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.

Origin

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.

Breed Characteristics

While Shetland organizations established an official breed standard to increase the quality of ponies produced today, modern Shetland ponies still have similar breed characteristics to their island ancestors.

Conformation

Shetland Ponies registered with the SPSBS must be no taller than 42 inches or 10.2 hands in height at the wither. However, the APSC will register Shetland Ponies up to 11.5 hands tall.

These ponies have compact bodies and relatively short necks. Most have medium-sized heads with dished faces, small ears, and widely-spaced eyes.

Their legs are short but strong, with a shorter cannon bone relative to their size. Shetlands also have broad backs and deep girths.

Colours

Shetland Ponies can have any coat colour besides spotted, although pinto patterns are commonly seen in the breed. While they shed out in summer, Shetlands of all colours grow thick double coats in the winter. [4]

Temperament

Shetland Ponies have a reputation for cheekiness that can endear them to some horse owners and make them more challenging for others. Harsh conditions likely favoured bold personalities in the ancient ponies of the Shetland Isles.

While some Shetland Ponies can be opinionated and headstrong, the breed is generally friendly and good-tempered. Many Shetland owners cherish these small ponies for their intelligent, brave, and playful dispositions.

Disciplines

Shetlands are too small for adult riders, but small children often ride them. While these ponies make excellent family horses, owners should ensure that younger equestrians have expert guidance to handle ponies correctly.

Older Shetland owners often enjoy these ponies as companion animals for themselves and other horses. Shetlands are also excellent carriage ponies and can easily pull adults in harness driving disciplines.

Similar to Miniature Horses, some Shetlands are trained to work as guide horses or therapy animals.

Health Concerns

Certain genetic adaptations that helped Shetland Ponies thrive in their Scottish homeland now make the breed prone to health issues when maintained in domestic settings. As a result, these small ponies need careful management to keep them healthy and prevent metabolic conditions.

Genetic Diseases

Research has identified genes responsible for skeletal atavism in Shetlands, a hereditary disease characterized by crooked legs and abnormal bone development. Most owners euthanize Shetlands with this disease. [5]

Sleketal atavism causes the tibia and fibula or the radius and ulna to develop as separate bones. In normal adult horses, these two bones are fused. Affected Shetlands are born with crooked, splayed legs that prevent them from moving correctly. [5]

Shetland Ponies can also carry the genes responsible for dwarfism. The condition stunts bone growth but not soft tissue growth and organ development.Bone malformations and organ complications adversely impact the health and welfare of Shetlands with dwarfism. [6]

Dwarf Shetlands often have abnormally short legs and necks, retracted tendons, club feet, joint deviations, undershot jaws, humped backs, upturned noses, and scoliosis. However, some Shetlands carry a copy of the dwarfism gene without displaying dwarf characteristics.

A homozygous mutant genotype of the ACAN gene causes the dwarfism phenotype. Research suggests the mutation has persisted in Shetland populations due to positive selection of the reduced stature associated with heterozygous carriers of the gene mutation. [6]

Health Problems

Shetlands and other small pony breeds have a higher risk of liver problems compared to larger horses. Changes in lipid metabolism in these ponies can lead to impaired liver function and hyperlipemia, a potentially serious metabolic disorder. [7]

Hyperlipemia syndrome involves excessive release of triglycerides when the animal is under nutritional stress (e.g. underfeeding or starvation, pregnancy).

Hyperlipidemia refers to abnormally high levels of lipids (fats) in the bloodstream. It is closely associated with physiological stress in obese Shetland Ponies and can cause clinical signs, including inappetence (lack of appetite), depression, and lethargy if it progresses to hyperlipemia syndrome. [7]

This condition is fatal without rapid intervention, so owners should contact their veterinarian immediately if hyperlipemia is suspected. [7]

Shetland Ponies are also susceptible to pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), formerly known as equine Cushing’s disease. This endocrine disorder primarily affects older Shetlands, and is frequently associated with insulin resistance and laminitis. [8]

PPID diagnosis in Shetland ponies is sometimes missed as owners can mistake the abnormally long hair coat that characterizes the disease for the Shetland’s normal thick coat.

Laminitis is a significant concern for all Shetland Ponies, and not just equines with PPID. Research shows that Shetlands and other cold-blooded breeds with heights under 149 cm (58 inches) have a higher incidence of laminitis than other horse breeds. [9]

Shetlands and other ponies of short stature have been shown to be genetically predisposed to hyperinsulinemia and metabolic syndrome which explains their easy weight gain and laminitis risk. [17]

Care and Management

Appropriate care and management can help lower the risk of common health problems in Shetlands.

To ensure the well-being of your Shetland Pony, provide quality basic horse care and regular veterinary check-ups with annual vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Your daily care routine should include regular grooming to keep your Shetland’s thick mane, tail, and coat clean and prevent skin problems. These ponies also need frequent farrier care from a qualified professional.

