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Shetland Ponies

Shetland's world-famous small ponies can be seen throughout the islands - grazing by the roadside, on the beaches or on the heathery hills. Appearing to roam wild, the ponies are, in fact, all owned and tended to by local crofters.

These captivating creatures stand up to 42 inches, or 107 cms, high at four years old or over. Charming and instantly recognisable, the ponies can be seen in any colour known in horses except spotted. The coat changes according to the seasons: a short summer coat which should carry a beautiful silky sheen and, by contrast, a double coat in winter with guard hairs to shed the rain. This thick winter coat, coupled with a profuse mane and tail help to protect the pony against the often harsh conditions of the islands.

For at least 4000 years, in comparative isolation, these fascinating small ponies have roamed the exposed hills and moors of Shetland. This unrestricted lifestyle has led to the evolution of a unique and hardy breed, befitting the environment.

From the 1840s, Shetland ponies began to be used in British coal mines as new laws forbade the employment of women, girls and, later, boys. Hardy, resilient and very strong for their size, the ponies made ideal substitutes as they were able to pass through low underground tunnels hauling truckloads of coal.

A unique and hardy breed

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.

Around 1,500 Shetland ponies live here.

On Show

Today, Shetland ponies are talked about the world over, and are often a focal point at major competitions including the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley in October and the Shetland Pony Grand National, which forms part of the International Horse Show, at Olympia in December.

During August, the local agricultural shows take place, providing excellent opportunities for visitors to see these wonderful ponies in action. Attracting exhibitors from throughout the Islands, they include many in-hand classes for adult ponies, foals and young stock, as well as ridden, driven and young handler classes for the performance ponies.

In Shetland, visitors will be able to spot them grazing by the roadside. They can generally be seen in the West Mainland, Tingwall, Dunrossness and the island of Unst.

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