One of my earliest childhood memories is of riding Midnight, a cantankerous Shetland pony that much preferred munching on a sugar cube to taking a little girl for a spin around the pasture. As I recall, Midnight didn’t really do anything Midnight didn’t want to do, though. If he didn’t feel like giving an eager child a ride, he would simply lie down and wait until someone gave him a lump of sugar or a carrot. I hope that little black equine of my childhood knew how cushy he had it!
Today, we’re going to talk about a group of ponies whose lives were anything but cushy. We’re going to talk about the Pit Ponies that worked in underground coal mines between the 1750 and 1999.
Before we begin, let me explain that Pit Ponies were used in the United States, as well as in the British Isles and Australia. However, probably because Pit Ponies were more highly regulated in the U.K., there is more available information on those animals. Therefore, many of the specifics to follow will be about the Pit Ponies that worked on the other side of the pond. It should also be noted that France, Belgium and Germany used larger draft horses in their mining. And, mules were sometimes used in the mines of the Appalachian Mountains.
Working In a Coal Mine
When laws were passed prohibiting the use of women and small children as laborers in coal mines, the industry was in desperate need of more workers. I can practically hear the conversations among mine executives:
Executive A: “You know, we’ve got to get some help since we can’t use those nimble little 7-yr-olds anymore. What we need is a group of really short workers who won’t mind the low ceilings. And, it would really be great if the workers were as strong as horses!”
Executive B: “Hmm… That sounds like an impossible task. What’s strong like a horse, but shorter than a horse? If only there were short horses.”
Underpaid worker muttering under his breath: “Ponies. Ferpitysake, ponies!”
Executive A: “I’ve got it! Ponies! We could use ponies in the mines!”
In truth, there was a significant overlap in the time that women and children were working in the mines and the time that the Pit Ponies went on the job. But the idea of Pit Ponies caught on in a big way after the British Mines Act of 1842 abolished the employment of women and children less than ten years of age.
By 1913, it is estimated that there were 70,000 Pit Ponies working in the United Kingdom. Shetland, Welsh, Sable Island and Dales ponies were the most commonly used breeds.
Goin’ Down Down Down
Thanks to the British Coal Mines Act of 1911, ponies had to be 4-yrs-old before starting work. But that doesn’t mean they were 4-yrs-old before they saw the inside of a mine. For the most part, the ponies were raised and stabled underground because, even though ponies like frolicking in the sunshine, they couldn’t miss what they had never known. Underground stables were built at the bottom of the pits. Typically, each stable could accommodate fifty ponies. Ponies who were brought in when they were older were given time to acclimate to the mines and several weeks of training.
Temperament was as important as strength. Geldings were preferred. Nervous or timid ponies got their walking papers early on, as did ponies that exhibited too much willfulness. A frightened horse could kill a miner, while working in such confined spaces.
Since the Pit Ponies had to be able to raise their heads, ponies of different sizes were used in different parts of the mines. Ponies up to 16 hands high were used close to the shafts, where the roofs were higher. A pony of 13 hands could be used in the haulage ways. The coalfaces required the smallest of ponies, standing no more than 11 hands. Mine inspectors measured the heights of the roofs, to insure the horses wouldn’t injure their backs.
Whop! About to Slip Down
Just like with humans, working in the coal mine was dangerous work for the ponies. There were broken bones and the occasional explosion. Of course, the animals were a major investment for the mine owners and much of the available information documents how well the ponies were treated. Pit owners were often accused of caring more about the welfare of the ponies than of their human workforce. There may be some truth to that since the ponies were more difficult to replace. Prior to WWII, it is estimated that, on average, a British miner was killed on the job every six hours. By all indications, the horses were safer than the men.
For all of the intrinsic sadness associated with the idea of horses rarely seeing the light of day, there are many stories about how well the animals were treated by their handlers. Later laws stated that one handler could be responsible for no more than fifteen ponies. But, generally speaking, the numbers were better than that. In many cases, each pony was assigned to one worker. It wasn’t uncommon for a pony to remain with the same handler for its entire career. As you can imagine, there was a genuine affection between the workers and animals. And, as dreadful as the idea of ponies living underground may be, they probably made for a much happier workplace.
Haulin’ Coal by the Ton
An average Pit Pony workday was an eight-hour shift (at least by the time some legislation was passed). Older animals, nearing retirement, might only work a four-hour shift. During a full shift, one animal might haul a total of 30 tons of coal in tubs!
The Pit Ponies were trained to recognize voice commands and often wore no bits. The miners respected the animals’ horse sense. On more than one occasion, the ponies were responsible for saving the lives of miners. There is one story of a pony refusing to budge an inch, just before a structural collapse. Had the animal obeyed its handler, both would have surely been killed! The selflessness went both ways. There are also tales of miners being killed while trying to rescue their horses.
The animals were rewarded for their hard work with good food. They were fed a steady diet of chopped hay and corn. That’s not counting the sweets and sandwich bits that were shared from the handlers’ lunch pails.
Too Tired for Havin’ Fun
While there is some information to indicate that horses rarely survived more than a few years underground, that doesn’t appear to be true. At least some of the animals had careers that spanned twenty years.
Most pit ponies were retired before their 20th birthdays. Since an average life expectancy of a pony is between 25 and 30 years, that sounds like they should have had some decent years to enjoy the finer things in life—like sunshine and fresh air. Yeah, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Initially, the hard working Pit Ponies were slaughtered as soon as they punched their last pony time card. When word of that got out, citizens were outraged. And, since the women and children were no longer suffering from black lungs, they had the energy to do something about it!
Retirement facilities were created for the British Pit Ponies, although the animals typically had difficulty adjusting to a life of ease. They were used to regimentation. They were even used to an environment with a constant temperature of around 55 degrees. “Freedom” was not an easy thing for these animals to grasp. For years, there were rumors that the ponies went blind underground. While that isn’t true, they did have difficulty adjusting to sunlight.
How Long Can This Go On?
The last pony mine in the United States closed in 1971, but the use of Pit Ponies continued in Great Britain. Robbie, the last authorized Pit Pony in Britain, retired in 1999.While there are no more national mines in Great Britain that use Pit Ponies, there are said to be a few private mines where ponies are still illegally counted among the workforce.
In 2009, Great Britain honored the passing of Pip, the horse they publicly acknowledge as the last surviving Pit Pony. Pip was 35-yrs-old. In his final years, Pip’s celebrity status even garnered him a meeting with Diana, Princess of Wales. It’s an honor that was well deserved. Unlike my old friend, Midnight, a loyal Pit Pony would never lie down on the job!
Here’s an interesting video about the pit ponies, with great documentary footage. I think you’ll enjoy it!