I loved ponies as a child and still delight in their quirky temperaments and can-do attitudes as an adult. I’m not alone. The popularity of various pony breeds has soared during the lockdown, especially in the UK and Europe. Their prices have sky-rocketed as a result. That’s hardly surprising when the best pony breeds are worth their weight in gold.
What is the best pony breed? The Shetland pony outdoes all other breeds when it comes to temperament, strength, hardiness, and health. After the Shetland, the Pony of Americas, New Forest Pony, Dartmoor Pony, and Hackney Pony are the next best pony breeds overall.
10 other great breeds also share a combination of intelligence, athleticism, and toughness rarely found in horses.
Although some pony breeds are cheeky or downright stubborn, most are famed for their calm dispositions and generous natures.
To establish the best out of the world’s 80 or so pony breeds, we compared everything from their life expectancy, required level of care, characteristics, and strengths. We also looked at the health issues associated with each breed.
The Shetland Is the Number One Pony Breed
Shaped by the harsh environment of Scotland, the Shetland pony is as robust as it is strong. A versatile breed, the Shetland has been used for everything from working in a coal mine to competing in their very own Grand National.
Standing between 28” and 42”, or between 7 and 10.2 hh, the Shetland pony is one of the world’s smallest horse breeds and yet one of the strongest. Shetland ponies can pull twice their body weight, making them more powerful than draft horses.
With their short, stocky legs, broad backs, and heavy coats, the Shetland is easily distinguishable from other pony breeds. Hardened by the challenging conditions of the remote Shetland Isles, these ponies need very little forage or grain to thrive.
As with many native UK horse breeds, Shetlands are prone to weight gain and liable to develop laminitis as a consequence. Despite this, many live well into their 30s, with some surviving for up to 50 years!
Popular as children’s ponies, Shetlands are even-tempered and independent. Small though they are, Shetlands are notoriously stubborn and need the correct training if they’re to fulfill their potential. They also grow thick, soft coats in winter and shed them in spring, making regular grooming necessary.
Check out our guide: Before you buy your children a pony, know this. Tips for buying.
An Overview of the Best 11 Pony Breeds
|Breed||Height (hh)||Weight (lbs)||Life Span (years)||Common Health issues||Characteristics|
|Shetland||7 – 10||400 – 500||20 – 25||Laminitis||Strong with good temperaments|
|Welsh||12 – 13.2||500 – 700||25 – 35||Equine Metabolic Syndrome||Sure-footed and athletic|
|Pony of Americas||11 – 13||550 – 800||25 – 30||Congenital stationary night blindness||Hardy, versatile, and eye-catching|
|American Quarter Pony||Up to 14.2||800 – 900||25 – 35||Various||Agile, muscular, and calm|
|New Forest||12 – 14.2¼||450 – 600||25 – 30||Congenital myotonia||Fast, agile, and sure-footed|
|Dartmoor||Up to 12||350 – 500||25 – 30||None||Tough yet elegant|
|Hackney||Up to 14.1||400 – 600||20 – 35||None||Spirited, high knee action, and loves attention|
|Fell||12 – 14.2||700 – 1000||25 – 30||Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrom||Stocky with comfortable gaits|
|Connemara||11 – 15||600 – 800||25 – 35||Hoof wall separation disease||Excellent jumpers and easy to train|
|Gotland||11 – 13||500 – 700||25 – 35||None||Hardy, healthy, and friendly|
|Exmoor||11 – 13||700 – 800||25 – 35||Laminitis||Powerful and versatile with a lot of stamina|
10 Great Pony Breeds – After The Shetland
Although Shetland is the most popular and versatile pony breed, there are several other outstanding pony breeds. Let’s cover them.
#2 Welsh Pony: Tough and Sure-Footed
There are many different types of Welsh Pony, ranging from the Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A), which is the smallest at under 12 hh (48”), to the Welsh Cob (Section D), which is the largest and stands anywhere over 13.2 hh (53”).
All types of Welsh Pony descended from the prehistoric Celtic herds that migrated into the northern mountains of Wales from central Europe. When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43D, they introduced these ponies to their imported Arabians, giving them their delicate features, large eyes, and dish-faces we see today.
Like the Shetland, Welsh ponies survived harsh winters on very little food. Living in the hills, they needed to be fast, alert, and sure-footed to survive. Athletic and sturdy, Welsh ponies are easy to train and have pleasant dispositions. I had a Welsh Pony (Section B) throughout my teenage years, and she breezed her way through every discipline, from gymkhana games to working hunter.
The comparatively slight Welsh Pony can weigh as little as 500 lbs, whereas the chunkier Welsh Cob can get around 700 lbs. Different variations have different talents as well. The Welsh Mountain Pony excels at gymkhana games and show jumping, while the Welsh Cob dominates the international driving scene.
