Remember that song from Sesame Street? “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same.’’
Think about that catchy little verse when you are contemplating getting a Shetland pony to sort of round out your stable. There are over a hundred breeds of ponies, but Shetlands are the most common here in the US. It’s the breed you probably image when you think pony. Shetlands look more like horses than anything else, but if you treat them like a small horse, there will be problems. Their conformation, attitude, and metabolism are not the same as horses’. The differences are great enough that it’s actually smart to think and treat them as a separate species.
In order to understand what a Shetland is all about you have to know something of their origin. The group of Shetland Islands is located over 100 miles north of the northern most part of Scotland and 300 miles due west of Norway. The islands are located exactly where the cold North Sea meets the Atlantic. Here on the islands the climate is severe and the land mostly barren. No spot on the islands is more than a four mile walk from the sea. Archeologists say that ponies have lived here for thousands of years. It is thought that their ancestors, larger in size, came over on an ice bridge from northern Europe. Obviously, only the strong survived the wild conditions. Those smaller, chunkier equines that we call Shetlands are the survivors. Animals with that conformation will typically do better in cold and windy conditions. The characteristics have been passed down: small stature, dense hair coat, and tough nature. They were used in the United Kingdom as “pit ponies” to pull loaded ore cars on tracks far below the earth surface from the coal seams to the shaft. Some were exported to America and were used in the Appalachians for the same purpose. Short, muscular necks, strong legs with short cannon bones, and deep barrels all add up to strength and endurance. Pound for pound, no horse is stronger than a Shetland.
It’s part of the nature of survivors of harsh conditions to carry a little attitude. Many, but not all, Shetlands are impatient and a bit un-cooperative. I am always pleasantly surprised by those that take vaccinations in stride and permit dentistry without sedation. It is not unusual to have them rear or strike when they don’t agree with some procedure.
The biggest mistake we make with these ponies is in treating them like horses at meal time. Thousands of years of genetic selection means that grain and green grass are close to poison for these animals who can survive on next to nothing. It is common for equine veterinarians to be called out in the spring to attend to a pony that has been pastured on rich green grass. Their systems simply can’t handle unlimited grass. Centuries of selection has made their metabolism amazingly efficient. As we say in New England, they can get fat on snowballs.
If a Shetland’s diet has too much of the carbohydrates found in grass or grain, the result will be more than just a belly ache. The rich diet starts an internal process that often doesn’t end well. High carbs in the diet means high blood sugar. Insulin is produced and secreted to try to get the sugar from the blood to the cells. After a while the body reaches a point of insulin resistance, which means that the system finally stops reacting to it. The result is large fat deposits that ironically start to develop at the same time that the ponies get ribby. Shetlands often develop the syndrome called Cushing’s disease, and the extremely painful foot condition of laminitis often follows.
Ponies should be kept in relatively grass free paddocks until the grass turns brown in the fall. When everyone else in the barn is getting scoops of grain, give your pony a handful of hay stretcher. When feeding hay, avoid the rich second cut. Even very leafy first cut hay can cause a problem, and sometimes it’s necessary to soak the hay in water to leach out the starch and sugars.
Despite the problems associated with “too good care”, nothing makes us smile more than a blocky little Shetland standing tall and proud as if he were a Budweiser Clydesdale in a beer commercial. They are smart and trainable. For a kid’s first mount they are ideal, and are perfectly suited for driving. If fed properly and exercised regularly, Shetlands are as hardy as they come. If you keep that song running through your head when dealing with them, having a Shetland around should give you decades of pleasure.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM