Shetland Pony Care/ Information
On the following pages, we offer information/tips about how we look after our ponies which we hope will be of help to those new to the breed or considering buying their first Shetland pony. Some of it is fairly obvious but, nevertheless, we still think worth mentioning. It’s by no means the definitive guide to Shetland Pony Care – that of course would be a book rather than a few pages! Other breeders may do things differently to us, we’re not claiming we know best, but we can say that our way works for us and keeps our ponies fit and well. We’ve covered what we think is good practice for breeding and care of ponies from birth onwards. If you purchase a pony from us, we feel it is always useful for you to know how the pony has been cared for in the past. Ponies get used to a routine and many buyers opt to follow the same routine, at least in the early days.
Our view is that if a shetland pony has been well handled and disciplined from an early age, it’s the best start he/she can have had. Not all studs handle their foals from birth but we believe our approach establishes their trust and they then remain friendly throughout their lives. We have seen wild, unhandled foals, many of which later come round with lots of time/patience and are fine – others we’ve seen have kept some of that wild streak. No one wants a pony they can’t catch.
There is a small booklet produced by the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society which has other information specifically about the care and management of Shetland ponies which you may find useful.
Owning a Shetland Pony
“Once you get the Shetland bug, there isn’t a cure! …….. not that you’ll ever want one!”
The above quote is from a friend and I definitely subscribe to that sentiment. One thing’s for certain – keeping Shetland ponies is an amazing pastime and gives so much enjoyment, to young and old alike, whether, like me, you progress to shetlands from horses, or just start with a Shetland and go from there.
These wonderful little ponies are intelligent, affectionate and very rewarding, although each has their own individual character. I think the following messages we’ve received from some of the first class homes our ponies/foals have gone to, sum up the pleasure that Shetland ponies give:
“May gives us back so much…she is a very very special and lovely pony”
“She really is a beautiful, wonderful, clever and friendly girl. Thank you so much for this beautiful little pony. She is very popular with the rest of the family and the other Shetlands!”
“She has made friends with all of our horses here, but her best friend is her stablemate Anchor, they are both inseparable now. She always has to be first in the queue for a groom and loves the hosepipe on a warm day. She has given us so much fun here and has the most loving, cheeky and adorable nature! She is one of the family now and we all love her lots, and it’s thanks to you for giving us such a lovely little pony.”
“Just wanted to let you know the boys are doing well. They definitely keep us on our toes. They are both so cheeky and Harry makes me laugh when he struts around like he’s 10 feet tall. They are such a joy.”
The foals/ ponies we have sold in the past have gone to homes where they’ve had a variety of different experiences – been shown in hand [both Shetland and Mountain and Moorland classes], been pets, companions, been ridden/ driven or simply been very special family friends! Many buyers keep in touch and let us know how the pony is doing. It’s lovely to get such emails, often with attached photos.
We’re always happy to help with any questions buyers may have, before or after the sale of a pony. We’ve found some super homes for our foals/ponies, we’ve shared experiences and met some lovely fellow Shetland owners/breeders along the way, some becoming much valued close friends.
Our policy is to be open and honest with potential buyers. We believe it’s in everyone’s interests, not least the pony’s, if owners and ponies are well matched. When you come to look at any pony, we’ll tell you about the pony, its parents and its temperament and are happy for you to fully inspect the pony, check the pony’s mouth, see the pony in the field, trot the pony out and answer any questions you have. Some people will go to sales and auctions to buy, where there can be many good ponies but we don’t sell our ponies at sales as we feel there are many more advantages for all concerned by selling ponies privately from home.
First Golden Rule
When I bought my very first Shetland pony, I was advised never to feed her from my hand and this is the best advice. If Shetlands are fed titbits, they are very likely to become nibbly and be always looking for treats. Let them come to you because they want to [for a hug and company], which they will do, rather than just coming looking for food. We would always advocate putting any type of feed in a bucket or on the ground – you’ll have a much nicer, unspoiled, well behaved pony for it.
We only breed from ponies once they have reached at least 3 years of age. We have selected our breeding ponies for their pedigrees, conformation and temperament – selecting ponies of the traditional Shetland type. Our breeding policy is such that we prefer not to breed from a mare every year, all have at least one year off between foals and whilst we could breed more each year, we try to take a responsible approach and can therefore give more attention to foals if numbers are kept low.
