Shaped by storms: The role of weather in making Shetland ponies “Shetland”

This is an updated version of blog post based on my paper for RAI conference on weather an climate change and was originally published in Autumn 2016 edition of Earthlines magazine

Shaped by Storms: The role of weather in making Shetland ponies “Shetland”

The last colours of autumn had faded and through steady drifting curtains of rain the world appeared opaque. I stood by the window watching the blue/grey waves race to shore. The sheep huddled beneath the peat banks, their actions confirming the forecasters’ prediction. The first storm of winter had arrived. As I listened to the wind and lashing rain my thoughts turned to a three month old Shetland pony foal that I knew was out there, in the full force of the weather.

I trudged through the mud, bent double against the gale, struggling desperately to keep hold of the feed bag that the wind kept threatening to rip from my grasp. They stood in the lee of the hill, quietly watching me approach. Suddenly the foal, Yukon, took off and ran full speed towards me, putting stopping seconds before a collision. Soaking wet and wild eyed she ran full circle around me before darting to the crest of the hill. Yukon stood there silhouetted against the sky, the wind whipping her mane, she pranced a few steps then dashed back towards me and pushed her head deep in the feed bucket.  Over time I learned not to worry about her when I heard storms rage outside. She was in her element.

I was not the only one taking a keen interest in her winter well-being. As I visited pony breeders they would ask how she was. Was she growing strong or appearing lacklustre? How about her mum, Sugar, how was she keeping? Did they know to find and remain in good shelter? Always the same questions or variations thereof. My answers also didn’t change: She was growing fast and strong, bright eyed and alert; her mum was struggling to keep weight on despite plenty feed and yes, they could find shelter, moving around their large, hilly field in response to weather.

This is good, I was repeatedly told, they are behaving as the breed should. Her mum is losing weight because she is giving everything to her foal, this is why Yukon is so healthy. Yukon thriving through winter at such a young age proved she’s a good, hardy Shetland pony with the sense to follow her mum to shelter.

I had moved to Shetland the previous winter to begin research exploring how relationships with ponies are connected to ideas of history, landscape and identity. I have always been fascinated by the way humans and animals live together and how these entwined lives become part of the very essence of place. It quickly became apparent that to live in Shetland is to live in weather. Renting a cottage 30 minutes ferry journey from Shetland’s mainland meant wind took on a new significance as certain speeds or directions caused ferry delays, cancellations, or rather unpleasant crossings. It wasn’t just travel, ways of walking, dressing, hanging out the laundry, even opening car doors, now all had to be done with a new attention and caution.

Weather, especially wind, was a continual feature of days spent with pony breeders. Obviously weather affects day to day work on the croft with certain activities being reserved for particular weathers but over time I came to learn that attention to weather is an essential part of how people come to understand themselves and the animals they work with.

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 grazing and little shelter from year round gale force winds. In much of recorded 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 as ridden or draft animals.[1]

My fieldwork began in winter, so my first meetings with research participants were often during spells of wet and windy weather. A lot of ponies live out in large areas of hill park. As people took me out to meet their ponies they would pay attention to wind speed and direction and use that information to choose where to start looking for the ponies. During the walk, they would often point out areas of the field that particular ponies like to spend time in. These fields have nothing built for the purposes of pony shelter, the features mentioned commonly included hills, hollows, disused peat banks and the broken down walls of abandoned crofts.

In most cases the ponies would be roughly where their owner expected them to be. The times that they were not led them to question the reasons for this. They wondered if they had misread the weather and the ponies were indeed in the right place for the conditions, maybe the weather about to change or possibly that the herd listened to the wrong pony. Although these questions were never specifically answered on the day, just speculated on, these themes – ponies that know where to shelter and are able to predict weather changes and ponies that could not understand weather, recurred in the stories told to me by pony breeders throughout fieldwork.

The first is the type of pony that people wanted to have, that can sense the ways of wind, read the signs of changing weather and lead ponies to correct shelter. Often people would speak of particular ponies, usually an older mare, who has this role in the herd. They know where to go, have enough authority that others will follow and they teach younger ponies the right way to live in that place. The second type of pony, those who can’t understand weather, are spoken of in a very different way.

