The Shetland Pony Breeders

Bjorn Larsen & Tore Skarpnord

Up on a marshy plateau, about as far west as you can go in Shetland, it’s a chilly November afternoon. Looking out to sea beyond a little loch, the sun has almost disappeared into the horizon by the remote island of Foula, casting a faint pinkish glow across the darkening landscape. Behind us, a faint moon can be seen above a lonely stone broch on a windswept hill. It would be an ideal setting for a Pagan ritual, or a hallucinogenic epiphany.

Bjorn Larsen and Tore Skarpnord—Norwegians, and adopted Shetlanders—are, as ever, preoccupied with the creatures roaming the landscape. These black Marshwood / Transy ponies are the love of their life; the obsession that first brought them to Shetland in 2002, then finally demanded that they move here in 2011.

Shetland ponies originally helped Shetland’s crofters, before being sent down Britain’s coal mines after the Industrial Revolution, and eventually becoming more popular as pets. Over the years, they have become Shetland’s most beloved icon, and Bjorn and Tore are among the islands’ most prolifically prize-winning breeders. They have 65 horses in all, including the larger standard ponies roaming the moor, two Icelandic horses and a group of 20 preposterously cute miniatures in another field down the road.

In their sing-song Norwegian-Shetland accents, they can talk for hours about their show ponies, and the various awards they’ve won at Shetland’s agricultural shows. Just as Bjorn points out Bergli Hera, an imperious black mare who was supreme champion at the local Walls agricultural show in 2018, Hera halts with impeccable timing and decides to answer the call of nature.

Tore, in his flat cap, is a former farmer who used to judge cattle competitions in Norway, but is now a social worker and baker of local renown. Bjorn, in his thick Icelandic jumper, is an award-winning hairdresser who competed for Norway in Icelandic pony dressage. They are partners in life and pony breeding, with Bjorn taking the lead in the latter. While the more avuncular Tore is obsessed by the physical form of the horses, thanks in part to his cattle-breeding days, the modishly quiffed Bjorn sees aesthetics first, and likes his ponies to “act like Miss World contestants”. They bicker incessantly about what makes the perfect pony, which is clearly part of what makes them such a great team.

Before our walk, we meet in the front porch of the little white Finnigarth crofthouse, Bjorn and Tore’s home just down a slope from the plateau, in a hollow that runs down towards the sea. The settlement dates back to the Viking Age, and it’s the only sign of civilisation round here. The plant-filled porch, which Bjorn and Tore built themselves, has a wall thickly lined with rosettes and a shelf almost collapsing under the weight of trophies. In the Shetland tradition of serving tea and ‘fancies’, Tore prepares tea and hands out slices of his delicious homemade apple cake. As they tell their story, punctured by lots of laughter, Bjorn occasionally peers out of the window to check on this summer’s new foals, bred from 15 mares, who are in a small field in front of the crofthouse.

Bjorn has been obsessed with ponies since he was eleven, when his grandad bought him a Shetland pony, a relative rarity in 1970s Norway. When he was 17, having graduated to a larger Icelandic horse, he left Norway for Iceland to work on a farm that had 200 Icelandic horses. When he returned for his hairdressing training, he had two of them in tow. “I’ve been dragging horses around my whole life,” says Bjorn, who was soon exploring the world of Icelandic horse competition, winning two bronze medals in gait competitions at the 1997 world cup. “Some people go on fancy holidays,” he says. “Horses are my expensive hobby.”

Tore, meanwhile, took over his family farm in Ringsaker, a few hours north of Oslo, at just 21, becoming known for breeding Telemark cattle, and casting a discerning eye over cattle competitions. Soon after the pair met in 1996, they decided to return to Bjorn’s first love, pooling their knowledge to breed Shetland ponies. Eventually, it made sense to visit the ancestral home of their favourite breed.

“The same thing that took me to Iceland took me to Shetland,” says Bjorn. Shetland became their holiday destination of choice, and they’d spend time with the Tait family and their Merkisayre stud on Burra isle, learning about Marshwood and other Shetland ponies. “We spent all our holidays here,” recalls Bjorn. “Instead of going to Spain or Greece or something, we always went to Shetland to see the ponies. We hated to go home. One day I said to Tore: I could easily move up here. I didn’t expect him to say yes to that, because it’s mostly me who’s a dreamer. But he did. So we sold everything and moved to Shetland.”

Shetlanders accept everything. You see all these different cultures and backgrounds up here, and everyone’s just accepted. You’re not judged for anything

While Bjorn had been relatively peripatetic, it was a big move for Tore, who had known only life on the family farm. But farming presented a constant financial struggle, and he was tired of the Norwegian winters, when it would be minus 30 degrees for weeks on end. (Bjorn and Tore are thus in a select band of incomers who were actually attracted by Shetland’s weather.)

Of course, moving to Shetland was about a lot more than weather, and indeed ponies. “One of the first things we noticed when we first came here,” says Bjorn, “was that everyone was waving at us, and stopping and speaking. We were like, Why are they waving? But you grow to love it.”

“Shetlanders accept everything,” says Tore. “You see all these different cultures and backgrounds up here, and everyone’s just accepted. You’re not judged for anything.”

“If you behave well, you can be whoever you want to be up here,” adds Bjorn. “As long as you’re not an ass.”