Mares run out with stallions from around April to July. When our mares are taken away from the stallions at the end of summer, we have them externally scanned to check which are in foal. This means we know who to give hard feed to and keep a close eye on. We don’t believe in any general internal examination of these small mares so as to avoid any risk to the unborn foal.
Having kept records of when we’ve seen mares in season, as their foaling date approaches, which in Shetlands can be from 10 months gestation, the average being around 11 months [340 days] then we watch the mare day and night at 1 -2 hour intervals. At night, the mares are inside on a clean, thick straw bed and we watch them on CCTV installed in the stables and viewed from our beds! Our camera system can also be viewed on a mobile phone/computer so my family can watch the ponies from anywhere in the world! How good is new technology?! Mares bags are checked daily, they gradually increase in size and then when the teats point down rather than together, they are usually close. Another indicator that the mare is close is waxing appearing on her teats, this can be as small as a pin head but once seen, foaling can be within 24 hours. I’ve purchased a foaling indicator from the States, which has proved very useful and can predict foaling within 12 hours [by testing milk] we know then to step up watching the mare. Observing the milk colour also indicates proximity of foaling. When you know your mares well, you can often see them behave out of character which can suggest they are close but all mares are different and not all follow the norm so we never take anything for granted.
We are always present at foaling as far as is humanly possible! In most cases mares can foal without assistance and we don’t intervene unless necessary – though in some cases, being there makes the difference between a live and dead foal [simply being there to break the bag if it doesn’t break naturally can avoid a foal suffocating].
Mares can foal day or night, we’ve probably had slightly more [68%] born in the hours of darkness [mares seem to like privacy]. If all is going well, we watch from a distance, checking and removing the afterbirth from the stable which the mare should pass naturally, then leaving the mare and foal to bond but being close enough to keep an eye out for anything amiss. If it’s warm the mare will lick the foal dry, if it’s cold, a clean towel helps! I won’t go into the full ins and outs of foaling as there are good books out there written by experts and most people have good contacts always willing to advise, just beware of those professing to be experts when they’re not! If you have a mare and it’s your first foaling, it can be a worrying time, it may help to watch a video of a straight forward foaling on youtube so you know what to expect, we have a couple on our youtube channel accessed by the link on the top of our home page.
As well as having the obvious handy – clean bucket/warm water, mobile phone, vets number, headcollar etc, in our foaling box we keep:
- Tail bandage
- Lubrel lubricant
- Sterilised scissors, cord & string
- Plastic bags / bin bag for afterbirth
- Hand wipes / kitchen roll
- Clean Towels
- Purple spray for foals navel
- Jug for expressing colostrum/milk & feeding bottle
- Large syringe
- Disposable gloves
- Wound powder
- Camera & video – with full charge!
With all the best intentions of scrubbing hands with hibiscrub, often there’s little time and events seem to take over with some of the fast foalings we’ve had.
You can scare yourself reading too much but there are alarm signs at foaling to watch out for such as a [rare] red bag presenting rather than a clear one or if the head and 2 legs do not present corre ctly or the mare fails to make progress [once actual foaling starts, it’s usually quite quick]. If we have any concerns then we would always call our vet, though this is seldom necessary.
Once the foal is born, they are incredible in the way they are so quickly on their feet, trying to feed, sometimes within minutes. Once they attempt to feed, we make sure the foal latches on properly and isn’t just sucking on the side of the teat – you should see the tongue wrapped around the teat [maybe as you’re on your hands and knees with a torch!] It’s really important to check this both from the point of view of the foal getting nourishment but also as the colostrum they only get in their first 12 hours is essential for their immunity. Foals seem to feed little and often, according to the National Foaling Bank, around 20 swallows each time is okay at first. We also check that the foal passes meconium [dark and stringy from the bowels] this is usually within a couple of hours, we make sure that the foal isn’t straining without passing anything. We also stay around to check that the foal is passing water too. We buy Fletcher’s enemas from our local chemist to aid foals struggling to pass meconium but if you have any doubts, of course calling the vet for advice is the best policy. For foals born early when the weather is still very cold, we often pop on a dog coat until we’re sure they can withstand the cold without.
