In the event of an international breed popularity contest, surely the winner by a (small) head would be the Shetland pony.
Photography HANNA GUNGERICH Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
Cute and fluffy ponies, measuring not much more than a metre tall, they are beloved by children and adults all over the world. These intelligent small ponies often have big and gentle personalities, but can also be a quite headstrong at times. Many colours are seen in this breed, although black and dark brown are the most common. The smallest – and possibly the oldest – of the British native horse breeds, the Shetland Pony is in fact the strongest equine relative to its size: it can pull up to twice its weight. This coupled with its very long life span – it can live for over 30 years – made it ideal for work in the coal and tin mines of Scotland, England and Wales and the peat fields of the Shetland Islands, where it originated.
In the mid-19th century as the Industrial Revolution increased the need for coal,and labour laws where introduced, thousands of Shetland ponies were shipped from the Shetland Islands to mainland Britain to become pit ponies, replacing the workforce of young children. Shetland pony stallions and colts were in great demand, and thousands exchanged the freedom of the hills for the darkness of the mines. The Shetlands’ size, strength, sure feet and temperament made them ideal for pulling tubs through the narrow mine shafts. Some of them remained underground for the rest of their lives, hauling tons of coal, and never saw daylight again.
The first stud book for Shetlands was created in the United Kingdom in 1890, called the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society, to encourage high-quality breeding and to maintain the breed’s classic look. Today the breed has been exported all over the world and Shetland breed registries are found in many countries.
Shetlands make good children’s ponies, and many horse riders have started out on one – including royalty, of both Hollywood and real-life kinds. Polo-playing Prince Harry began his riding lessons on his own Shetland at the age of three. And last year the actor Brad Pitt gave each of his six children a Shetland, who now grass in the pastures surrounding Château Miraval, at the family estate in the south of France.
Situated north of Scotland and just 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the Shetland Islands are a windswept, storm-lashed chain of land masses in the North Atlantic where the dramatic weather is controlled by ocean currents. No one knows for sure how these ponies became an integral part of the history of the Shetland Islands, but they were there at least 2,000 years ago, living amid the stunningly rugged landscape.
They certainly seem well suited to their original environment. With a full body, a short back and little muscular legs, a small broad head and a thick double coat in the winter, a substantial mane and tail to provide extra warmth, they look like they’re built for withstanding the cold and wet. They don’t look like much of a racehorse, for example. And yet every year in the United Kingdom, the traditional crowd-pleasing Shetland Pony Grand National is held at the London International Olympia Horse Show in the run-up to Christmas, and is even showcased on TV. The Shetlands gallop around a racecourse with their young jockeys to the roar of the crowd: All the excitement of a day at the races condensed into pint-sized pony proportions. The races run two and a half laps over fences, while the riders are aged between nine and 13, dressed like the professional jockeys in body protectors and owners’ silks. Each racing season, around 50 riders set out to qualify for one of the 10 places in the Shetland Pony Grand National. Riders must compete for a whole year in jumping, dressage and eventing before they can even begin the qualifying process, which starts each year in May at Windsor.
Recent scientific discoveries suggest that Shetland racing isn’t such an absurd idea after all. This year the Shetland pony made headlines when findings by British genomics scientists were published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. They had traced the origin of the so-called “speed gene” in Thoroughbreds back to a single British Shetland mare that lived in the United Kingdom about 300 years ago. Results where made by analysing hundreds of racehorses, including DNA extracted from the skeletal remains of 12 celebrated Thoroughbred stallions born between 1764 and 1930. To identify where the “speed gene” variant originated, DNA samples from more than 20 horse breeds where analysed, and identifying the Shetland breed as having the highest frequency of the “speed gene” variant. Since only a single gene type was found in the study, the gene can only have entered the Thoroughbred breed just once: From this one fabulously fast Shetland pony mare. •