Still, both had to make serious adjustments after driving themselves and their horses from Norway to Shetland, via a confused moment that saw them pointlessly circumnavigate the M25 around London. Tore could no longer farm cattle, so he decided to train to be a social worker. As he puts it in his typically straightforward fashion: “If you care for things, you care, whether it’s humans or animals.” Now, as a legal carer in the community, he works with a lot of elderly folk around Walls. “There’s always a lot to talk about,” he says. “A lot of these old folk have been into crofting or working with animals, and there’s that link with Norway and Shetland. You quickly get close bonds with people. I love it.”

Bjorn had to adapt, too. Just as in Icelandic pony dressage, he’d represented Norway in hairdressing competitions, and had a thriving career that he didn’t want to throw away. Initially, he missed his old hair salon in Hamar, Norway, so much that he would commute back and forth, doing two-week stints on and off. There were other problems early on. They were about to buy a croft and land in Vidlin, on Shetland’s east side, when the seller changed his mind, leaving them with 22 ponies and nowhere to put them. They were close to leaving when one of Bjorn’s friends mentioned that he had a spare crofthouse they might be able to use. It was Finnigarth, which looked like a ready-made set for the Vikings TV show. “We looked at it, and we said: Okay, that’s home,” recalls Bjorn.

As Tore got more care work, Bjorn started working at the Envi salon in Lerwick, where his mission over the years has been to make Shetland “more hair-conscious”. A month or so before we meet, he came third in the British hairdressing championships in London, beating off a select group of top hairdressers who were bemused at where he was from. “Shetland?” they would ask him. “Do you mean Stockholm?”

Bjorn is clearly a perfectionist. On the day we meet at the crofthouse, we watch him judge an informal dressage competition (on regular horses) at Girlsta, half an hour north of Lerwick. Bjorn insists on judging the local women in the competition to international standards, giving out lots of twos and threes out of ten, despite the women displaying impressive mastery of their steeds. “If I’m going to hand out nines or tens, you have to be at the level of [British dressage champion] Charlotte Dujardin,” explains Bjorn afterwards to the slightly disappointed local women. Remarkably, and perhaps helped by his sing-song accent, it doesn’t sound absurdly pompous. And, clearly, he knows what he’s talking about.

Bjorn admits that he’s “very competitive”, so it’s not a great surprise that Bjorn and Tore’s Shetland ponies tend to hoover up prizes at Shetland pony competitions. Most people tend to look at a Shetland pony and think something along the lines of ‘How cute!’. Bjorn and Tore are looking for so-called perfect conformation: proportionality, bone structure, musculature, posture; a tail that reaches just to the ground; a lustrous mane that just covers the pony’s neck. The list goes on.

In order to “breed perfection”, as Bjorn puts it, the pair have spent years meeting Shetland’s old pony breeders, building up an extensive knowledge of the lineage of various ponies. They’ve travelled far and wide to find the 65 ponies currently in the stud, handpicking the most immaculately proportioned ponies not just in Shetland, but in Norway and Sweden in particular. Bjorn and Tore will pair specific mares and stallions to create ever-more balanced offspring. Their website shows the lineage of the ponies, many of which are descended from a legendary Transy breed stallion called Timothy v St Geerhof. Their ponies have suitably esoteric names: Mariska v.'t beekdal, Merkisayre Tactic, Brunatwatt Madeleine Magic.

For all that it’s complicated, though, Bjorn isn’t above comparing his ponies to catwalk models. “For shows, the horses need to have personality, too,” he says. “It’s like a catwalk, or a Miss World thing, they need to show themselves beautifully, swish their hair. Sometimes I ask them: what shampoo did you use today?” Perhaps obviously, Bjorn was the stylist for Socks, the moonwalking Shetland pony that became a hit in a TV advert for the Three mobile network a few years ago, giving Socks hair extensions to achieve the required Rod Stewart look.

Bjorn’s high standards don’t extend to their home life, though. Tore laughs that Bjorn’s not a perfectionist “in the hoose”, where it’s Tore who does the baking and the cleaning. Bjorn is the big thinker, the dreamer, and Tore seems like the anchoring presence. There’s a gentleness about Tore, and you can see why he’s such a hit with the elderly folk in Shetland’s wild west. He says his favourite thing about life in Shetland is “when we’re off work, just waking up, looking out the window at the sunrise, just red, and making yourself a coffee. You sit outside, get your shoulders down, and just relax. That’s great.”

After our interview, and our roam on the moor, there’s just enough time for a quick feed in the nearby field where Bjorn and Tore keep their 20 or so miniature ponies. Bjorn starts talking about how Jim of Berry, another local pony breeder, has taught him about miniature pony lines over the years. But it’s hard to concentrate when 20 of these stout little creatures are crowding around, with their flamboyant manes and thickening winter coats. For all the talk of bloodlines and perfect conformations, there’s a more instinctive attraction to these sturdy, gentle creatures, the strongest horses relative to their size, and smart enough that they can be trained to guide blind people. They are adorable.

As we leave, with the darkness growing and Bjorn still petting his babies, it’s possible that he is seeing the same thing he saw as an eleven-year-old boy back in Norway. He seems as much in love as ever.

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If you behave well, you can be whoever you want to be up here. As long as you're not an ass.
Bjorn Larsen

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