I walk towards the setting sun, feeling the dry heather flatten beneath my feet, it’s purple blossoms beginning to emerge in haphazard patterns. Bog cotton ripples on an imperceptible breeze as tiny yellow wildflowers glow, taking light from the fading sky. The night air is alive with the calls of the rain geese, their conversations a haunting melody emerging from land, sea and stone.
I pause by the remains of a croft house, the outline of its two rooms, a place that held generations of lives, still visible within the ruin. I turn and see her, silhouetted against smouldering sky. She watches me with curious eyes, her ears pricked, alert. Slowly she walks towards me and I notice the stiffness in her legs, the hollowing curve of her cheek. Her aging body and the crumbling walls of stone, highlighted in golden light. She places her head on my shoulder. I feel her thick, wiry mane touch my face as the sweet smell of her breath fills the air.
Whispers in time, her body and breath, a story of land, love and hope.
At sixty degrees north, a small group of islands, wind battered and salt drenched, Shetland is a land of extremes. This rugged, beautiful landscape has, over centuries, shaped the lives of all who live here. Shetland ponies, living out on the rough hill ground, became smaller helping them conserve heat. Their winter coat, mane and tail grew thicker, protecting them from the elements and their agility and intelligence allowed them to effectively move across the hill in search of food and shelter.
Earlier that day, I had stood by a golden sand beach looking up at a steep track winding its way up heathery hill. Although I had never been her before the view was familiar to me. Many times I had been shown old black and white photographs of this hill, its path filled with lines of Shetland ponies, each carrying full kishies* of peat home to the crofts. This image, and others like it, were shown to me by islanders, as they tell me the story of ponies’ past.
Life in Shetland was only possible through the interconnected lives of people and animals, living well within Shetland’s landscapes. In contrast to many narratives about domestication, which claim human mastery and domination over animal lives, stories of Shetland native breeds emphasise the shared lives and shared characteristics of people and the domestic animals they lived with. For much of history, Shetland crofters lives depended entirely on what they could cultivate from their land. Each household would have a small area of good ground and shared access to an expanse of wild hill. Ponies’ hardiness and intelligence allowed them to live out on this hill, costing little to keep, but providing essential resources for the household. Their incredible strength, despite their small stature, allowed them to transport people and goods across the countryside. Ponies’ role bringing home the peats is particularly iconic. Miles of rough, heather covered, empty of trees, but harbouring vast reserves of peat below the surface, provided the island’s only source of fuel. Peatbanks were usually located far from the croft, and sharing the labour with ponies eased the difficult and sometimes dangerous journey to bring this precious resource home.
As I walked, I felt the presence of these ponies as my feet followed the path made by their hoofs so long ago. Gone but not forgotten as each generation, human and animal, teaches the next how to live in this place.
When we think of home, it conjures ideas of a place, the four walls within which we live, where we spent childhood days or perhaps a yet unknown place that we long for. But what does it mean to be at home in a place? to belong? Home is about love and acceptance, but even when we have found home, can identify where and what it is, perhaps even trace our roots back for generations, our journey home continues. For home is a relationship, a way of being, an act and art of noticing**, and being noticed. Created and recreated through living. The home that pony breeders cultivate in Shetland is a multispecies relationship, where home extends beyond the walls of the house to include the landscapes and animals they love, and who love them in return.
Much has changed in Shetland since they days ponies brought peat home to the crofts. Few ponies are now used as working animals and crofting is rarely a household’s primary economic activity. Still, breeders understand the valuable roles the ponies played in the past and work to preserve the historic qualities of hardiness, intelligence and adaptability. They do this, in part, to counter the ‘over domestication’ they feel is increasingly characteristic of human-equine relationships today. Where Shetland ponies become separated from the landscapes they would naturally inhabit, the places they feel at home, and instead are kept in small fields or stable blocks. When people underestimate ponies’ intelligence, giving them orders and providing few opportunities for them to communicate their true preferences. Over time, this robs horses of their autonomy and opinions, silencing them and reducing possibilities for respectful relationships based on true communication.
People in Shetland are keen to learn from, respect and respond to their horses. Through inventive use of their land, breeders seek to ensure their ponies have access to areas of land similar to the hill where the breed evolved. They do not expect ponies to be unchanged by time, exact replicas of a past ideal, but rather they hope to provide the opportunities for ponies to learn and thrive, adapting through their experience of life. By spending time outside, being with their herds, watching, listening and understanding, people learn about each individual pony, their characteristics, preferences and place in the herd. They come to know the places each pony loves, where they feel at home, and understand how these preferences shift with age, weather and season. Through their attention breeders come to know the places that provide shelter, where flowers grow and birds nest. In turn, ponies learn to trust and understand their humans, adjusting the rhythms of their movements in relation to human lives and expectations.
Domestication is so often understood as the first step along some inevitable path of ‘progress’, the start of our separation from nature, , but through their domestication practices these pony breeders are actively creating possibilities for shared lives. As the world around us rapidly changes, and we journey towards uncertain, and often unsettling, futures, the ability to live well in a place takes on a renewed importance. Few domestic breeds could survive, let alone thrive in Shetland, and as time passes less people know how to cultivate life within these rugged landscapes. Through their actions and attention, pony breeders remember the past, attend to the present and create futures. They notice the changing landscapes and feel the ways of the wind in relation to their ponies, and through this way of living, they feel this love returned through the landscape, their home.
When we know how to look, listen, notice and respond to the lives around us, the world we inhabit transforms into a more social and loving place. By living to encourage these connections, we can give the gift of Shetland as home to future generations, human and animal.
I sit with the mare’s head on my shoulder watching as the last rays of sunlight fill the landscape with pink light. Two oystercatchers fly overhead, for a moment appearing silent and graceful against the moon before their shrill, piping cries filled the air. The mare lifts her head to watch the birds progress across the sky, then turns and walks slowly toward a group of ponies a short distance away. She, they and the foals that will come, tell a story, and islanders remember how to listen.
*kishies are traditional Shetland straw baskets
** Tsing 2015 The mushroom at the end of the world On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins