At first, ponies were simply rounded up and exported from Shetland but, from around 1880 until the end of the 19th century, there were breeding pony studs in the islands. The best-known of these was operated by the Marquis of Londonderry on the islands of Noss and Bressay, and the story is told in the former stud buildings on Noss. The island can be visited during the summer months using the ferry to the Noss National Nature Reserve operated by Scottish Natural Heritage.
The export of ponies had greatly reduced the number and quality of stallions in Shetland, threatening future breeding patterns. As a result, the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was established in 1890 to rectify this and to ensure that purity of the breed was retained.
At home, Shetland ponies were used as workhorses - cultivating the land and transporting peat from hills - an essential addition to crofting families.
In “The Shetland Pony” by C & A Douglas, Campbell is quoted as having said in 1750 that Shetland ponies “are foaled in the fields, live in the fields and die in the fields”, and this description still rings true today. Ponies graze on hill ground, known locally as common grazing or 'scattald'. The acres of rough heather clad moorland may appear scant subsistence for any animal. However, Shetland ponies have developed good conversion rates for food and high milk yield for their foals. In some parts, where land and sea meet, the ponies can supplement their diet with nutrients from mineral rich seaweed on beaches.
There is plenty of open space to roam freely and ponies can seek natural shelter, if need be, behind hillocks, old stone walls or peat banks.