The Shetland Pony

by Carole Laignel

Photo: Penny Gear Zoom Photo: Penny Gear Small ponies have been in Shetland for at least 2,000 years. From archaeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age it is believed Shetland ponies have been in domestic use since that time.

The smallest ponies thrived best in Shetland’s harsh winters, when there was very little to eat, and this natural selection process has resulted in the famous diminutive size and hardiness of the species we see today. It is legendary that Shetland ponies ate seaweed along the shore and this still happens, albeit to augment their diet, not to ensure survival.

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall Shetland ponies kept on the croft were used for pulling ploughs, carrying peat down from the hill and also as a means of transport.

In the 1800s, the Mines Act prohibited women and children working underground and mine owners had to find a substitute. What better than the Shetland pony, which was small enough to work in the cramped conditions but also strong enough to pull the carts. A Shetland pony can pull twice its own body weight, so they were in great demand, especially the stronger males over four years old.

There are many different colours, and sizes vary from miniature (which must be 34 inches or below in height when fully grown) to standard (which can be up to 42 inches high). 

Shetland has over 100 Shetland pony breeders. You can see many of the ponies by the roadsides as you travel around. In Unst you may even have to wait for them to cross the road before you can proceed!

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker There are often ponies near the Shetland Crofthouse museum, Spiggie Hotel, Sumburgh Hotel and the Scalloway Museum. Even though the ponies are friendly we would ask you please to not feed them as this encourages bad behaviour.

The Shetland pony trade has gone through peaks and troughs but the annual sale in Lerwick, now the oldest Shetland pony sale in the country, continues. The “i-bidder” online system means anyone worldwide can bid at the Lerwick sale without having to leave their armchair and it is hoped this type of technology can revitalise the industry and help ensure the future of the Shetland pony and the pony sale in Shetland.

A list of pony studs is on the Pony Breeders of Shetland Association website at

If you wish to see any particular stud or require further information, please contact the stud owner directly or email