There is some archeologial evidence that neolithic people around 2000 BC had eaten ponies on Shetland. How these ponies arrived there in the first place is open to debate, it could have been towards the end of the last ice age before the ice had retreated completely. perhaps around 8,000 years ago. There would have been periods during the general retreat of the ice in which the sea would have frozen, bearing in mind sea levels would have been much lower therefore the distance over sea between Shetland and Europe would have been much less. It is unlikely that Neolithic boats could have transported them, but not totally out of the question. Later around 200 AD Celtic iron age people worked ponies in harness on the islands, and these people probably introduced ponies. Shetland was settled by the Vikings around 800 AD long before they visited the rest of Britain. It appears that Shetland was almost unpopulated at this time. It is possible the small remaining population of people had maintained some pony herds, or they may have survived in wild herds, but almost certainly the Vikings introduced their ponies at some stage resulting in cross breeding…..( to be continued).
Below is a collection of early mentions of Shetland Ponies or similiar types, that I have found in various publications.
Captain John Smith in 1633 said of his visit to Shetland. Their horses which they call Shelties are little bigger than Asses but are very durable.
In 1650 the Reverand Hugh Leigh said the horses are of little size and excellent mettell, will carry a man or woman 20 miles in a day, and live until they are 20 or 30 years old, though they be never stabled summer or winter.
In 1701 the Reverend John Brand in his Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth & Caithness. Says that they have little horses called Shelties 9 or 10 hands high and are the only horses to be had unless you bring one from another place. They are full of vigour and life and can carry a man and a woman 8 miles then back again. He also comments that they used to be more numerous than they are now.
Martin Martin in 1703 comments on little horses commonly known as Shelties who are very sprightly, and that they feed on sea ware at low tide when there is no grass. He also mentions horses of a lower size on St Kilda.
In his Histoical Description of Zetland Thomas Gifford in 1733, comments on the small size of the ponies, their strength and hardiness and how little winter fodder they were able to survive on.
James Boswell talks about little horses called Shelties on Coll and other Western Isles running wild in 1773. His traveling companion Dr Samuel Johnson rode one. Dr Johnson was told of small horses on Bara not above 36 inches.
Professor James Ritchie who was Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh 1936 to 1952 stated that Shelties are the smallest breed of horses, the smallest recorded at 26 inches and are representatives of a race that inhabited Scotland in pre-historic times. He claimed that drawings of them can be recognized in cave paintings in the Dordogne and Altamira.
In about 1820 the veterinary surgeon William Youatt gives a breed description :- small head, good tempered countenance, short neck, fine towards the throttle, shoulders low and thick, back short, quarters expanded and powerful, flat legs, fine and pretty round feet, emense strength for size, perfectly docile.
In 1840 the Stastistical Accounts of Scotland recorded the most general colour as dark mousey grey
In The Foals of Epona by Antony Dent & Daphne Machin Goodall, it is claimed that Sir Arthur Nicholson introduced a Mustang stallion named Bolivar just before 1850, this resulted in the Fetlar breed from 11 to 13 hands. But Charles & Anne Douglas In The Shetland Pony states that although it was called a Mustang it was in fact a grey Arab, presented to Sir Arthur Nicolson by General Bolivar, and that this pony was used for many years from 1837 onwards along with another Arab and a Orkney Garron cross, which resulted in the Fetlar Pony.
Sir Walter Gilbey wrote in 1903 of an atempt to increase the size by introducing Norwegian Pony stallions a distinct variety was established, called the Sumburgh breed of ponies 12 to 13.2 hands
Shetland Ponies on the Isle of Skye early 1900’s. This photograph was first published in Gardner’s book Peaks, Lochs and Coasts of the Western Highlands. Here it has been reproduced on a postcard by Valentine & Sons Ltd
This Newman Bros of Glasgow used postcard has a 1911 stamp on the back.
Photograph by Valentine & Sons Ltd
Photograph taken at the Imperial International Exhibition, London in 1909. Mock up of a Scottish village complete with Shetland Ponies.
Photograph by Valentine & Sons Ltd
Books used for reference, and are reccommended reading.
The Foals of Epona by Anthony Dent & Daphne Machin Goodall, printed by Galley Press.
Native Ponies of the British Isles by Susan Hulme, printed by Saiga Publishing Co Ltd.
The Shetland Pony by Charles & Anne Douglas, printed by William Blackwood & Sons.
Shetland Ponies from Shetland by Margaret Hunter, published by Shetland Times Ltd.
The Shetland Pony by Maurice C Cox, published by Adam & Charles Black.
Shetland Ponies by Valerie Russell, printed by Whittet Books