Ebony was the second type. She moved to Shetland from Aberdeenshire and her owner said she never fitted in. When the weather changed and the ponies moved to shelter she was left standing in the full force of the gale. She didn’t understand how to drink form the river, despite being repeatedly shown the bucket being filled from the river, it took her a long time to learn how to find water for herself. Perhaps the most memorable story about Ebony was her inability to understand changing tides. Part of the field would fill with water at high tide, and once during a flood the levels got very high. The other ponies moved away to higher ground but Ebony just stood, water rising higher and higher and made no effort to move. Her owner said that each day as the level rose, she had to go and check her as she was worried she didn’t have the sense not just to stand and drown. Her owner persevered for years, trying to teach her and giving her time to learn from other ponies but after little improvement she decided Ebony needed a new home. She was moved to Orkney – where I was told she now lives in a nice square field, with a purpose built shelter and she is perfectly happy standing there all day.

Although Ebony’s story may be an extreme example of a Shetland pony that doesn’t fit in well in Shetland, the basic elements of the story are very common. Many breeders spoke of ponies they felt were “soft”, that lost condition in winter, that could not find shelter and were generally unhappy in normal Shetland conditions. Ability to live correctly in weather is one of the key attributes by which they decide which ponies they want to work with and are right for the place.

Our understandings of the places we inhabit, and who we inhabit them with, emerge through everyday interactions. Through particular perceptions of landscape practices, people connect to wider historic and national identities. In this on-going, lived dialogue people and landscapes can be understood to be mutually constituted.[2] I found this to be particularly true with the pony breeders I worked with. The history of Shetland and the Shetland pony breed are  intertwined with contemporary ideas about how the breed should be and the type of breeder people aspire to be when they work with their animals.

People were keen to tell me about the hardiness of the Shetland pony breed, how it had evolved, living in herds out on the hills, often with very little human intervention despite Shetland’s extreme weather. It was this their ability to survive and flourish under these conditions that made the Shetland pony breed what it is today.

“Most families wouldn’t have survived in old Shetland croft life without a pony to do the chores and work the land. So yes I suppose, it does give you a Shetland identity and a feeling of bringing you closer to nature, to Shetland, to the old way of life that we are all very proud of. True island type ponies were working ponies who required low maintenance – they carried, peat or whatever was needed. They were often used on the land and sometimes ploughed, pulled carts, were the family car, an endless list I’m sure and we too insist on breeding ponies capable of performing similar duties”. [3]

Despite weather’s central role in the lives of people and animals worldwide, it is remarkably absent in the majority of academic writing. Aside from the racist and inaccurate environmental determinism that pervaded some areas of anthropology in the 1950’s and the introductory pages of ethnographies describing the weather in exotic locations, there seems to be little room to take weather seriously. When academic work becomes too abstracted from the every-day worlds that it seeks to represent, it risks failing to understand what makes relationships with place meaningful. As I start to analyse my fieldwork experiences and write up the PhD, I have found Tim Ingold’s idea of the open world an interesting starting point to consider relationships between people, ponies and landscape.

“the open world that people inhabit is not prepared for them in advance. It is continually coming into being around them. It is a world, that is, of formative and transformative processes. If such processes are of the essence of perception, then they are also of the essence of what is perceived. To understand how people can inhabit this world means attending to the dynamic process of world-formation in which both perceivers and the phenomena they perceive are necessarily immersed” [4]So weather is not an external force, it is something we live as part of, and through living in, through being part of this world that we learn about the places we inhabit.[5]

It is outside, in the wind, that people get to know their ponies, by spending time with them, watching them, learning how they interact with each other and how they move about the landscape and respond to weather. It is through these interactions that ponies become known as the ‘right’ type of Shetland pony to be part of the stud and well suited to life in Shetland or become recognized as a pony that may be happier living elsewhere. Decisions about individual ponies are not made in advance of this process of getting to know them.

As people taught me the features they valued in their animals they would often explain these attributes in relation to the landscape, history and weather.

When a pony moved with flowing, high stepping action, this was described as being a result of their having to pick their feet as they made their way over long distances of heather hill.

They should be sure footed with the intelligence to avoid areas of bog or other danger as they did when they were the primary means of land transport before Shetland’s roads were built.

They should have strong bones and be capable of working as the Shetland pony was always a working animal, bringing peats home from the hill and doing work on the croft.

