Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/Shetland Ponies


THE Shetland pony has been invested with a halo of romance somewhat out of keeping with the prosaic surroundings of its native home; and this, apparently, from a very early date, for we chanced to read not long ago that, traditionally, "the Shetland pony was carried from the Caucasian range, by ancient worshipers of Odin, to Scandinavia, thence to Shetland"—in which tradition we discern a trace of humor, if nothing more, as, considering the size of some of these animals, they are much more fitted to be "carried" than to transport any one, whether from the Caucasus or elsewhere. But this is not all. Not only is the origin of the breed thus presumably lost in the mists of antiquity; a number of popular misconceptions also prevail in regard to the present-day nature and habits of the animals, all of which it seems desirable to correct. They are now not only drafted annually in large numbers to the south, but are extensively shipped abroad. A few words, then, in regard to the breed, as it exists to-day, may not be out of place.

To begin with, we must contend—in opposition to the popularly received belief—that there is no such thing as the genuine Shetland pony, in the sense of a single pure and original breed. There happen to be several distinct kinds in the islands, and these, besides being subject to natural variation, have been further increased in number by crossing. Crosses apart, however, an Unst pony is very different from a South Mainland one, while both of these again differ from a Fetlar specimen. There are also Fair Isle and Bressay varieties. It would be invidious to seek to indicate in this paper which of these is to be considered the best. Each kind, no doubt, has its special excellences, but a sufficient latitude is perhaps allowed when we state that a pure-bred pony may be anything between, say, thirty-six and forty-eight inches high at the shoulder. A small-sized pony, again, is not necessarily any better or more valuable than a large one; though for certain purposes, such as working in coal-mines, the smaller animal only is employed. As a general rule extremes of size, either way, fetch correspondingly extreme prices.

Broadly speaking, the ponies to be seen throughout, say, the mainland of Shetland—and they are to be met with everywhere, in spite of reported scarcity—may be divided into two classes, those kept by large breeders, generally in fenced parks, and the proletariat class employed by the peasantry in labor. Strings of the latter may be seen any day upon the roads, dragging peat-fuel from the hills in Lilliputian carts. They are wonderfully tough and strong for their size, live upon hard fare, and require, or at least receive, little attention. Numbers of them live out of doors all the year round, except in the severest weather. The time-honored fiction that they are habitually left out in the snow, and preserve themselves from being drifted over by walking constantly in a circle, contradicts itself. As a matter of fact, snow often lies for seven or eight weeks in Shetland, covering the ground to a great depth. Under these circumstances the animals, if exposed, would certainly succumb, and they are far too valuable to their owners for this to be permitted. But they certainly do rough it out of doors in very inclement weather, seeking the doubtful shelter of dikes and out-houses; while in hard seasons the stud of the breeder is carefully housed in sheds made for the purpose. Unquestionably these ponies can stand a great amount of exposure, being fitted for this by a double or treble thickness of coat. But it is very much to be questioned—the popular belief to the PSM V38 D555 A shetland pony.jpgA Shetland Pony. contrary notwithstanding—if any of them are the better for being subjected to an extreme test of this kind. Ponies sent south at an early age rarely, if ever, pass through such an ordeal, and it is not found, we believe, that their natural hardiness deserts them, or even diminishes, when they receive fair treatment and proper shelter during inclement seasons. If stabled, however, as in many cases they must necessarily be, by the southern buyer, they should have abundance of fresh air; a simple shed, by way of cover, is almost all that is necessary for them. And it is imperative that at all times they should have ready access to drinking-water. No animal can exist so short a time without it unharmed. It is self-evident that, if a pony be entirely dependent on outdoor feed, his condition must necessarily vary with the season. Apoplectically full in summer, he must be sorely reduced in winter. This must, sooner or later, injure the health and stamina of the animal.

The writer, who has had considerable experience in the keeping of Shetland ponies, has carefully experimented as to the best hygienic arrangements for their indoor accommodation. He finds that a rough stone building, loosely cemented, so as to allow a free current of air to pass through the walls, with ordinary stable fittings on a small scale, and covered with a galvanized iron roof, forms their best shelter. During the day, in almost all weathers, they should have their heads loose, in rough pasture; and in summer they can safely be left out at night, with the exception of young foals. Strange to say, the latter are remarkably delicate. For indoor food common wheaten bran made into a mash, with the addition of a little Indian meal, suits them much better than oats; while hay or straw, with turnips or potatoes, and perhaps a little linseed cake, complete their stable dietary. Generally speaking, they are somewhat gross feeders, and, though capable of standing unharmed a surfeit which would ruin an ordinary horse, they should have a carefully measured allowance, varying according to their size and to the work they have to do.