Mares usually recover well, occasionally some can experience complications or bad after pains, in severe cases vets can give relief. We give ours small, easily digestible feeds and check their bowels and waterworks are working, although bowel movement is often delayed, most mares having fully emptied their bowels before foaling, but again we would consult our vet if we had any worries.
If the mare foals outside, they are brought in and usually stay in for around 12 hours away from the other ponies, then they often go out on their own with their babies to begin with so the mare can relax with her foal and teach the foal to follow her without the distraction and interference of the rest of the herd.
We will quietly go in with the mare and foal during their first hours and many foals are friendly from the start, others can be a little shy at first but we see them all daily from then on and encourage human interaction, this foal needed little encouragement, he was like a dog – he loved coming to sit on your knee!
We spend lots of time with the foals over the summer, brushing, picking up feet and later putting on headcollars. They love to “help” with any jobs – they’re very good at upturning barrows, stealing your brushes etc. Those that are more shy respond well to us coming down to their level, we’ll often just sit in the field and find that their inquisitive nature means they come to us. Once they are weaned, we teach them to lead and start to tie them up in a safe place for short periods initially, keeping them observed, then gradually increasing this once they accept it.
Buying a Foal
We only sell foals to homes where they will have other equine company [as is the preference for any pony we sell] We learnt a lesson the hard way when we were promised a foal would have a companion, he didn’t, nor did he have adequate space to exercise – a garden or allotment is in no way suitable. Luckily he came back to us and was subsequently sold on to a lovely home as a companion. Imagine being recently separated from your mother and everything you know and then being taken to a strange place, all alone……
Despite shetlands loving human company, it’s not a substitute for another pony that they can groom, graze and play with! Often we sell foals in pairs which is ideal when they can go to a new home together. Others have become companions to other horses/ ponies and as long as they are introduced carefully to make sure the little one comes to no harm, this works well.
Scotty and Otter were best friends from the word go:Obviously, we always want any pony we sell to have a long term home, most buyers have thought long and hard before visiting us but we’re more than happy if, after talking to us and taking away this information, buyers want to consider further . With our open and honest policy, buyers can know as much about the pony as possible before they commit to buy. This helps to make sure a long term home for a pony is more certain.
Foals can be reserved with deposit until weaning [at around 5 months of age]. If for any reason you can’t take the foal at weaning, the deposit is forfeited. Once a foal is reserved, we encourage buyers to visit their foals if they wish before they take them so they can get to know the foal – and the foals love the attention!
All our foals are miniature shetlands growing up to 34” at maturity, they are all microchipped by a vet, registered and passported with the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society [formed in 1890] which means they are pure bred shetlands with full pedigrees. Having carefully selected our breeding stock, we aim to produce foals meeting all the correct breed standards.
By sale time, all our foals are wormed, halter broken and have been used to being groomed, been taught to lead and be tied up and pick up their feet which will have been checked by our farrier – all of this will need to be continued regularly in their new homes. Some foals take to everything quickly and easily, others can take longer but we persevere, taking a quiet approach so that the foals are not frightened and are confident when handled. Of course a foal will need time to settle into new surroundings but keeping a routine that they are used to can only help them settle more easily.
We are sometimes asked if colts can be gelded at weaning before going to new homes though most are not ready at that age as their testicles have not dropped so the procedure is more difficult and my vet doesn’t recommend gelding at this stage. Buyers therefore take their foals as colts usually for gelding as yearlings.
The Weaning Process
We have weaned here trying different methods, both have advantages and disadvantages. Once the foals have become accustomed to eating hard feed, one method is to separate the mares and foals at a cut off date – usually by taking the foals indoors and then taking the mares to a separate field. Many are fine with this as the foals are getting to an independent stage where they have been taking less milk. Some mares and foals will be upset for a couple of days but then settle down well. The alternative method is a more gradual weaning where the foals are put in for an hour/day to start and then gradually increasing by an hour or 2 each day to overnight, then separation. It’s debateable which method is best.
Once weaned the foals have each other for company, going in at night when the weather is bad but always going out all day to get plenty of exercise – very important for their wellbeing and development.
