23rd November 2017

Animals: Pony problems

Low prices and a predominance of miniature, coloured ponies: are we seeing the end of the traditional Shetland pony? Lauraine Manson, president of the Pony Breeders of Shetland Association, talks to Marsali Taylor.

2.30pm on the afternoon of Thursday, 6th October. The back doors of the marts are ringed with pens; there’s a smell of straw, the sound of coaxing voices and the clatter and scrape of tiny hooves on metal ramps and concrete. It’s the Lerwick Shetland Pony Sale.

The days of wild-eyed herds of unregistered colts who were caa’d off the hill the night before being muscled into pens are long gone. There are over 110 studs on the Pony Breeders of Shetland Association website, and a good number of them have pedigree foals to sell. The market is a tough one, with word coming up from south of few bidders and low prices, so breeders do everything they can to make each foal more attractive. Most of these miniature aristocrats are veterans of at least one show, and walk quietly on lead ropes behind their owners. Their tiny head-collars are of coloured webbing, russet, scarlet, cobalt, with brass studs. Descriptions in the catalogue include comments like “friendly nature” and “halter-trained”.

The large pens inside the shed are numbered. There’s a list and map at the door, and a bale of straw. Each horse-box draws up at one of the entrances, the owner checks his or her pen, strews its floor with straw, then the tail-gate is lowered, the side rails put in place, and the little herd of foals is ushered gently into the pen. There’s no shouting or panic; the foals are uncertain, but they’ve spent the last week in a pen like this one, so after five minutes of bunching together, they spread out to touch noses with neighbouring foals.

Once they’re settled in, a helper from the Pony Breeders of Shetland Association (PBSA) comes around to check the catalogue descriptions with the owner. A number is stuck on each foal’s rump, and a scanner is used to check off the micro-chip in each one’s neck – all ponies now have to be micro-chipped, in case they end up in the food chain.

Previous sales were run by the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society, but this year the PBSA decided to supervise the Shetland sale themselves. PBSA President Lauraine Manson, of Swarthoull Stud in Skeld, explained why.
“We decided to run the show ourselves because of the transfer costs. Each time a Shetland pony changes hands, then the Shetland Pony Stud Book charges to record the change of ownership – so that if a dealer buys a pony, then he or she has to pay for that transfer, and then the next owner has to pay again. We hoped it would help encourage buyers to come up. For the first time I ever remember, though, there were no dealers at the sale. It’s just too expensive to come up – they could pay a lot  in fuel, one guy said to me he’d spent £500 in diesel coming up, then £500 for a cabin on Northlink, then another £32 per pony to get them shipped to Aberdeen.”

Another reason dealers aren’t coming here, Lauraine feels, is overbreeding of Shetland ponies down in the south-west of England. “Shetland ponies are small and cute, and anyone can buy one, keep them on a small part of ground, and then breed from them, and maybe they have a colt, and get it licensed as a stallion using less stringent tests than we have up here, and then you have a stud of someone who’s breeding for the market, rather than someone who has a real interest in the ponies and their history, and wants to breed a really good type of pony. Mercifully, this type of breeder are the ones who go out when there’s a slump, whereas the folk who are really interested stay the course.

“But the main problem is the UK economy – equines are a ‘luxury’, for want of a better word. When there’s no money in the pot, people don’t buy ponies. It’s not only Shetland, it’s across the board.”

Looking around the marts, my first impression is of a sea of red-and-white backs. You’d think Shetland ponies only came in skewbald. A closer look shows that every colour of Shetland pony is here: black, chestnut with a blonde mane, smoky grey or blue; red and white, black and white, bay, dun with a black back-stripe. Broken colours predominate, though, because colour is a key factor in the price a breeder can hope for, and unusual colours is what buyers want.

Another thing that affects the price is size. A Shetland can grow up to 42” at the shoulder and still be a Shetland under the Shetland Stud Book Society’s guidelines for breeders. EU rules say a registered Shetland must be accepted in the stud book, even if it is larger, although a too-tall colt can’t become a licensed stallion. However, the current fashion is for miniatures.

The miniature is the smallest size of Shetland pony, and at a maximum 34” to the shoulder, fully grown, it’s not much taller than a Labrador. They’re too small to be ridden, except perhaps by a very small child on a lead-rein – because, you see, Shetland ponies are their own people, and making even the best-trained Shetland do what you want it to when there’s grass within half a mile, takes a good deal of quiet determination. A child small enough to sit on a miniature would probably be too small to manage it. The pony could carry a bigger child – they are incredibly strong for their size – but the child would probably need roller-skates for their trailing legs.

The next size up is “midis”, growing to all of 38”. They’re still rather small, except as a child’s first pony, but they’re very nippy in driving races – they can dash between obstacles while the bigger horses are still sorting their feet out.

Then there are the “standard” ponies, 38-42”. Already, these foals look twice the size of the miniatures, hip-height at the shoulder. There aren’t that many of these “standards” on sale here though, because they don’t fetch good prices, and it’s a real shame – this is the size that would give a child years of pleasure.

The final factor that makes a difference to the price a breeder will get is gender. Fillies are worth more than colts, because any filly can be bred from, whereas only one in 100 colts will make it through the stringent tests to become a licensed stallion. Here again, Shetland ponies from Shetland are a premium product.

“Down south,” Lauraine explained, “potential stallions are ‘voluntary vetted’ – that is, they’re given an inspection by a vet, and that’s all. Here in Shetland we have a stallion evaluation scheme, where the animal’s inspected by a vet and three panel judges, and given a medal to show his quality – Bronze, Silver or Gold. It’s  a voluntary scheme, but most breeders in Shetland take part.