Now, as to the much-vexed question of height. A variation of, say, three hands between the average large and small sized ponies means a good deal in the case of such a tiny animal. Yet it obtains, as we have said, among undoubtedly pure-bred specimens, and entirely independent of any foreign cross. Accidental variations of size occur, of course, in breeding, and may be perpetuated, though this is not always to be relied upon. The true explanation, according to one of the most experienced of Shetland judges, is that size is mainly, though perhaps not entirely, a question of feed. Scanty feeding on hard pasture tends to diminish the height, and also to develop that superabundance of hair which is popularly (though erroneously) regarded as one of the distinguishing marks of the genuine strain.

The craze for undersized ponies, in our opinion, has had its day. Except as curiosities, or for the purposes of the ménage, these pygmy animals are practically useless. The conventional Shetland pony—the animal represented in picture-books—namely, about forty to forty-four inches high, very tight-jointed, and with an impossible growth of hair all over him, is just about as bad a type of this famous race as can well be imagined. From his build he is generally short-winded and thoroughly impracticable in his paces. A South Mainland specimen, on the other hand, long and rakish in build—hard-grown, as the saying is—and clean-limbed, will far surpass his companion in staying power. One of this hardy breed—in our opinion the ideal Shetland pony—has been known to travel from Sumburgh to Lerwick and back the same day, with a tolerably heavy riding weight, say fifty-six miles altogether of extremely hilly road. But, minor differences apart, there are certain characteristics—unfailing tests in their way with the experienced judge—which go to the "make-up" of a Shetland, as distinguished from an Iceland or Faroe, pony—e.g., a certain unmistakable breadth of build, set of pasterns, and, more particularly, an apathetic air which no other breed possesses. Your "Sheltie" is not a quick animal, is inclined to be sleepy rather than otherwise in his paces, and is, as a rule, disposed to do no more than he can help in the way of exertion, though, if put to it, he evinces great power of endurance, and will go through an immense amount of work for his size. The Iceland variety is altogether inferior, shorter-lived, narrower in build, and generally fallacious, but, with all this, he is quicker, livelier, and lacks that air of pensive melancholy which haunts every Shetland pony. Our advice is to avoid the inferior animal, however highly recommended. Their price is, roughly speaking, about half that of the Shetlander, but the money is ill-saved. The average life of an Icelander is about twelve or thirteen years, while the other will live to twenty-five or even more.

During the earlier months of spring, before the snow has fairly disappeared from the Shetland uplands, the American buyer travels over the length and breadth of the isles, picking up every likely animal he can find for the foreign market. In order to secure a good selection it is necessary to forestall him. Hence mid-winter is the best time to buy. Just at present there is a comparative scarcity of fine animals in the islands. Within the last three years, and even before that, a disease affecting the ponies, incurable save in the earlier stages, and called sarcoptic mange, ravaged many districts. Infected animals were freely slaughtered, and the epidemic may be said to have spent itself. Still, the ponies are fewer than they once were, and the price all round is considerably higher. At present it may be said to range from £10 to £30 and upward for three-year-olds. It is impossible, however, within the limits of this paper to instruct intending buyers. The prices are very variable, as the animals often pass through several hands before reaching the ultimate purchaser. The latter will probably be victimized if buying from so-called agents in the south, as the latter will endeavor to extort £18 or £20 for an animal which has cost them little more than half that sum in Shetland. The only safe plan is to purchase through a respectable dealer on the spot.

The variety of coloring in these tiny animals is extraordinary. Almost every possible—and some all but impossible—shade of horse color may be seen during a day's ride through the mainland, from the lightest fawn, almost white, by gray and slaty shades of gradation to brown and black. There are no dapple-grays that we wot of. There is a tradition, of the usual value, that brown is the "true and original" hue. Cream ponies, if otherwise good, fetch a higher price than others, as being a "fancy color," and the same may be said of "piebalds." The theory that light-colored animals are not so robust or hardy as dark ones is not borne out by observation. A stripe, or ribbon-like mark, down the spine is a sign of Norwegian blood, the infusion dating many years back. If the Caucasian legend is to be relied upon, however, the Norway pony is at least first cousin to the Shetland one.

