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Pet of the week: The Shetland pony

Hello – this looks like something out of a Thelwell cartoon ...

Well spotted. The Shetland pony was lovingly created in cartoon form by Norman Thelwell, and its physical traits lend themselves perfectly to caricature.

What traits in particular?

The Shetland has a low centre of gravity, short, thick-set legs and a long shaggy mane. After centuries of careful breeding (and due to its evolutionary isolation), the Shetland remains a very pure breed, and the horses fall into two main categories – stout ones with thick heads, and slightly more slender ones with smaller, prettier heads.

Where does he come from?

As I say, originally he is from the Shetland Isles, where he was bred as a working horse capable of dealing with the harsh northern winters. As the climate was so punishing, it has ensured that only the most rugged survived to breed throughout the years. The cutesy Thelwell cartoons belie the toughness and indefatigable nature of this hardy beast.

So what are they like as pets?

Many people think that they are a doddle to keep, but the Shetland can be a very determined creature if not treated with respect. That said, they are also quite biddable and therefore are ideal as first-time ponies for children learning to ride, and are often used for therapy by institutions such as Riding for the Disabled Association.

But they have a reputation for being a bit single-minded?

If you saw the charmingly chummy Martin Clunes television programme on horses, Horsepower, then you would know that horses behave very much in accordance with their riders, so a bolshy rider begets a bolshy nag. They have a very keen sense (a horse sense, even) of how humans behave. So it is important to show patience and positive assertiveness towards any horse. Sorry, lecture over ...

Not everyone can own a horse ...

This is true; annual livery costs and the space needed to exercise them makes the reality of owning a Shetland a dream for most of us. But if you are interested in getting started – or more likely, getting your young ones started on a horse – there are hundreds of stables up and down the country, many with Shetlands. The Shetland Pony Club in Cobham, Surrey, for example, offers the chance to part-own one of these little treasures, and although it requires a certain financial commitment, it can be very rewarding, as well as teaching children about responsibility and caring for animals. Sorry, that really is lecture over.

How do I find out more about Shetlands?

Contact the Shetland Pony Club on 01372 844 077 or visit shetlandponyclub.co.uk. For general details and to find out more about acquiring and keeping the breed, contact the Perth-based Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society on 01738 623 471 or visit shetlandponystudbooksociety.co.uk