The Shetland Islands are the most northerly part of Scotland, and the windiest. The Shetland pony originated in the Shetland Islands and has lived there for more than 4000 years. They are the smallest of the pony breeds found in the UK but the most immediately recognizable of all equine breeds. They are easily tamed, wonderfully hardy, sagacious and surefooted.
They are the most wonderful example of adaptation to the environment and of natural selection. Their small size, thick double layered winter coat, neat ears and protective tails, manes and forelocks all combine to produce a pony of incredible hardiness to withstand the worst of Shetland’s winter storms and able to find food and shelter in heath and rocky strewn hills in the windiest part of the UK. So the scarcity of food, the need to conserve heat in spite of the wind and the effects of being an isolated population have combined to ensure that the smaller, more compact ponies have survived the best.
As we learned when visiting a wild horse ranch in Wyoming a few years ago, wild horses rely on mutual grooming for a variety of beneficial reasons. And so do Shetland ponies, with the young ones imitating their elders.
Throughout their history they have been used for transport and carrying heavy loads. They can pull up to twice their weight; most horses can pull less than 30% their weight. In the past when their owners did not have enough food to feed them, they were marked for ownership and set loose to run wild. Nowadays all ponies are chipped for ownership.