Easily the most controversial working horses in history have been the pit ponies of the coal mines. While Wikipedia erroneously claims that pit ponies were only used in the British Isles and Australia, this is patently untrue, as pit ponies and coal-mining mules were a routine sight in American coal mines in the Appalachians. Perhaps the reason for this oversight is that American mines were fully automated before those in the UK, and the pit ponies in the UK (but not the US) were the subject of a major animal welfare intervention in the 1960s by the RSPCA.
At their height around 1913, there were some 70,000 pit ponies working below ground in the UK. Pit ponies were far and away the most regulated horses in the entire British Isles, being over seen by the National Coal Board and subject to many rules and requirements (not terribly surprising, since the coal miners were unionized, that the ponies should have a "union" to protect them too!). They worked limited hours and were required to have vet inspections. They could not be sent out to work without proper shoes (so if a shoe was thrown, the farrier had better get to work!). Pit ponies were not allowed to work until they had reached the age of 4, and many of them worked well into their twenties (it was not unusual for a good pit pony to have a career spanning more than two decades - an accomplishment when one considers that during the 60 years prior to WWII, a British miner was killed on the job on average every 6 hours).
Contrary to popular belief, pit ponies were rarely born underground - the majority of collieries only kept stallions and geldings on their workforce - and unless an accident or another untimely demise befell them, they rarely died underground, either. Retirement for pit ponies, however, was difficult and often short, unused as they were to non-regimented, pastoral living.
A pit pony's typical day consisted of an eight-hour shift. It was a common practice for each pony to be handled by one and only one driver, as it was believed that this formed a good working relationship between miner and horse. There are numerous reports of ponies not adapting well when switched from one driver to another. As the ponies got older, their daily shift might be cut back to a mere 4 hours of work. Ponies stayed in underground stables, where they were fed chopped hay and corn, and assiduously looked after. Because of the risk of fire, they were not bedded on straw, but rather on sawdust or peat, to keep them cozy and comfortable. Pit ponies also had the luxury, if you will, of living and working year round at a constant temperature of about 54-56 degrees. Since pit ponies belonged to the mining companies, they were highly valued capital, who were generally far better looked after by the company management than the coal miners were.
Ponies were trained on voice-commands alone - they often wore no bits and only had a single rein running to their halters.
Getting in and out of the mines could be an arduous task, depending on the coal type. In Wales (where the majority of the British coal fields were), there were two types of mines, corresponding to the two types of coal. Soft (bituminous) coal was accessed by mines that opened via sloping tunnel from the side of a hill - horses and ponies could be walked in and out and in fact larger horses were used to run the coal out of the mine. At these mines, the working horses and ponies may have been stabled above ground, or they may have had stables built into the rock or coal face underground. Hard (anthracite) coal was generally accessed by a mineshaft that descended straight down. Horses and ponies working in these mines had to be lowered via a winch and cage into the mine, and getting them out again could only be done one at a time. (Horses were also sometimes needed above ground to operate the winch, if that had not been converted to steam or electric power). Because of the difficulty of getting the pit ponies in and out, mining strikes were quite a production - initially, going on strike meant that the miners had to remove all the horses from the mines, as closing the mines would mean that no one would be able to go in and care for the horses (later, labor negotiations would allow the miners permission to keep the horses in their homes below ground, with permission for stable crew to tend to their needs for the duration of the stoppage). The return of the ponies en masse to the surface due to a strike or a holiday was the subject of much entertainment and excitement in mining communities. As women and children were not allowed in the mines after 1842 (in fact, the pit ponies had REPLACED many children and women in coal mining - previously it had been women and children hauling the drams out of the mines), the ponies on vacation was a time for families to see and give treats to the miners' constant companions below ground. Still, many miners dreaded having to take their ponies to the surface, as turning the fit, highly muscled, highly regimented pit ponies, used to high-calorie feed out on pasture with a bunch of other rambunctious pit ponies led to overexertion in running and bucking, and many ponies would be injured or even killed by kicks from the other pit ponies. The chaos of the ponies being turned out was explained by many at the time as being due to the ponies being "blinded" by the sunlight - which may have had something to do with it, although it is unclear to what degree and how mining horses' eyesight was affected by years of living underground. Horses, one should remember, see VERY well in the dark or in low lighting conditions (and miners had lamps to light the way a little bit). In fact, it is supposed that most pit ponies' vision problems stemmed from injuries to their eyes from debris or equipment, which is why most images of horses in coal mines show them wearing various leather shields and guards on their faces to protect their eyes.