Being the native breed they are, Shetlands are very hardy ponies, who, after their first winter, can live out all year with just natural shelter/shade from the elements – trees, hedges, walls etc although an open fronted shelter is useful, the ponies often opt to stand outside anyway! We have stables for use for foals/foaling/illness though our shetlands are rarely sick or sorry, we believe our well established care routine is a factor. Some people rug their ponies in winter, we generally don’t as they have double winter coats which have guard hairs that shed rain and keep the pony’s skin dry. There are of course exceptions when, at times, a rug might be best for the pony’s welfare.
We make sure all ponies have a good, well fenced paddock with sufficient clean grass – youngstock and brood mares needing sufficient for growth and lactation. The field needs of course to be free of any hazards/poisonous plants with a clean, fresh water supply and adequate space to exercise and play – size will depend on how good your land is/ drainage etc. some say half an acre per pony. We keep weeds down by spraying [obviously removing the ponies for the required time], removing any ragwort manually. It’s always useful to have the facility to rest fields to keep them in good condition, in our larger fields we sometimes use temporary electric fencing to manage the grazing. We do some poo picking which can be helpful to keeping fields in good condition and help lessen worm problems, the extent you may need to do this will depend on how much grazing land you have. There are of course many other factors to good grass management, eg checking ph levels etc which are too complex to cover here. We are fortunate given the increasing price of hay, to have the capacity to use some fields for hay production, preferring hay to haylage. We top fields as necessary in autumn, we are lucky to have an excellent local haymaker/ topper [thank you Mark!]
All our ponies are routinely checked upon at least once a day. We aim to keep our ponies at a healthy weight and avoid any problems associated with excess weight such as laminitis. Any pony can of course develop laminitis, some are more prone than others but managing their grazing is an important factor.
We only generally stable ponies when they are foals, only at night during their first winter in a box with another foal. Also mares close to foaling are stabled at night under CCTV so they can be observed to ensure all is well. Otherwise we find they love to be outdoors – bearing in mind all equines are grazing, roaming animals and we think boredom and vices can kick in when ponies are stabled for long periods. Of course, there are occasional other times when a pony needs to be stabled, and if so, boredom breakers/ salt licks etc are invaluable – swedes on strings are favourites with our ponies. Our stables have lowered doors so the ponies can see out, looking at 4 walls for hours on end is no fun. Some foals will play with most things that appear in the field though I’m not sure you can offer these generally – one of our colts would often manage to toddle round the field with an ikea bag over him!
Most of our ponies are at grass all year round. In the event they have to be stabled for any reason, we give our ponies ad lib hay – we feel this is preferable to haylage and, if given hard feed, we mainly use low sugar feeds such as Dodson and Horrell “Safe and Sound” or Spillers “high fibre cubes”. The older ponies at grass have hay outdoors usually from October to April, as needed, depending on the grass situation. We always ensure that when we put hay out that all ponies can access it – if you have several ponies there may be those who think it’s all theirs so the more timid ones can be pushed out. We use haynets where appropriate. The large blue ikea bags are perfect for delivering hay to fields!
As weaning approaches at around 4 -5 months, we give our foals a daily high protein balancer [such as “Suregrow” or “Grow and Win”] fed together with a little cool mix [we use Baileys everyday mix with oil for coat shine] Sugarbeet can be added to overcome any dryness. This is continued until the following spring. A few carrots can be fed though we don’t give too many as they have a relatively high sugar content [as do many prepared feeds – we always check the bag!]
We start to feed mares in foal once/day from around January when they are taken away from the herd and put in a separate field and fed outdoors. We find using the indestructible black rubber trugs is ideal, adequately spaced out so everyone is happy! They also have access to salt and mineral licks.
We have a very good farrier who trims our pony’s feet on a regular basis. Some hooves grow quicker than others so it’s hard to say a definitive time scale, we tend to call our farrier when needed, unlikely to be more frequent than every 8 weeks.
We use a weight tape to determine the amount of wormer needed, our ponies average around 175kg. Most wormers treat around 700kg so a tube of wormer will do up to 4 mini shetlands so only around £2.50 / pony. We tend to alternate Equest and Equimax as this has worked for us and covers all worm types including tapeworms, confirmed by worm count checks done intermittently [Westgate Labs are reasonable] – they have always come back clear. You can opt to go on a special programme where you send off a sample for a worm count and they will send you an appropriate wormer as needed. We try and work in some worm counts so that wormers aren’t used unnecessarily with all the publicity about resistance to wormers developing.
