The speakers on top of the car crackled, then announced “We have a volunteer poo scooper. Can somebody please bring the lassie some bags” and with those words, my fieldwork began!
So how did I become the Viking Shetland Pony Show’s poo-scooper? Well, in-between updating the crowd on classes, results and weather predictions; the car had observed that some of the ponies were being “disagreeable” by toileting in the ring. Somebody was needed to pick it up between classes. So of course I volunteered! I was on a pre-fieldwork trip to meet pony breeders, tell them about my research, and start to get to know the Shetland pony world. So what better way to have people come to speak to me than by carrying a bag full of poo on a warm August afternoon. . . oh. Maybe in my enthusiasm to get involved I hadn’t really thought this through.
I have always loved horses and spent most of my weekends at the local riding school, grooming, tacking up, mucking out, anything to spend time with the horses and sometimes get a ride! During a visit to Shetland a couple of years ago I fell in love with the place. I was fascinated by the relationships between people, animals and landscape. Aberdeen University had a PhD vacancy with the Arctic Domus team. Arctic Domus is a five year study into relationships between humans and animals in northern places. I suggested that a Shetland pony study would be an ideal addition to their work. My proposal was accepted and so my part in the project is to explore historic and contemporary relationships between people and ponies in Shetland. I will live in Shetland for the duration of my fieldwork and spend time with pony breeders and enthusiasts as they work with their ponies.
A large part of my work will focus on how people and ponies get to know each other. Shetland ponies are often described as patient, intelligent and quite cheeky! I am interested in how traits like this are understood, identified and selected in breeding practices. I am looking forward to spending time with breeders throughout the seasons as foals are born, trained, shown and sold.
The Shetland pony a long and fascinating history and I am interested in what role this history plays in people’s experiences of Shetland ponies today and to what extent this shapes ideas about how the breed should (and should not) be. Shetland ponies have been used for croft work, transport and as a riding pony and many breeders emphasise the importance of making sure the Shetland pony remains a useful breed. I will pay particular attention to the ways physical and behavioural characteristics identify certain ponies as well suited to particular types of work and explore the ways the uses of the breed have changed but also the ways they have remained consistent.
Relationships with certain animals can be closely related to a sense of identity and connection to place. There are over a hundred registered Shetland pony breeders in Shetland and I want to learn more about why people feel connected to the breed and how breeding ponies is related to Shetland history and identity. I will also explore the role of landscape in these relationships. Shetland’s landscapes played a huge role in the evolution of the breed and I will consider the continuing influence of landscape on ponies bred on the islands today. While researching this I will also pay attention to the ways the presence of ponies affects people’s experience of Shetlands landscapes.
So that August afternoon I set to work. Diligently watching for raised tails, predicting the end of classes so I could dash in and collect the (sometimes quite squashed) offerings. Luckily, a heavy bag of dung did not prevent people from coming to chat. I met breeders from all over Shetland and was overwhelmed by their passion for their ponies and interest in the breed as a whole. I left the show with aching arms and growing excitement about moving up to Shetland. I have now lived in Shetland for three months and each day is an adventure. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me