The adorable Shetland pony is one of the smallest breeds of horses, ranging in height from around 28 inches to the official maximum height of eleven hands high (eleven hands high in the UK, that is, and 11.2 hands for American Shetlands). They originally come from the Shetland Isles, (as the name suggests!) which are situated to the north-east of Scotland (the point the farthest north in the British Isles). It appears that groups of small horses have lived on these islands since the Bronze Age, and the Shetlands probably originated from Norse settlers breeding their own imported horses with the native stock. They are also probably related to the now-extinct Celtic Ponies, which were brought to the islands between 2000-1000 BC.
The harsh climate and scarce food of the islands has produced very hardy animals in the Shetland ponies. They are traditionally small with a very sturdy build, and strong with a thick coat. A short broad back, deep girth and springy stride are the defining characteristics common to them all and they can be found in all colours and markings. They usually live to be around 25-35 years old. They are highly intelligent and their gentleness and good nature is one of the factors that make them ideal for children to ride. They grow a thick double coat in winter to withstand the worst of the weather conditions in their native isles, and shed this in the summer, so that they have a much lighter, finer coat. They have traditionally been used for pulling carts, ploughing and as mining horses. Even nowadays some mines still use these ponies. However these days they are most often kept as pets and for children to ride, and for showing purposes, sometimes for racing. In Britain the Shetland Pony Grand National takes place every year, with young riders racing round the course.
These ponies are also increasingly being trained as guide horses, much to my surprise! In other words they are fulfilling the same role as guide dogs, for blind people, for example. It took some dedication to train them in this role: apparently the first time a miniature horse was being trained in this way, the trainer took him into a grocery store and he grabbed a Snickers bar off the shelf!
They are clearly a very versatile and useful breed, despite their diminutive proportions.
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Picture courtesy of www.horseandman.com