Mining Horses

Posted in Animals, Engineering, Geology on Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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This edited article about mining horses originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 923 published on 29 September 1979.

Badly injured in a rock-fall, the young miner lay in his stretcher, waiting to be taken above the ground. But before he would be moved, he had a request to make concerning a colleague, not a fellow-miner, but a pony. He wanted to be sure that the man who replaced him would be a driver his pony liked.

Mining horses pulling coal loads. Illustration by Harry Green

Mining horses pulling coal loads. Illustration by Harry Green

In Northumberland, they tell of two miners who died after insisting on going back for a pony trapped by an underground accident. And there is the story of a 19-year-old driver who lost his life trying to save a pony which had blundered into a part of the mine filled with gas. Tales abound of such devotion between miners and the four-legged animals which serve them beneath the ground.

Fifty years ago, tens of thousands of ponies worked in the pits, doing work which today is done by machines. Their numbers have gradually declined, and now there are scarcely 120 pit ponies still working underground in Britain. For the past decade, Britain has been the only country in Europe to continue using these animals in its coal-mines.

In the earlier part of this century these creatures were among the hardest-worked ponies in the country. They pulled empty wagons to the coal-face and back again, filled with coal and working materials, sharing the long hours and gruelling conditions of the miners they worked with.

But, for the small number still remaining on the National Coal Board’s “pay-roll”, conditions have changed dramatically. Pit ponies are among those animals in this country which come under statutory care. Their conditions and hours of work are laid down by law, and they have a maximum working week of 48 hours, though generally they work less. Also, they may not do more than two shifts in 24 hours, or three in 48 hours, a shift being seven and a half hours, including travelling to and from their stables.

Before going into the pits at four years of age, a pony is subject to several weeks’ training, during which time any animals found to be unsuitable for work can be separated and found other jobs, or a home somewhere else.

No blind horses or mares are used, and proper medical care must be available at all times. The ponies must be examined by a fully qualified veterinary surgeon at least once a year, and are also frequently looked at by mine inspectors.

Pit ponies do not actually pull coal today. Their job is to haul supplies to those seams which yield insufficient coal to warrant a mechanised supply system. The National Coal Board had hoped to see the last of the ponies come to the surface about ten years ago. However, they are still training new young ponies, to replace those retiring after 18 to 20 years service in pits in North-east England and South Wales. In several mines in those areas, the old-fashioned construction makes the continued use of ponies necessary. If these ponies did not do the work which they do within these short-life and limited-use coal seams, say Coal Board officials, men would have to do it.

Pit ponies are well known for their quick ability to learn what is expected of them. They take readily to their duties underground, and some of them have come to know their work so well that they can get on with it without being given any directions.

Contrary to general belief, the modern pit pony does not suffer from bad health through living underground for long periods of time, and it has no problems with its eyes or lungs. In fact, the Coal Board recently claimed that the ponies would be less healthy if continually brought to the surface; for the climate underground, they say, is more or less stable, whereas on the surface it is very changeable.

As to their general treatment, one RSPCA official, Robbie Robinson, who is in close contact with the ponies and their drivers, says that pit ponies are “better looked after than the average children’s riding pony”.

As the ponies are stabled underground for most of the year, their living accommodation in the mines must be of a very high standard. Stables must be properly constructed and limewashed every three months. There are also regulations about lighting, drainage and ventilation.

Floors must be concreted, every horse must have its own stable and manger, and there must be one loose box per 25 horses. There is one keeper to every 15 horses, who has to make a daily report on his charges. Any pony found permanently unfit for work is retired, and must either be found a home or destroyed.

Fortunately, these ponies hold such a high place in the affections of both miners and the public that, when they retire, or become otherwise redundant, requests for them far exceed the number of ponies available.

Before a new home for a pit pony is accepted, the RSPCA examines the new stables and exercising facilities. Its officials also inquire into the financial position of the family, as it costs several pounds a week to keep the animal.

Often the miners with whom they have been working wish to take care of the ponies when they retire, but if they cannot do this, there are always plenty of people wanting to give them a good home.

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