Saturday, November 8, 2014


Shetland Pony
First, before I can tell you about a particular type of pony, I have tell you what a "pony" is, because so far, during the Year of the Horse, I have only written about horses.  Well, the definition of a pony is that it's something lots of kids want when they are little.  Mom really, really wanted one until she was about 6 or 7, but after that, she didn't want a pony anymore, because she decided she had outgrown ponies, and she wanted a horse.  Sadly, her thoughtless parents never bought her either a pony or a horse, and to this very day, she doesn't own one.

But that's enough about Mom and her silly childhood dreams.  Now she has dogs and cats, which are all the animals any human really needs.  And in my opinion, the cats aren't even necessary to have around either.

Near West Burra, Shetland Islands
Photo by Mike Pennington

Okay, so a pony is a small horse, but it's not quite that simple, because ponies often have thicker manes, tails, and coats.  Also, in proportion to a horse, a pony may have shorter legs. a wider body, heavier bones, a thicker neck, and a shorter head.  The ancestors of most ponies developed a small stature because they lived in places that were almost -- but not quite -- uninhabitable for horses.

The Shetland coat of arms.
Who knew that unicorns are from Shetland, too?
There are lots of different breeds of ponies, but I decided to talk about Shetland ponies because most people have heard of them.  Also, Mom likes Scottish stuff, so she said I should talk about ponies that come from the Shetland Islands, which are in the north part of Scotland.

A map of where you can find the Shetland Islands,
in case you are looking for them.

Small ponies have existed in the Shetland Isles for more than 2000 years.  They may have got their start in the Cob type of Tundra and Mountain Pony from Southern Europe.  Over time, these ponies migrated across the ice fields to the Shetland Islands.  People who settled in the area probably crossed the native ponies with those brought in by Norse settlers.  The harsh climate and scarce food made the ponies hardy and strong.

Pit pony being lowered into the mine

The first uses of Shetland ponies were for pulling carts, carrying peat and coal, and plowing farm land.  When the Industrial Revolution came along, there was a big need for coal, so ponies began working in mines, hauling coal.  This happened especially after 1847, when a British law made it illegal for children to work in mines.

Pit pony stable in mine

Because they were docile and willing, Shetlands generally adapted well to life underground.  They lived in stables in the mines, worked 8 hours a day pulling tubs of coal along a narrow-gauge railway, and were fed hay and maize.  Because they were valuable workers, the ponies were treated with affection by their handlers, and they got to go back above ground every once in a while.  But in general, the lives of the pit ponies were pretty short, like only about 3-1/2 years.  On the surface they might live as long as 20 years.

There was much less use of ponies in mines in the U.S., although in Appalachia, they were used for a while during the mid-twentieth century.  The last pony mine in the U.S. closed in 1971.

Shetland Pony Grand National
Photo by Peter Facey,

Shetlands have always been popular as a mount for children.  The ponies are used in riding schools, shows, harness races, carnivals, petting zoos, and the Shetland Pony Grand National.  They are also ridden for pleasure and used for therapeutic horseback riding.

Classic American Shetland
Photo:  finesongponies

The American Shetland pony is often more refined-looking than its British cousin.  This is because it has been crossed with other breeds such as the Hackney pony, Welsh pony, and the Harness Show Pony.  Shetlands in America are mostly used in harness and as children's ponies.

Dogs can ride ponies, too!

I think it might be kind of fun for us to have a pony here at our house.  It could live in our backyard, and all of us chihuahuas could ride on it and roll in the manure.  But Mom says she is so over wanting a pony that there's no way she would get one now.  Which is very sad, if you ask me!


  1. As a child, the rule was i would ride the Shetland pony, Snappy. My older sisters, brother, and cousins rode the horses.
    Thanks for the memories.

    1. It sounds like you have some great memories! Glad I could bring them back for you!