A mob of ponies feeding together in the open air will use their heels to each other most liberally. This is a painful but undeniable fact, known to every breeder. When running wild on their native hills they are extremely pugnacious, and will fight most determinedly, not only with each other but with larger horses, frequently to the discomfiture of the latter. So far true, but our romancer—the Shetland Munchausen—goes on to affirm that if

"Fib and Tib and Pink and Pin,
Tick and Quick and Jill and Jin"

are but congregated loosely together in a shed, or other building, they will no longer quarrel. Amity will reign where hopeless discord formerly prevailed. We can only say, Try the experiment! We have. The whole thing is a baseless fiction. They are patient and enduring, these ponies of Linga;[1] in many cases they may be trained to a docility and sagacity almost human, but there is a point with most of them—such, at least, is our experience of them indoors as well as out—when their patience gives way to positive ferocity, and when once their blood is up they are not so easily pacified. An experience we once had with a recalcitrant riding pony in a rural smithy—it was his first shoeing—will never fade from our recollection, nor, we imagine, from that of the village Vulcan.

Never groom a Shetland pony as you would an ordinary horse. They should be well brushed, and their manes and tails combed; but the indiscriminate use of the curry-comb is positively hurtful to them. More especially is this the case if the animal is to be left much out of doors. Observe one of them in the open air on a wet day, and you will notice that the rain runs off his coat as off a duck's back. But if the "set" be removed, the coat will no longer be water-proof. It is scarcely necessary to add that, by immemorial custom, the mane and tail should be lightly trimmed and no more. Nothing can be more incongruous than the sight of one of them closely cropped. The tail should just be off the ground. So careful are Shetland dealers in this respect that we have often received animals dispatched by them with the tail thoughtfully tied in a double knot, in case of accidents on ship-board.

The Shetland pony is shy of a strange owner, and at first requires to be jealously watched in a new home, as being apt to bolt on the first opportunity. Unfailing tradition steps in here and gravely informs us that a straying pony, however far removed from the land of its birth, will invariably shape its course for the north—in the direction, that is, of its native home. Needless to say that, by preference, it does nothing of the kind. As far as our experience enables us to judge, a straying pony, wherever it may be, traverses the line of least resistance.

We have said that they are exported in large numbers annually. The wonder, in our opinion, is that they are not still more extensively purchased. They are singularly affectionate and repay any amount of attention. Their uses are manifold, as they are capital saddle animals—one of forty-seven inches being quite up to an ordinary riding weight—are as a rule sure-footed and reliable, go well either singly or paired in harness, make the best of hill ponies, give little trouble, and are the most captivating of all possible pets. Take them all in all, they are by far the best of the pony race. Perhaps their only drawback is their almost infinite teachableness, which tends to make them acquire bad as well as good habits; but this is a question of training. In nine cases out of ten their breaking-in is intrusted to inexperienced boys, with the usual result of developing a tendency to shy or to throw their rider, at which latter manœuvre they may become perfect adepts. These tricks are never unlearned. But, with an ordinary amount of skilled attention from the first, they may be perfectly disciplined.

Mr. J. Sands is the poet of this special subject—perhaps the only singer the Shetland pony ever had. In touching verse he pictures the mother pony with her downy foal feeding together on the wind-swept grassy hills of Shetland, the latter soon to be parted from her to go to work in the grimy coal-mine. A fine touch of nature this, but not without its share of, apparently inevitable, fallacy. For mine-ponies, though certainly condemned to life-long imprisonment, are well looked after and carefully tended. Assuredly their lot underground is preferable to ill-treatment above ground, and though a pony may suffer from something like "home-sickness" for a few days in a new dwelling, the attack seldom lasts long. Our pony, though somewhat of a pessimist, is a philosopher, and adapts itself with wonderful facility to a change of home and ownership.—Cornhill Magazine.

One of the traits of recent historical investigation, which is well illustrated in Welzhofer's History of the Early Greek People, is its reaction against the skeptical school of inquirers. The disposition to disbelieve the old stories, or to resolve them into poetical fancies, is giving way to speculations concerning the real facts on which they may or are supposed to have been founded. Mr. F. T. Richards suggests, in the Academy, that anthropology has done something to bring about this change of mind, by finding, still existent, institutions, incidents, legends, and states of mind closely parallel or akin to early Greek and Roman affairs; while the credit of many of the old stories is strengthened by incidents in which the unlettered traditions of savages have been found to be true.
  1. Linga, or Heath Isle, the ancient name for Shetland, now on the lucus a non lucendo principle, heath or heather being practically extinct.