Their winter coat should be thick, wind and waterproof and the more mane and tail they have the better as these features have allowed them to live outside, all year round, even in Shetland’s worst winters.

When people choose which mare and stallion to put together, it is these characteristics that are foremost in their mind. As people would point out the reasons for their choices and what they hoped for from the foal, they would emphasise that it is very hard to predict what the result of any combination will be. It is only after years of knowing each pony and watching their foals grow up that they can begin to predict the offspring fairly accurately and even then there are still surprises. Often as people watched their horses you would hear comments like, “see the way he is right in behind that peat bank, his father did the exact same thing, that was his favourite place.”   “See how she is with the foals, that is just like her grandma, she always taught the little ones well.” Sometimes these family traits can go back generations to include ponies the breeders themselves hadn’t met but whose stories had been told so often that particular defining characteristics were well known.

As with tales of ponies that are good or bad with weather, these stories become intertwined with people’s everyday interactions with their animals. In that way ponies long dead, known from personal experience or through stories of the hardy ponies of the past, are perceived as present and alive in some of the ponies bred on the islands today.

Most ponies today live out in rough hill park, few live out on the expanses of hill that they did in the past and the breed is no longer used for heavy work. Despite recognizing the changing roles and living circumstances of the breed, pony breeders in Shetland emphasise the importance of keeping historic traits. This is explained both in terms of keeping true Shetland ponies in the place they evolved but also in relation to roles ponies commonly perform today. A frequently used example was the importance of them remaining a highly intelligent breed as this makes them a safer choice as a young child’s riding pony.

There is concern that increasing numbers of pony breeders, breed ponies to be “cute” and nice colours and do not pay sufficient attention to other breed characteristics. It is feared this lack of attention to history could threaten the breed identity as increasing numbers of cute ponies are bred who may not have the strength, stamina or hardiness of traditional island bred ponies.

Certain ways of working with Shetland ponies are also thought to change the historic qualities of the breed. Putting rugs on them, keeping them in small fields, separating them from weather with stables and rugs,  are all practices described as potentially damaging.  This is thought to overly domesticate them, reducing their hardiness and producing ponies without the intelligence or physical ability to survive difficult environmental conditions.

“Because o’ domestication, da wye dat a lot o’ dem is keepit you canna tell whether dir stupid or intelligent because dae dunna hiv da opportunities ta shaa you. Things lik da waddir an’ predictin’ da waddir an’ bein’ able ta fin’ your ain shelter an’ aa dat kinda things, if you ir staandin’ in a peerie (small) paddock wi post an rail fencin an’ a stable, you dinna hiv da need tae do dat an dat instincts must leave you….an’ dan if you hae foals you diunna hae dat knowledge ta pass ontae dem”[6]

Many breeders, like the one quoted above, describe a duty to continue to breed the ‘right’ type of pony in their native land. To breed from ponies who demonstrate intelligence, strength and ability to find shelter and thrive in the worst weather. They try to keep them in large areas with natural shelter where they need to think for themselves. Through taking these actions they hope to have a particular type of Shetland pony continue to live in Shetland.

Shetland pony breeding is very much a journey. As people work outside with their horses, in the wind, in the rain and in the sun, they are part of a journey that has continued for centuries between people and ponies in this place. Throughout their practices they actively engage with these historic connections, improvising and adapting them, as they work with their ponies, learn from them and make decisions about how each relates to breed identity and identity of the place. Inside over a cup of tea, the wind is still ever present, in the whistling chimneys, rattling windows but also in the stories. Stories celebrating heroic ponies of the past, lamenting overly molly coddled ponies, plans and hopes or the types of pony they want to be part of Shetland’s landscape of the future.


[1] Douglas, C Douglas, A. 1913. The Shetland Pony William Blackwood & Son: Edinbugh.

[2] Ingold, T. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood Dwelling and Skill Routledge: London.

Gray J. 1999. ‘Open spaces and dwelling places: being at home in the Scottish Borders’. American Ethnologist, 26 (2) 440-460.

[3] Quote from pony breeder who is part of a long running island stud.

[4] Ingold, T., 2007. Earth, sky, wind, and weather. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13, P28

[5] Ibid 33

[6] Quote from a breeder who has spent time with Shetland ponies her whole life.

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