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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