In the 1960s, as mechanization seemed about to eliminate pit ponies altogether, the National Coal Board and the RSPCA united to retire the pit ponies to appropriate homes, rather than being shipped to slaughter (as had been the fate of so many agricultural farming horses at that time). Caring for the Last of Britain's Pit Ponies, by John Weaver in 1969 illustrates both the good care the ponies were accustomed to, and the challenges of a lifetime of living underground.
When Mrs. Margaret Bell tries to get on with the housework it’s Fred who gets in the way. He just marches into the house and generally monopolises the kitchen – which is surely his right as the retired member of the family.
Fred is one of the 1,500 remaining pit ponies whose twilight world down the mines is coming to an end. Within the next 18 months, the Coal Board plan to have found them all homes. Or if they are too old and ill, they will be destroyed.
For Fred, now 26, with 22 working years behind him, it’s time to rest at the Bell’s home at Witton-Gilbert, Durham. He’s not been “put out to grass” because left alone under those circumstances he would probably fret or fight. Instead, Coal Board officials and the R.S.P.C.A. have thoroughly inspected his new home; his sleeping quarters and the family’s ability to feed him through the year.
The Bell’s wanted Fred for a pet 14 months ago. But, like thousands of others in England, they had to wait four months. They could not choose him. It was a question of whether the Bells were fit enough to give Fred a good home.
Pit ponies probably get a better life than their relatives above ground. Their stables are spotless; their handlers dote on them and take down sweets and sandwiches for tit-bits. To quote the R.S.P.C.A. chief veterinary officer Colonel Ian Tennant: “They have to be kept at a reasonable temperature, the same as wine is kept in a cellar.
“The N.C.B. (National Coal Board) go to great lengths to help us find them new homes. We inspect the accommodation, the land, and the owners. So often, we get requests from children who just don’t have the facilities or the knowledge for looking after them. At one time, they were turned out to grass because people thought it was a good thing to do. But they just charged about, broke fences, and kicked. And the vandals would tease and frighten them.
“They are just not used to life above ground and they need careful handling.”
Fifty years ago, there were 73,00 ponies working Britain’s mines. “The best miners in the world”, was the tribute of one who looked after them for 30 years. Pony and handler have always been very close.
In Yorkshire pits they play “snap” with their owners by sneaking pieces of sugar from pockets, trotting forward to sample the sandwiches and fruit that should have been the miners’ lunch.
The tale goes underground that once the late Sir Harry Lauder, when he was a miner, called his pony Catherine. But Catherine refused to budge. Minutes later there was a pit-fall just in front of Catherine, and they say she saved Harry’s life.
The table has been turned. Six years ago a 19-year-old miner died trying to save his pony when it galloped into mine workings in thick gas in Derbyshire. Such is the bond between man and beast.
Now the end is near, Mr. Gordon Bagier, M.P. for South Sunderland has sought – and got – from the Coal Board chief Lord Robens, an assurance that these stalwarts of the black industrial revolution will not be exported for slaughter.
And next month, on May 9, is the third reading of Sir Robert Cary’s bill calling for greater assurances of the ponies’ welfare.
The fear is they will be exported for slaughter. But so stringent are the Coal Board and the R.S.P.C.A. about new homes for the ponies that even Lord Robens himself was turned down when he asked if he could keep one.
The R.S.P.C.A. decided his home at Walton-on-the-Hill did not have suitable stabling. The Board get at least 20 letters a day with offers of new homes. R.S.P.C.A. deal with four or five requests a day. But always the two bodies point out that is costs at least £5.00 a week to feed and stable them.
They have led sheltered lives down the mines. A Board spokesman said: “They are probably more spoilt than other animals. They must be hand fed; they lose the ability to crop grass like other ponies.”
Certainly many will have to be “put down”. This will depend on veterinary advice, and it will be humane methods.
Both bodies insist the ponies must not be ridden. They are not cheap pets, as so many parents think.
Fred, the Bells’ pet, breaks the rules, now and then. He is lead round their three-acre field with their five-year-old son Wealand at the reins. Technically, it is not allowed.