Welsh ponies and cobs are generally hardy and disease-resistant. They do, however, have a genetic predisposition for developing Equine Metabolic Syndrome. This increases their chances of gaining weight and developing laminitis.
#3 Pony of Americas: Versatile and Intelligent
Unlike the ancient Welsh and Shetland ponies, the Pony of Americas (POA) is a relatively new breed. Developed in Iowa in the 1950s, the POA was designed to be the ideal children’s pony – calm yet versatile, intelligent yet willing, and with enough stamina to last all day.
A registered POA must stand between 11 and 13hh, have a small head and dished face, a stocky, muscular, and pronounced Appaloosa colors and patterns. A pony whose markings aren’t visible from 40 feet won’t make the cut.
POAs range in weight from around 550 to 800 lbs. Their athletic ability, combined with their work ethic and calm demeanors, means they excel at almost any discipline. Developed initially as stock horses, POAs compete in three-day events, endurance rides, and dressage competitions.
Like most ponies, these hardy animals are easy to keep and maintain weight well. Although the POA has few health issues, the breed has inherited the Appaloosa’s predisposition for congenital stationary night blindness (CSNB). Many POAs also have pink muzzles, making them susceptible to sunburn.
Aside from those concerns, POAs are likely to live a long and healthy life between 25 to 30 years.
#4 American Quarter Pony: Strong yet Agile
Even younger than the Pony of the Americas, the American Quarter Pony only became recognized in its own right in 1964.
Back then, there was a height restriction that stopped any equine under 14.2 hh from registering as a Quarter Horse. The American Quarter Pony emerged to cater for these smaller versions of the American Quarter Horse and, as a result, retain many of their attributes.
American Quarter Ponies are strong yet agile with their broad chests and well-muscled hindquarters. They compete in a range of disciples, from Western games to pleasure driving. They are calm, even-tempered ponies, making them ideal for families and young children.
Unfortunately, American Quarter Ponies are not generally as healthy or robust as the Shetland as they’re prone to the same problems as American Quarter Horses.
Common health issues of the Americal Quarter Pony include:
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis
This condition causes muscle tremors and twitching, weakness, and periodic paralysis.
Polysaccharide storage myopathy
This disorder causes an abnormal accumulation of glycogen, or sugar, in the muscles, causing muscle stiffness and pain after exercise.
This life-threatening condition causes an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and high temperatures.
However, these conditions are relatively rare, and the average American Quarter Pony has a life expectancy of between 25 and 35 years.
#5 New Forest Ponies: Hardy and Sure-Footed
Another native UK breed, New Forest Ponies have been roaming the woods and moorlands of southern England since before the last Ice Age. It’s a hardy breed known for its speed, agility, and sure-footedness.
The tallest acceptable height for a New Forest pony is 14.2¼ hh, and you’ll rarely find one under 12hh. Capable of carrying small adults, they have a strong, workmanlike conformation.
New Forest ponies are versatile and compete in many disciplines, including cross-country, dressage, driving, eventing, gymkhana, and show jumping. The ultimate all-rounder, the New Forest Pony has a gentle temperament that makes it ideal for children and easy to train.
Weighing around 440 lbs, the New Forest pony is a generally healthy breed that does well on a simple diet of high-quality hay and other forage. They have a life expectancy of around 25 to 30 years.
New Forest ponies are, however, susceptible to a hereditary genetic disorder known as congenital myotonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions and an inability to relax the muscles, especially after exercise.
#6 Dartmoor Pony: Strength and Stamina
Originating in Devon, this UK breed has been around since 1500 BC. Miners used Dartmoor ponies in the mines throughout the middle ages, showing the strength and stamina needed to excel. They have since proved to be talented jumpers and highly competitive at gymkhana events.
Dartmoor ponies retain an intuitive ability to find food, water, and shelter even in the most challenging environments. This makes them both independent and relatively easy to keep. However, getting a Dartmoor pony is a long-term commitment, as these tough little equines can live for up to 40 years.
Although not common in the US, with their sturdy yet elegant builds and excellent temperaments, Dartmoor ponies make great riding ponies and companions. They may be smaller than some other pony breeds, but they’re strong enough for small adults to ride.
These native ponies have few health problems, although a new strain of strangles has endangered the UK’s feral herd on numerous occasions. They have the same long life expectancy as other pony breeds, often living into their late 20s to early 30s.
#7 Hackney Pony: Eye-Catching Beauty
With its high knee and hock action and elegant appearance, the Hackney Pony is very similar to the Hackney horse breed, just slightly smaller. Standing no taller than 14.1hh, these spirited ponies love attention and relish a good grooming session.
An English breeder called Christopher Wilson developed the breed in the 19th century, creating an eye-catching pony with a naturally dynamic presence and high-stepping action.
With their appealing personalities and generous natures, children and adults enjoy Hackneys. They are highly competitive in the show ring and have a natural flair for jumping.