Light exercise during daily turnout supports fitness, bone and joint health, and weight management in Shetlands. Freedom of movement and social contact in group turnout also reduces stress and prevents behavioural issues, including stereotypies. [10]

Shetland owners should inspect their pony’s housing and fencing to ensure they are suitable for these small-sized equines. While Shetlands can safely live with larger breeds when introduced appropriately, they have a greater risk of injury in group turnout with bigger horses.

Nutrition Program

Proper nutritional management is critical for Shetland Ponies to maintain a healthy weight and reduce their risks of metabolic issues.

Shetland Ponies are much smaller than average-sized horses and have special needs when balancing a diet. For comprehensive feeding advice, refer to our Pony Nutrition Guide.

Weight Maintenance

Shetland Ponies are notoriously easy keepers. These cold-blooded equines gain weight quickly due to their efficient metabolism, which allowed them to survive on sparse island vegetation.

However, domesticated Shetlands maintained on commercial feeds and rich pastures often struggle with obesity and equine metabolic syndrome. [11]

Feeding programs for Shetland Ponies should prioritize the inclusion of fiber-rich forage while minimizing dietary starch and sugar to control calorie intake. Shetland owners should also regularly monitor their pony’s body condition score to ensure they maintain a healthy weight.

If your Shetland becomes over-conditioned, consider implementing some or all of the following measures to promote safe weight loss:

When feeding straw, it must be checked carefully for mold. Do not feed straw with grain in the seed heads. Straw averages only 7 to 10% fewer calories than a hay with low ESC and starch but is typically protein, vitamin and mineral deficient. It’s poor fermentability can lead to “hay belly“.

Make feeding changes gradually and keep a careful watch for any changes in your pony’s feeding behaviours. Changes in appetite in Shetlands should be investigated promptly by a veterinarian, as inappetence is a common sign of hyperlipidemia in Shetlands.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 180 kg / 400 lb Shetland Pony with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mature Grass Hay (8% crude protein) 2.5 kg / 5.5 lb
Straw (5% crude protein) 1.6 kg / 3.5 lb
Salt 5 g (1 tsp)
Omneity Pellets 75 g (3/4 scoop)
Diet Analysis*
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 103%
Protein (% of Req) 105%
NSC (% Diet) 6%

 

*These values are estimated based on NRC requirements and average forage values. For a more precise assessment, analyze your forage and submit your pony’s diet for evaluation.

Forage should provide the foundation of your Shetland Pony’s diet. Free-choice forage supports natural grazing behaviours in horses and ponies, reducing the risk of digestive issues, stereotypical behaviours, dental problems and gastric ulcers.

However, free-choice access to hay can provide too many calories and lead to weight gain. In this sample diet, straw is added to dilute the hay while allowing maximal forage intake.

Although forage typically supplies enough energy for Shetland ponies, hay-only diets are usually deficient in several key nutrients, including:

  • Vitamin E
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Selenium (in certain regions)
  • Sodium
  • Iodine
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamin A

Nutritional deficiencies can result in weakened immune function, poor coat condition, hoof problems, and reduced energy levels. To avoid this, feed a vitamin and mineral balancer that helps fill these gaps.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a vitamin and mineral supplement formulated to provide balanced nutrition for all horses. Omneity is made with low NSC ingredients and contains no fillers or added sugars, making it ideal for Shetland Ponies who need help to maintain a healthy body weight.

Omneity – Premix

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  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

To provide additional metabolic support for Shetlands with insulin resistance or PPID, feed Mad Barn’s AminoTrace+ instead of Omneity. AminoTrace+ has enhanced levels of key micronutrients and provides the ultimate nutrition for hoof quality, coat health, metabolic function and antioxidant defenses.

Fresh water and free-choice plain loose salt should also be available to your Shetland at all times to promote hydration and gut motility. Most diets for horses and ponies are low in sodium. Adding salt to your Shetland’s daily ration can help meet sodium requirements and support hydration.

Hay Selection

The average Shetland Pony weighs between 400 – 450 pounds (180 – 205 kg), less than half the weight of a typical full-size horse. This means they need a lot less hay to meet their daily forage requirement.

According to nutritionists, horses and ponies should consume approximately 2% of their body weight in forage on a daily basis. This means that a 400 lb (180 kg) Shetland needs about 8 lb (3.6 kg) of hay per day.

Mature grass hay is the best option for limiting calories while providing enough fiber to support digestive function. [12] Learn more in our guide on Choosing the Right Hay for your Horse.

Ponies on pasture are known to consume significantly more grass relative to their body weight than larger horses. [15]

Studies have found they can consume their total daily energy needs within three hours of grazing and over a 24-hour period they can consume almost 5% of their body weight in dry matter from pasture. [15][16]

Therefore, ponies with unlimited pasture access will quickly become overweight. One study found increased insulin concentrations in insulin-resistant Shetlands after just four hours of grazing. [13]

If turning your pony out on pasture, use a grazing muzzle to decrease grass intake by up to 80%. [16] Dry lots with low-starch and low-sugar hay provided in a slow feeder are ideal for maximizing turnout time while preventing weight gain in Shetlands.