But, says Mrs. Bell; “it’s only for five minutes. And they both love it.”
To a nation whose conscience suffers more, than most over the fate of its four-legged friends, the hope is that the Freds of the twilight world will retire just as gracefully.
It's well worth honoring these pit ponies who hauled the coal that has produced electricity and powered civilization. Here are some stories of some of the pit ponies. (I think you'll recognize some Cupcake-isms!)
GLITTER: Glitter was a mild-tempered animal who would work like the rest up until 9 o'clock in the morning and would then refuse to work until the haulier who was in charge of him gave him a piece of twist tobacco. After this he was all right again...
MOUSE: There was one called Mouse, he did not drink the water in your bottle but would eat the cork, and if he found your clothing he would chew off all the buttons. When you had to hook his limber to the tub he knew whether you had put your foot between the rails or the plates as they were called, and he would kick out and catch your leg...
WALLACE: Wallace used to wait until you were putting his harness on in his stall and he would feel about with his left foreleg until he got onto your toes. All he had to do then was to lean on you and you can imagine the yells that used to come from the stall!... He caught quite a few of us like this.
LITTLE VANE:..Little Vane was one of those who counted the clank of the coupling chains, but he was in a Union of his own - he would pull only two tubs.'...
ANONYMOUS:...One instance was when I was pony-driving from the coalface to the top of the jinny. The youth controlling the jinny had hung his waistcoat up with his snap* and watch in the pockets. The pony had nosed around until he got the scent of the snap, and in the finish had chomped the snap, the waistcoat and the pocket-watch, so there was neither snap nor time left!...
HONESTY:...We had one called Honesty, you know, there was what you call a bait-hole, was shot out of the side, there was a choppy-box in there. Now, the foreshift lads, if we went down about four o'clock, and the backshift lads came in about nine, they had to take our ponies while we got our snap back of the choppy-box, you see ... you put your bottle on there, and if Honesty was there, he would have your bottle and the cork out before you could say Jack Robinson. With his lips ... he'd lie down ... with his lips, and the cork wus out... he used to waste half of it, you know, drink as much as he could like… aye…Honesty ... I'll not forget him ..a skewbald...’
NAMES NOT RECORDED:...Several of the ponies used to like a pinch of snuff ... you used to put a pinch on the back of your hand and give it to the pony and he used to curl his nostril up, just as if he was laughing, then sneeze.'...
BLOOM:...He would pull 6 or 7 full tubs at once, he would get down on his knees to grip the ground and pull away and without a word from me he would know when to stop pulling and he would cross out from the road us I unhooked his chain and the tubs would run on into the other tubs. This pony was very intelligent, and I thought a lot of him, that much that I had a tattoo of Bloom's head put on my right arm in 1931 and it's still there, a reminder of those great, hardworking little animal who would never give up or be beaten...
PIPER:..His name was Piper. What a rebel, a rebel who employed passive resistance as his most formidable weapon. Piper was a stint pony, which meant pulling twenty empty drams and the haulage rope in-bye for about three-quarters of a mile. The first two runs of drams he would pull till his belly touched the floor and take the run of empties in-bye without a murmur. The third run of empties Piper pulled his act. The driver would fasten his limbers into the tube and shout, "Come on, Piper". Piper would just cock his head on one side, look at the river as if to say "You'll be lucky" and gently sink to his knees and lie down. Nothing on earth, or underneath for that matter, would shift Piper. He would lie there oblivious of anyone about him. The drivers got that used to him playing this stunt that they played the same game and sat down beside him. After a short period he would, with assistance, struggle to his feet and carry on until he felt the need for having another rest.' …
MACK:…There was a period when another young chap and I had to start work an hour or two before the others on the shift started. We had to go a mile in-bye to the stables. We would collect six ponies and bring them out-bye to the new district. We would bring them out of the stables, set them on their way, and he and I would follow behind and chat and sometimes have a sing-song. Then when we got close to our destination one of us would go to the front with our first pony. Then, one morning, we found one missing. I went back to investigate and found him in the stable. This happened several days, and always it was the same pony missing! Mack was his name and he was jet-black. So we had to keep our eyes open really wide and it happened that halfway out I spotted him in a man-hole, just waiting for us to pass him, and then he’d make his way back to the stables!…..
