We stood by the horse box trying to dress Freckle in a large, knitted jumper. She was understandably confused but remarkably tolerant of the process. The pony who had previously worn the jumper had been considerably larger and some last minute adjustments were needed, especially around the sleeves which fully enveloped her hoofs. As Freckle tripped over her sleeves and the foal tried to chew at the unusual woollen garment, the pony’s owner wondered aloud about why an American travel show wanted to film Shetland ponies in fair isle jumpers.
It was a beautiful day and the place was bustling with visitors. People flocked to speak to the ponies with delighted smiles, camera phones and seemingly endless comments that the ponies were “sooooo cute”. Each time the pony’s owner politely introduced the ponies and went on to explain that they are a strong hardy breed and that they do not need jumpers, they are only wearing them for TV. Each time after the visitors had gone she and her mum would anxiously discuss if people watching might think that Shetland people really dress their ponies up in wooly jumpers. They spoke about it being such a silly thing to do to a pony that is so tough it can live outdoors all year round in Shetland without even needing a rug. They kept asking each other why people would want to film something so misrepresentative of the ponies and the place, several times worrying they might be “making a mockery of wis an wir ponies”.
Interactions that summer day brought into focus a lot of questions surrounding the emerging and contested concept of “cute” in human-equine relationships in Shetland. What makes something cute? Have people always thought Shetland ponies are cute? And does this “cute culture” currently surrounding the breed have implications for those who live and work with them?
One of the most commonly discussed theories on the concept of cute is by Konrad Lorenz. He theorises that certain attributes associated with young children and babies provoke automatic nurturing instincts (Lorenz 1971). Many studies have concluded that people react more positively to faces with cute features than those without (Glocker et al 2009;Sprengelmeyer et al 2013).
Animals, particularly young animals, are often described as cute and Liz Grauerholz identifies three common ways that animals are represented as cute:
- anthropomorphism, where they are depicted as wearing human clothes or talking and acting as humans would.
- neoteny, where juvenile features are retained in adult animals.
- disnfication where animals are portrayed as comically clumsy.
- (Grauerholz 2007 339-40).
So are Shetland ponies cute?
Some of the most loved and recognizable features of the Shetland pony breed, their diminutive size, woolly coat and abundance of mane and tail are due to them having evolved, in relative isolation, in an area with poor gazing and little shelter from year round gale force winds. In much of Shetland’s history ponies have played a pivotal role in Shetland lives and landscapes. They transported people and cargo across large stretches of difficult terrain and were an essential part of crofting life, used for ploughing and bringing home fuel. Their small stature and high physical strength meant that Shetland ponies were also exported worldwide to work in mines (Dougas 1913; Russell 1996).
These ponies were working animals and although small in stature, did not seem to meet many of the “cute” criteria. Increasing use of the term cute appears to correspond with raising numbers of miniature* Shetland ponies. The popularity of these tiny ponies divides opinion, raising questions over how the breed should be.
Throughout fieldwork people have told me that there has always been a range of sizes within the Shetland pony breed. Popularity among buyers for small, cute Shetland ponies led a rapid increase in the number of miniature ponies bred and they now outnumber standard or mid-size ponies (Shetland Times 2006). Many are concerned that the focus on cuteness means some breeders do not pay sufficient attention to the breed standard. This results in ponies that are ultimately “useless” as they do not have the size, strength or temperament to be used as riding or driving animals.
One breeder told me that Shetland ponies are very intelligent and should be treated as partners. They should have a purpose and breeders have a duty to think about this. Conversations with other breeders reveal similar concerns. The qualities most often described as essential for Shetland ponies are strength, intelligence and an ability to survive under harsh environmental conditions. Some breeders feel many minis don’t have these qualities or that the “cute factor” obscures these qualities and this affects breed reputation.
Although people may seem to respond positively to cute features, the association between cute and childlike and vulnerably mean “cute” is not simply a neutral or descriptive term. Asserting that someone or something is cute can reduce their perceived complexity and can imply a lesser need to understand or respect them (Grauerholz 2007:348). This has obvious implications for the ponies themselves but can also come into conflict with people’s sense of having a Shetland identity.
Much of the literature on human-animal relationships describes how connections to animals and landscapes can be integral to a sense of identity (Grey1999; Lorimer 2006; Reily 2011). Many people in Shetland describe their ponies as hardy, adaptable and independent. Very similar adjectives are used when people discuss the essential elements of a Shetlands identity (Cluness 1967:20; Jack 2003:55) and several research participants have spoke to me about how Shetland ponies and Shetland people embody similar characteristics. These associations between ponies and identity are connected to qualities of independence and adaptability that are directly opposed to the simple juvenile dependence that cuteness can imply.
Throughout fieldwork it has become apparent that people care deeply about how that the Shetland pony is understood and represented worldwide. The quote at the start, where dressing the ponies up was seen to mock “wis and wir ponies” is a commonly expressed sentiment. That to insult or underestimate the ponies is also to misunderstand and misrepresent Shetland and the people who live there. Many are concerned that ideas of cute Shetland ponies will eclipse the breed history and change the types of ponies bred on the islands. To counter this a number of pony breeders are making a concerted effort to promote their view of the breed, whatever the size of the pony. To emphasise the roles in history: as an intelligent worker on the croft; a reliable source of transport and a companion and teacher for young children. They talk of the importance of continuing to breed this type of pony in their native land ensuring it is part of Shetland’s landscapes of the future.
*To be classed as miniature Shetland ponies need to measure under 34” at the withers
Cluness, T. 1969. The Shetland Book Zetland Education Committee: Shetland.
Douglas, C Douglas, A. 1913. The Shetland Pony William Blackwood & Son: Edinbugh.
Glocker, M L. et al. 2009. “Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults” Ethology 115 (3), pp.257–263.
Grauerholz, L, 2007. “Cute Enough to Eat: The Transformation of Animals into Meat for Human Consumption in Commercialized Images” .Humanity & Society 31(4) pp.334–354.
Gray J. 1996. “Cultivating Farm Life on the Borders:Scottish Hill Sheep Farms and the European Community” Sociologia Ruralis 36 27–50.
Jack, C. 2003. Women in crofting in Shetland from the 1930s to the present day : a reciprocal relationship Ph.D Dissertation Open University.
Lorenz K (1971) Studies in Animal and Human Behavior (Harvard Univ Press, Cambridge, MA)
Lorimer, H. 2006. “Herding Memories of Humans and Animals” Environment and Planning 24(4) 497-518.
Riley, M. 2011. “‘Letting Them Go’ – Agricultural Retirement and Human–livestock Relations.” Geoforum 42 (1)16–27
Russell, V. 1996. Shetland Ponies Whittet: Stowmarket
Shetland Times 2006 “pony Problems” Available at http://www.shetlandtimes.co.uk/2011/11/06/animals-pony-problems
Sprengelmeyer, R. et al. 2013. “Aesthetic and Incentive Salience of Cute Infant Faces: Studies of Observer Sex, Oral Contraception and Menstrual Cycle”. PLoS ONE 8(5)