The Shetland Pony is one of the smallest breeds of equines in the world. They are the modern descendants of ancient ponies that roamed the Shetland Isles of Northern Scotland for thousands of years.

Today, Shetlands are beloved family members and riding ponies for small children. Although too small to carry an adult rider, Shetland Ponies are popular driving ponies that can pull twice their weight.

These ponies are known for having big personalities that outsize their short stature. Often cheeky and opinionated, Shetlands have gained fans throughout the world. However, their health and nutritional needs are very different than those of larger horse breeds.

This article will review the origin, history, breed characteristics, health problems, and nutrition requirements of the Shetland Pony breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Shetland Ponies.

Shetland Pony History

The Shetland Pony is considered one of the world’s oldest breeds, with evidence of their existence dating back two thousand years.

While the breed’s history is well-documented compared to many other breeds, the exact origins of how the Shetland Pony arrived on the Shetland Isles remain somewhat of a mystery.


Archeological evidence suggests small ponies first inhabited the Shetland Isles at least two thousand years ago. Research still hasn’t determined the origin of the first island ponies, but historians believe they likely accompanied settlers to the island. [1]

Shetland settlers crossed British breeds descending from ancient Celtic Ponies with Norse breeds introduced by invaders during the Viking Age to produce the distinct Shetland type. [2]

Ninth-century stone carvings from the island of Bressay depict a hooded priest riding a small pony that resembles modern Shetlands. Settlers developed breeding programs based on these founding stock to develop a hardy pony breed that could survive the harsh island conditions.

Historic Use

Life in the Shetland Isles relied heavily on these ponies, who were integral to farming, transportation, and other industries.

Shetland Ponies spent their lives on fields of island moorland with poor grazing, stony ground, and driving winds. Their small bodies, short limbs, and thick coats helped preserve body heat.

Shetland residents used hair from their manes and tails as raw materials for fishing nets and lines. Fishing was the foundation of Shetland society, and early laws made cutting the mane or tail of another man’s pony a punishable offence. [3]

The small ponies also pulled carts and carried peat over the rocky island terrain. The island could not support larger breeds, so farmers relied on the pulling ability of Shetland Ponies to plough fields.

Demand for Shetland Ponies throughout Europe and North America increased after the industrial revolution. The breed’s small stature was ideal for working underground as pit ponies in the narrow shafts of coal mines, where many Shetlands worked until the mid-20th century.

Their worldwide popularity allowed Shetland bloodlines to influence the development of several other small horse breeds, including the Miniature Horse.

Breed Registry

The surge in interest for the Shetland breed led to the foundation of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society (SPSBS) in 1890. This studbook established Shetlands as the first official native pony breed in Britain. The organization still oversees registrations of Shetland Ponies today.

The American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) promotes and maintains a registry of Shetlands originating from ponies imported to North America. The ASPC recognizes Classic Shetlands, Modern American, and Modern Pleasure pony types.

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Breed Characteristics

While Shetland organizations established an official breed standard to increase the quality of ponies produced today, modern Shetland ponies still have similar breed characteristics to their island ancestors.


Shetland Ponies registered with the SPSBS must be no taller than 42 inches or 10.2 hands in height at the wither. However, the APSC will register Shetland Ponies up to 11.5 hands tall.

These ponies have compact bodies and relatively short necks. Most have medium-sized heads with dished faces, small ears, and widely-spaced eyes.

Their legs are short but strong, with a shorter cannon bone relative to their size. Shetlands also have broad backs and deep girths.


Shetland Ponies can have any coat colour besides spotted, although pinto patterns are commonly seen in the breed. While they shed out in summer, Shetlands of all colours grow thick double coats in the winter. [4]


Shetland Ponies have a reputation for cheekiness that can endear them to some horse owners and make them more challenging for others. Harsh conditions likely favoured bold personalities in the ancient ponies of the Shetland Isles.

While some Shetland Ponies can be opinionated and headstrong, the breed is generally friendly and good-tempered. Many Shetland owners cherish these small ponies for their intelligent, brave, and playful dispositions.


Shetlands are too small for adult riders, but small children often ride them. While these ponies make excellent family horses, owners should ensure that younger equestrians have expert guidance to handle ponies correctly.

Older Shetland owners often enjoy these ponies as companion animals for themselves and other horses. Shetlands are also excellent carriage ponies and can easily pull adults in harness driving disciplines.

Similar to Miniature Horses, some Shetlands are trained to work as guide horses or therapy animals.

Health Concerns

Certain genetic adaptations that helped Shetland Ponies thrive in their Scottish homeland now make the breed prone to health issues when maintained in domestic settings. As a result, these small ponies need careful management to keep them healthy and prevent metabolic conditions.

Genetic Diseases

Research has identified genes responsible for skeletal atavism in Shetlands, a hereditary disease characterized by crooked legs and abnormal bone development. Most owners euthanize Shetlands with this disease. [5]

Sleketal atavism causes the tibia and fibula or the radius and ulna to develop as separate bones. In normal adult horses, these two bones are fused. Affected Shetlands are born with crooked, splayed legs that prevent them from moving correctly. [5]

Shetland Ponies can also carry the genes responsible for dwarfism. The condition stunts bone growth but not soft tissue growth and organ development.Bone malformations and organ complications adversely impact the health and welfare of Shetlands with dwarfism. [6]

Dwarf Shetlands often have abnormally short legs and necks, retracted tendons, club feet, joint deviations, undershot jaws, humped backs, upturned noses, and scoliosis. However, some Shetlands carry a copy of the dwarfism gene without displaying dwarf characteristics.

A homozygous mutant genotype of the ACAN gene causes the dwarfism phenotype. Research suggests the mutation has persisted in Shetland populations due to positive selection of the reduced stature associated with heterozygous carriers of the gene mutation. [6]

Health Problems

Shetlands and other small pony breeds have a higher risk of liver problems compared to larger horses. Changes in lipid metabolism in these ponies can lead to impaired liver function and hyperlipemia, a potentially serious metabolic disorder. [7]

Hyperlipemia syndrome involves excessive release of triglycerides when the animal is under nutritional stress (e.g. underfeeding or starvation, pregnancy).

Hyperlipidemia refers to abnormally high levels of lipids (fats) in the bloodstream. It is closely associated with physiological stress in obese Shetland Ponies and can cause clinical signs, including inappetence (lack of appetite), depression, and lethargy if it progresses to hyperlipemia syndrome. [7]

This condition is fatal without rapid intervention, so owners should contact their veterinarian immediately if hyperlipemia is suspected. [7]

Shetland Ponies are also susceptible to