BUMBLE:…..I had Bumble a while, when I was a driver. When we first went at start the shift and he was in the mood he used to get under a certain piece of head timber and rub his back on it, an he would not move until he was ready. The rule was that he had to be brought out last, but the drivers used to bring him out first, just out of mischief, and of course no-one could get past him, and there was only one way out of the stables……..
MAJOR:..Major was one for going for a walk back to the stables if he got the chance, but I had one ace up my sleeve to stop him wandering off. He had one weakness, he would not open ventilation doors as most ponies did. To keep him safe and to know where to find him I used to put him between two ventilation doors, which were about 15 to 20 yards apart. Although he wouldn't open the doors he would try to kick them down, and one day I left him, kicking the doors as usual. I knew he couldn't hurt the doors, they were sturdily built. About two hours later, when I came back, there was Major at the other door, belting away at it like mad. I went and calmed him down, but he had another kick at he door whilst I was holding him, and I thought at the time that was unusual. Then I heard a voice on the other side of the door - "Have you got hold of that bloody horse?" It was the Deputy. He said, “I've been trying to get through that [expletive] door for an hour, and every time I pushed it open that [expletive] horse kicked it shut!'
TIM:...Then I saw him turn round towards me and I sensed that something was wrong and Tim had sensed it. It was then I heard a sound I'd heard before, a runaway of drams coming towards us. I scrambled out of the dram; I knew I could do nothing for Tim, the road was too narrow and I had only seconds to try and find a "manhole", where the side was cut away at intervals to provide a shelter for such an event. I couldn't find one and all I could do was to squeeze myself upright against the side wall as the runaway drams roared past me, breaking the bottle of tea which was in a "poacher's pocket" on the inside of my waistcoat, and my oil-lamp was hit and extinguished, and then I heard the crash as the runaway drams hit Tim and the empties he had been pulling, just a few yards away. I was scared stiff and for what seemed ages I couldn't move, then with the smell of the dust in my nose and hearing Tim groaning, I just sat down and cried, and was still there when I saw lights bobbing towards me and some miners had come to see what had happened. One took me farther away and the others cleared the rubble and got Tim out. They told me his "cobble stick" - that's the wooden cross piece that the chain pulling the drams is attached to - had up-ended and taken the weight of the runaway train as it hit the pony and then the roof, and, apart from limping badly, and the shock, Tim seemed alright. It didn't take them long to clear the road and I recovered quickly, noting just how lucky I had been. However, there was no work to be done by Tim and me that day and we made our way with we of the men back through the air-doors, Tim still limping. But, once through the doors he must have known he was heading hack to the stables, and his limp disappeared, and all the way back he walked all right till he got to the stables, when he put on the limp again and I'm sure that it was to impress the man in charge of the stables, I believe Tim had a few days off' to get over it, and I did the same……
(Source - Miner interviews on Tribute to the Rhondda - http://www.therhondda.co.uk/ponies/07_anecdotes.html)
Pit ponies remain controversial in Britain - despite the NCB declaring that there are "no more pit ponies" in the national mines, there are a number of very small private coal mines where ponies still work with miners who extract coal largely by hand and horse-power. There is a pit pony sanctuary, with a handful of retirees - this sanctuary is working to outlaw the use of horses below ground in Britain yet some private mines continue to find the use of horses to be more practical and economical than mechanization, in the case of very small coal deposits. pitponyman's YouTube channel has some footage of these remaining pit ponies - his videos also have prompted fond memories and recollections from the miners whose lives and livelihoods depended on their horses.
Said carlibowers in response: "I worked at Ellington Colliery in Northumberland where until the '84 strike there were about 50 ponies still working and I always remember the vet saying the ponies here were better cared for than many on the surface!"
Coal mines in France, Belgium and Germany used much larger draft horses for much of their mining. Here a Trait du Nord mining horse poses with his coworkers.
Coal miners in Pennsylvania preferred mules, though miners in other parts of Appalachia used the ancestors of todays miniature horse in particularly low tunnels.
For more about pit ponies, see the following excellent websites:
Tribute to the Rhondda
Fran Jurga's Hoofcare Blog
Horse and Man (who has featured Cupcake on several occasions!)