over 110 breeders throughout the isles, from Sumburgh in the south right up to the northernmost island of Unst. These studs vary in size and in the type of pony they concentrate on.

One of the newest studs is run by one of Shetland's youngest pony breeders. She's Charlotte Cree-Hay, of Redsand Stud, based in Reawick on the west side of Mainland. Charlotte is now 18 and her stud was founded in 2006, when she was just 13 years old.

Charlotte has always been interested in ponies. “I never had the opportunity to own one, though, until the winter before we came to Shetland, when I had one on loan, a black Shetland. When we came here, in 2004, then at last I got my own pony, another black Shetland, and wild – she'd never been worked with. I was ten and she was two, and we had a wonderful time together. She was a small pony, though, and I soon outgrew her, so I decided to put her to a stallion, and that's how the stud began.

Shetland's most famous residents are not people but ponies.

Many visitors are surprised by the variety of colours Shetland ponies come in, as the most common colours for ridden Shetlands on the British mainland are chestnut and black. Here, you see ponies of every colour except spotted: black and white, red and white, cream, grey, "blue", fawn. Charlotte's stud concentrates on black and piebald (black and white) ponies. “I suppose it's partly because my first pony was black that I'm specialising in that, but it's also because the standard riding Shetland has tended to be black, so that's where the "big black" bloodlines are. I like black and white too, it stands out well in the ring. When you're breeding two colours it makes the foaling even more exciting, you don't know what you'll get.”

Most of the Shetland studs are quite small, run as a sideline on a small farm, or croft. Redsand Stud currently has three mares, all black, with two in foal to a black and white stallion, Shoormal Vire. “When I get a foal I like, I'll keep it for the stud. There was one from last year, Redsand Yiska, a dark bay and white filly, and we kept her for a year, but she's too small, so we'll probably sell her. The first foal I sold has been backed as a riding pony recently and it's such a good feeling when you get updates from the owners. Unfortunately Shoormal Vire was only on loan to us – he went off to his new home in October, but all being well we should have two foals from him in the spring.”

A driving pony? Visitors often ask what these ponies are used for, and this is one thing Shetlands excel at, pulling light carriages solo, in pairs, or even in fours, particularly around obstacle courses – they're dodging around the walls and hay-bales while larger ponies are still sorting their feet out. They're also sold as companion ponies for larger horses, like racehorses. Their best use, though, is as children's riding ponies. Charlotte's a keen rider, and this aspect of the stud is very important to her.

Shetland ponies come in three sizes, standard (up to 42” to the shoulder), midi (up to 38”) and miniature (under 34”). The ponies Charlotte works with are standard size, which is ideal for riding.

“I started the training side with my first black mare, and then when I was loaned Shoormal Vire, I backed him. Although he's a stallion, he has a fantastic
temperament, and he didn't bat an eyelid. I got him used to being ridden and driven – last year, in the snow, we even hitched him up to the sledge!”

Shoormal Vire's easy-going temperament made an international film star of him. “There were two different photo shoots – two Danish journalists came in May, and I dressed him up old-style, with a branks, a wooden-cheeked bridle, and clibbers and nets on his back. Then, in August, there was a Czech TV crew, making a documentary – I took him swimming!”

Continuing her breaking-in work, Charlotte spent the summer of 2010 backing and training a Shetland gelding, Brockville Roseremus, or "Rummy" for short.

“After Shoormal Vire, I wanted another project, and that was Rummy. When I got him he was five years old, ungelded, wild and skinny, with bad lice. I was told by his owner to treat him as totally totally unhandled. I got him gelded, then we spent a lot of time bitting and long-reining him before finally backing him in June. By August, he was cantering, and even trying small jumps. We took him to his first show in mid-August, and he was placed both in in-hand and under-saddle with a lead-rein jockey. It's almost impossible to compare him to the pony we picked up from the boat six months ago! He's now gone to a showing home in Yorkshire, and he's already won prizes in native pony shows there.”

Her latest pony project, HRE Krumpel – or Eddie, as he's called at home – comes from Dunrossness, where fellow-breeder Helen Thompson regularly takes teams down to compete at the annual Olympia Horse Show. “He's from the HRE stud, so he's of riding stock. He's five, and a gelding, but he wasn't gelded till he was four, so he has some of the instincts and muscle structure of a stallion. Like Rummy, he hadn't been handled. Since he arrived at the beginning of October he's come a long way and has been lightly backed. With the darker nights he's been turned away for a break and he's reverted back to his wild ways slightly, but I'll get him back to where he was.”

Charlotte has a very clear idea of the type of Shetland she wants to specialise in: big enough for riding, but with the proper Shetland look. “This pony is the maximum 42”, but often Shetlands of that size lose that chunky Shetland look and become lanky – the breeders sacrifice bone for movement. Eddie looks like a Shetland; he has the strong bones and good hair, and he's maintained all the traditional characteristics of the breed. That's the type I aim to breed.”

Shetlands are too often associated with very small children, but Charlotte reckons they can make just as good a ride for an adult.

“They're very strong. They were bred to pull loads. Pound for pound, a Shetland is the strongest draught horse there is. I'm 5'4 ½”, average height, and I reckon that if he can buck me off, I'm not too heavy for him. A good, big Shetland can take a rider right through to adulthood.

“I just enjoy working with Shetlands – they're more fun. They're very intelligent, they like to work, and have a good temperament – I'd trust my first pony with anybody.”

Many Shetland youngsters have to put their love of animals on hold while they go off to university on the Scottish mainland. Charlotte, however, has a traineeship as a social care worker here in Shetland. “I don't want to leave Shetland, my whole life is here and I'm so settled, I love living here. What I'm doing, working with my own horses, is what I always dreamed of.”

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