While somewhat highly strung, the Hackney pony is a spirited yet cooperative companion. Surprisingly hardy despite their slight appearance, Hackneys are easy keepers that often live well into their 30s.
Weighing around 600lbs, this pony breed is generally healthy and has no known breed-specific diseases.
#8 Fell Pony: A Packhorse
A versatile, working breed of pony, the Fell Pony was originally used as a packhorse. They were used to carry slate from the mines and agricultural goods, like wool, from the farms.
Descended from the now-extinct Galloway pony, the Fell originated on the border between England and Scotland. While they vary widely in size and appearance, they remain small, never exceeding 14 hh. Usually black, brown, or grey, they have long, thick manes and tails and long feathers on the lower legs.
Fell ponies make beginner ponies with their muscular necks, powerful hindquarters, and strong legs. A more experienced rider can excel in numerous disciplines, from carriage driving to showing. They are sure-footed ponies with comfortable gaits and gentle natures, making them popular amongst children. They also have excellent stamina and endurance.
Having developed the ability to thrive on poor forage, the Fell is easy to keep and requires little in the way of supplementary feed. They often live for 30 to 40 years.
A generally healthy breed, they often live for 30 to 40 years, although some foals die within three months of Foal Immodefiency Syndrome. This fatal condition causes immunodeficiency in foals and affects around 10% of Fell ponies.
#9 Connemara Pony: Healthy Jumpers
Hard-working and honest, the Connemara pony is native to Ireland. Having evolved amongst the coastal mountains and bogs of western Ireland, the Connemara is hardy and sure-footed with goat-like jumping abilities. For many years, Connemara ponies were used on farms, plowing fields, and carrying heavy loads.
These days, the Connemara enjoys a multitude of activities. A popular riding pony for children and small adults, they compete in endurance, driving, eventing, and western pleasure events. However, their true talent is show jumping, where they regularly out-class larger horse breeds.
With heights varying between 13 to 15 hh, the Connemara is one of the larger pony breeds. Comfortable to ride, the Connemara’s calm, docile disposition makes it a pleasure to handle and easy to train.
Connemaras are generally healthy ponies and can often live well into their 30s. They are, however, affected by a genetic problem known as hoof wall separation disease (HWSD). This condition causes the hoof wall to crack and break. The wall pulls away from the sole entirely in severe cases, causing extreme pain, abscesses, and laminitis. There is no cure for HFSS, although treatments are available to make the affected pony more comfortable.
#10 Gotland Pony: Strong and Energetic
Known in its native Sweden as the Russ pony, Gotlands are something of a living relic and have flourished on the island of Gotland since the Stone Age. Despite the breed’s longevity, it only arrived in the US in the 1950s.
Imported initially to work in handicapped riding programs, Gotlands have become increasingly popular as children’s mounts. They are good-tempered and as adept at trail riding as dressage and show jumping.
Gotland ponies are strong and intelligent with long backs and sloping shoulders. They have smooth yet energetic paces and are strong enough to carry adults up to 160 lbs.
Gotland ponies are known for their surprisingly fast trot, which has made them successful on the race track and popular in the field of combined driving.
The Gotland is quick to learn and easy to handle. It’s an ideal beginners’ pony. They are hardy and well-built and have minimal requirements in terms of feed and shelter.
#11 Exmoor pony: Natural Ability and Stamina
Although similar to the Dartmoor, the Exmoor has a pale or white muzzle and a stockier build that makes it distinct.
Standing between 11 and 12.2 hh, the Exmoor is believed to be the oldest breed of pony in the UK, dating back some 50,000 years.
These versatile ponies are adept at survival, having roamed the bleak moors of southern England at the same time as saber-tooth tigers. They developed a remarkably effective digestive system that enables them to digest and thrive on the poor-quality forage available on Exmoor in winter. Unfortunately, this makes them more susceptible to laminitis, especially if fed a high-protein diet.
Usually bay, brown, or dun, they were designed to blend in with their native landscape. Stocky and muscular, Exmoor ponies have excellent stamina. Their action is straight and smooth, enabling them to cover ground quickly.
Sure-footed, the Exmoor is powerfully built and grows a thick coat in winter to protect it against rain, snow, and freezing temperatures. Their tails even have a cluster of coarse hairs at the top, called a frost cap, protecting the sensitive underbelly from the rain.
Exmoors are quick learners that excel in almost every discipline. They have a natural jumping ability and enough stamina to prove competitive at long distances.
The Shetland is by far the best pony breed in the world. They’re cute, kind, versatile, and hardy, so it’s little wonder nearly everyone learns to ride on one. The Shetland isn’t the only pony breed that’s easy to keep and pleasant to be around.
These 11 pony breeds are hardy and friendly, easy to train, willing to work, and healthy. Although every horse is an individual, these breeds are the best, whether you’re looking for a low-maintenance family pet or a children’s pony.
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