Feed Recommendations

Most Shetland Ponies should not consume high-energy commercial concentrates. Grain-based feeds increase the risk of metabolic dysfunction, obesity and colic in these easy keepers.

One study of Shetland Ponies revealed that non-obese mares developed hyperinsulinemia and obesity after five weeks on a high-energy diet. [14] Feeding a hay-based diet reversed hyperinsulinemia in the mares, but the condition quickly returned when grain feeding was reintroduced. [14]

If your Shetland needs a carrier for vitamin and mineral supplements in their diet, consider using a forage-based carrier such as soaked hay pellets.

Nutritional Supplements

The first priority when formulating a diet for your Shetland pony is to provide balanced levels of key nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. After balancing the diet, you can consider other nutritional supplements to address your pony’s performance goals or special health needs.

MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) is a popular choice among Shetland Pony owners for exercise support. It helps maintain healthy joints and connective tissue by aiding in the homeostatic regulation of inflammation. MSM has demonstrated effectiveness for relieving arthritic pain and supporting equine muscles.

MSM

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  • Supports joint health
  • Cartilage & connective tissue
  • Skin, coat & hoof quality
  • Natural antioxidant

The herb Jiaogulan can help counterbalance the excessive levels of the potent vasoconstrictor endothelin-1 found in metabolic laminitis. [18] It does this by increasing the levels of nitric oxide inside blood vessels. [19] Nitric oxide is the natural opponent of endothelin-1 actions in the blood vessels.

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  • Supports circulation
  • Promotes hoof health
  • Supports muscle performance
  • Used in laminitic horses

To support gut health, feed a probiotic supplement such as Mad Barn’s Optimum Probiotic, which provides 20 billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs) per serving. Optimum Probiotic is a pure probiotic supplement with no fillers, which makes it suitable for easy keepers.

Work with an equine nutritionist and check serving size recommendations to ensure your Shetlands get the right amount of any supplement based on their body weight. Submit your Shetland’s diet online for a free analysis from our high qualified nutritionists.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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References

  1. Winton, C. et al. Genetic diversity within and between British and Irish breeds: The maternal and paternal history of native ponies. Ecol Evol. 2020.
  2. Goodacre, S. et al. Genetic evidence for a family-based Scandinavian settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking periods. Heredity. 2005.
  3. Hudson, L. The Shetland Islands. J Geog. 1917.
  4. Brinkman, L. et al. Adaptation strategies to seasonal changes in environmental conditions of a domesticated horse breed, the Shetland pony (Equus ferus caballus). J Exp Biol. 2012.
  5. Rafati, N. et al. Large Deletions at the SHOX Locus in the Pseudoautosomal Region Are Associated with Skeletal Atavism in Shetland Ponies. G3 Genes Genomes Genet. 2016.
  6. Metzger, J. et al. Whole-genome sequencing reveals a potential causal mutation for dwarfism in the Miniature Shetland pony. Mammalian Genome. 2017.
  7. McKenzie, H. Equine Hyperlipidemias. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2011.
  8. Durham, A. et al. The effect of month and breed on plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone concentrations in equids. The Vet J. 2022.
  9. Luthersson, N. et al. Laminitis: Risk Factors and Outcome in a Group of Danish Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2017.
  10. Krueger, K. et al. Basic Needs in Horses?—A Literature Review. Animals. 2021.
  11. Brinkmann, L. et al. Saving energy during hard times: energetic adaptations of Shetland pony mares. J Exp Biol. 2014.
  12. National Research Council. Nutrient requirements of horses: 6th ed. The National Academies Press. 2007.
  13. Fitzgerald, D. et al. Insulin and incretin responses to grazing in insulin-dysregulated and healthy ponies. J Vet Int Med. 2018.
  14. Fonseca, N. et al. Effect of long-term overfeeding of a high-energy diet on glucose tolerance in Shetland pony mares. J Vet Int Med. 2020.
  15. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  16. Longland, A.C. et al. The effect of wearing a grazing muzzle vs. not wearing a grazing muzzle on intakes of spring, summer and autumn pastures by ponies. IN: Forages and grazing in horse nutrition, vol 132. Wageningen Academic Publishers. 2012.
  17. Clark, B.L. et al. Evaluation of an HMGA2 variant contribution to height and basal insulin concentrations in ponies. J Vet Intern Med. 2023.
  18. Gauff, F. et al. Hyperinsulinaemia increases vascular resistance and endothelin-1 expression in the equine digit. Equine Vet J. 2013.
  19. Tanner, M.A. et al. The direct release of nitric oxide by gypenosides derived from the herb Gynostemma pentaphyllum. Nitric Oxide. 1999.