We worm foals from 6 weeks of age using panacur paste as recommended by the National Foaling Bank.
Tetanus innoculations can be a good idea, but if you don’t opt for this routinely, your vet would often recommend it should your pony have an injury. Flu jabs are another option, your vet is the best person to advise you.
Most Shetlands love being brushed and fussed but remember not to overdo it and remove the grease which keeps your pony dry and warm. We like to keep manes and tails tangle free and tend to cut tails above the ground before winter so they don’t damage them and drag them in the mud though don’t overdo it – a shown Shetland should have a long tail! We check ponies for lice – itching/ rubbing can be a sign. Louse powder or invermectin wormer help. We have occasionally used Pig oil on manes and tails to deter rubbing, lice don’t like greasy environments though thankfully we have only had the odd instance.
Some of our ponies are used to travelling but of course if you buy a foal it won’t have travelled. If we know a pony has a long journey ahead [as the foal we sold to the Isle of Wight!] we will get them accustomed to going in a trailer – often letting them go in and eat so they feel comfortable in the trailer to lessen the stress of a long journey. We would always travel foals, and other ponies who haven’t travelled before, loose as we feel it’s safer this way. Our trailer is specially adapted with full partitions so little feet etc cannot become trapped. Generally buyers will need to sort out travel arrangements for any pony they purchase.
Change of Ownership
Purchasers can transfer their ponies into their names by sending a transfer form to the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society together with the pony’s passport. We will provide this with our part completed, the purchaser is required to pay a transfer fee to the Society – currently £20.
As stated earlier, our ponies are rarely sick or sorry but of course there are signs to watch out for. Even with the best care, occasionally ponies can be ill. Once we have got to know a pony, we can often tell that a pony is out of sorts. We had the misfortune of a mare slipping a foals a few years ago and found the kitten sized foal in the field shelter. On inspection, no mare showed any sign of being the one who had lost her baby but I guessed which mare had lost as I’d seen her “off” for a couple of days before – just quieter that normal and looked slightly down in the dumps though nothing particularly obvious or that you would ever call a vet for. Rescanning proved my thoughts. The foal was taken to Liverpool vet school where it was examined and, though not conclusive, it was thought the foal had not developed properly. The good news is that the mare has gone on to have 2 super healthy fillies since. We mention some health conditions here for information .
I was always told start at the foot and work up! The only instances of lameness for us have been foot abcesses though thankfully only ever 2 occurrences. The ponies affected became acutely lame overnight and find it difficult to put any weight at all on the affected foot but a vet [or your farrier] can provide instant relief. Once they release the pus, then the pony is kept in and the foot is kept clean using animalintex with vet wrap/boot and recovery is usually quick.
Laminitis is a dreadful, painful condition and taking immediate steps to restrict grazing/ get pain relief and seek veterinary advice is essential. Spring is a danger time as is September but it can occur at any time.
Fortunately, a very rare condition but a very serious condition which shetlands can suffer from. Google it for a full explanation but in very simple terms the pony releases excessive amounts of fat reserves into the blood stream, sometimes to the degree that when blood is taken, fat can be seen floating on top. It can happen when the pony has a sudden reduction in food intake / appetite , some say stress is a factor or other illness where the hyperlipaemia becomes a secondary condition. The important factor is early diagnosis as intravenous glucose and special encouragement to eat can mean the difference between a pony overcoming this and not. If a pony stops eating then we would advocate calling your vet immediately. A friend of mine had the misfortune of one of her ponies contracting hyperlipaemia which she acted upon quickly and found the only thing she would eat was sliced brown bread [with vet help also thankfully she recovered]. Complan mixed with electrolytes is also recommended, syringe fed if necessary.
There is of course a multitude of other problems you could have the misfortune of your pony suffering such as coughs, runny noses, eye problems, colic – we would say if in doubt take your vet’s advice but in the main you likely won’t need to.
All that remains to say for now is we hope everyone enjoys their ponies!
We have become very attached to our ponies over the years, forging strong bonds and developing very special understandings with them – we wouldn’t be without them!
First draft by Andrea Merrifield [with the benefit of the extensive knowledge that Sue and Peter Jackson of the Dilston Shetland Pony Stud have shared with me over the years].
Please feel free to forward any thoughts / comments. We will endeavour to update this information in due course, as appropriate.