Throughout Kate Beaton’s award-winning career as a webcomic artist, New York Times bestselling author, and now, a children’s book writer, one character of hers has always stood out: the fat pony, the chubby, cheerful horse that made its debut in her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant.
The inspiration for the perpetually smiling and incredibly tubby quadruped came from an unusual source: a Global Field Study with Sterling College in Scotland and the Shetland Islands, in 2005.
Dr. Steve Young, then the head of the Center for Northern Studies at Sterling College, and now an adviser of the Center for Circumpolar Studies, as well as having taught the class “Quaternary Science: Paleoecology” at Sterling in Fall of 2015, created the program to study northern terrain for three weeks—”you’re getting to the edge of the Arctic without having to buy expensive plane tickets and things like that,” he explained.
Beaton recalls, “I have no idea how I heard about [the course]. There might have been a pamphlet. I certainly wasn’t astute enough to Google anything like it. I was graduating with an anthro degree from Mount Allison University, and I felt it was incomplete because there was zero physical anthropology the whole four years I was there—armchair stuff. I wanted to get out and view things on the ground somewhere. The Sterling program seemed to fit the bill, even though I already had my degree.”
The Shetland program was set up as a spring alternative to a similar program that went to Newfoundland or Labrador in the fall. Young said, “The thing is, when you live through a Vermont winter, and then you go to Newfoundland where it’s maritime climate, it’s farther north. You finally get done with the winter here, and then getting them up back there and going right back into it. So, that got old pretty fast, and we were looking for an alternative.”
He continued, “The west coast of Scotland seemed to be a really good alternative in a lot of ways, because it’s a high latitude – you’re the same latitude as northern Labrador in northern Scotland, and you have a lot of similarities in terms of terrain, and you have a lot of the same marine mammals and seabirds and things like that, [and] it’s spring when you get over there. You go over there in the end of April, and there’s leaves around, it’s green, and daffodils. Even when you go way up north in the Shetlands, there’s no trees, but there’s daffodils.
“You also had really interesting cultural things. You had a lot of these very isolated, smallish towns. We’re always reminding people that the indigenous people of Europe are Europeans, and that’s true of places in Scotland and the Shetland Islands. They have a lot in common with a lot of other indigenous people that tend to be very isolated.”
Beaton has many good memories about the course: “I remember the people were all very down-to-earth. The college was more hands-on. I had just come from this one school whose great THING was that it had more Rhodes Scholars per capita than any other school, and that was fine, but then to be at another school with a different focus that seemed more grounded was really wonderful, and you could feel it in the students and teachers. There was something very connected about it, if you know what I mean.”
Young said, “Those days, our efforts were to combine social sciences and natural sciences, and try to do it in some sort of a seamless fashion. You didn’t have disciplinary boundaries. It worked pretty well to be looking at a seabird colony in the morning, and a fiddler’s jamboree in the afternoon.”
She and the other students drew cartoons as part of their journals. “I still have them all back home!” Beaton said. “There were drawings about being rained on, being near killer bonxie birds (Steve’s favourite), about New Age weirdos at the ancient sites, things like that.”
Young said, “Those were great trips. I really enjoyed them.”
All the students, apparently, were willing to appreciate a shaggy, short, and tubby breed of pony. “We came across some ponies and everyone just dropped what they were doing and talking about, and went straight for them. Little ponies will do that to you.”
Considering her character’s popularity, it’s surprising she didn’t try to stuff a Shetland pony in her suitcase. “If it wasn’t illegal I bet a lot of people would,” she said.
This, of course, amuses Young to no end. “Shetland ponies tend to be kind of grumpy-looking, I think!” he laughed.
Want your own fat pony but don’t want to go all the way to the Shetland Islands? You’re in luck, plush ones are available.
Bonus link: how to draw a fat pony, by Kate Beaton