“European countries recognise our stallion evaluation scheme, and it means our ponies are now getting premium prices abroad. Our ‘Daughter Stud Books’ won’t accept the progeny of a voluntary vetted stallion in their stud books, but they will accept progeny of our stallions, and the stallions themselves. Unfortunately, the loss of the Norrona spoiled what was a good market in Denmark and Norway.”

There are a number of Shetland pony sales throughout Britain, with the Shetland Sale quickly followed by the Aberdeen sale and the seading Sale. This year’s Reading sale, held on 19th October, illustrates the different prices quite nicely. 13 colts went up for sale first. Only two went for just over £200, both small palominos. The top filly price of £1008 went for a “tiny” piebald filly – and we’re talking really tiny here. A number of catalogue entries give the current height as 22”, with parents of 30” or 31”. One filly’s mother is listed as being only 29”, and any broken-coloured blood in the foal’s ancestry is emphasised.

Of the 40 fillies sold, only four were plain colours – two black, two chestnut, and one of the blacks was the only filly sold for under £100. Seven larger foals were sold for prices between £105 and £190, and the rest – all miniature, all broken coloured – went for between £200 and £350. The five that gained prices over £500 were all miniature, and all unusually coloured – cremello, blue and white, cream skewbald.

The top price of the show, £1176, went to a licensed palomino stallion, 31”.

The geldings went for prices similar to the foals, except for one palomino gelding, 31”, who went for £714.

Prices picked up a little with the younger mares. All but three of the ten sold reached over £400, and two of them went for over £1000, both tiny, one palomino, and one chestnut in foal to a coloured stallion. The older, proven, mares showed more variety, with two midi blacks, and several standard ponies selling – but description after description reads piebald or skewbald, 31”, in foal to a skewbald stallion.

Palomino, in a Shetland? Cremello? I asked Lauraine if the Shetland pony was starting to change colour.

“Palominos are rare, because they’re difficult to breed,” she said, “but Queen Victoria was given two palomino foals from a breeder in Lerwick when she was on the throne, so they’ve got a long history. Cremello is like a washed-out palomino with blue eyes – we wouldn’t actually consider that a Shetland, although the Stud Book has to allow it, because the breed description says a Shetland pony has a ‘bold, dark eye.

“You have to remember, though, that Reading is in the middle of England, and a lot of the folk there don’t have any interest in the history of the breed, in the original standard, they breed for colour.”

And what about the tiny sizes?  Are we seeing the end of the “standard” Shetland which made such a wonderful children’s riding pony?

“Definitely not,” Lauraine said. “Standard ponies tend to be sold privately, and get better prices – but you wouldn’t go to Reading for a standard pony. Aberdeen Sale is the place for standards, all the standard breeders send theirs there, and the numbers are rising. The top price there this year was 2000 guineas (a guinea is £1.05), for a black 40” mare.”

“At Reading, you’re seeing the effect of the glut of miniatures. Because they’re popular south, there are more than can be sold privately, so they have to go to the sales.”

The Reading sale also showed the slump in the market. Of the 13 colts offered, five were unsold; only 40 of the 66 fillies sold, and only five of the 13 stallions. The mares did only slightly better, with 27 of 48 sold. Of the 147 ponies offered for sale, only 89 were sold – around two-thirds.

As at Reading, a large number of Shetland breeders kept their colts at home, rather than incur the sale fee in Lerwick. 133 ponies were offered for sale this year, mostly foals, and only 30 of those were colts. The best price for a colt was 40 guineas, and 26 of the 30 returned home with their owners, unsold.

What will happen to these colt foals now?

“It’s not much talked about, because it’s a very upsetting thing to have to do, but there will probably be a higher percentage of colts destroyed this year. That shouldn’t make a difference to the quality of stallions in the longer term, though, because so few make it to a licensed stallion here in Shetland.”

The prices for the filly foals were down too. The top price was 600 guineas, for a piebald filly. Only eight of the 49 fillies sold went for over 150 guineas. The average price was 61 guineas – a serious loss to the owners, because breeding pedigree ponies is expensive.

“We reckon that each colt foal costs £80,” Lauraine said, “and each filly is closer to £100, because she costs more to register in the Stud Book, £40, with an extra £13.50 if the animal is a first foal. We don’t sell a colt for less than £100. That gives us a profit of only £20.”

Lauraine is adamant that breeders should keep their prices up, not sell for what they can get. “There are too many folk who think that the prices are low, they’ll pick up a good foal for 20 guineas, and I feel we should fight against that. Most breeders put a reserve on their animals, and won’t sell below that. We have a quality product, and we should stick to our principles, not let the market devalue it.”

Pony numbers at the sale have also been going down in Shetland for some years, and Lauraine is concerned about this. “The fewer ponies offered, the less likely it is that dealers will come to buy. I don’t know how secure the island sale is, but we can do nothing about that.

“One thing that’s affecting pony numbers is that some of the older breeders are giving up, and there are fewer younger ones coming forward. It used to be a tradition that there was a pony on the croft – it was a working animal that carried home the peats and helped plough the land. Now too many folk look at crofting in a different way – things on a croft have to pay their way, and a pony’s not a working animal any more. The tradition’s gone out of it – times is changing.”

However, she is not down-hearted about the future of the breed.

“The Shetland pony from Shetland, the ‘traditional’ Shetland pony, certainly still has a future, whatever the fashion is in the market. We in Shetland are breeding quality ponies. The true breeder is interested in their own ponies, whatever type they prefer, and they’ll keep breeding that type, so, no, I don’t see us losing any characteristics of the breed. The market’s bad just now, but things will get better. We weathered the last slump. Out of dark times will come good – folk that are interested in every aspect of the Shetland pony will still be there as the cycle goes round and we come out of it.”