The History of Pit Ponies
Where might you expect to see a horse? In a field, perhaps? Maybe in a stable? Certainly not underground! And yet, for many years, that’s exactly where lots of ponies lived, working alongside miners to help collect coal.
Mostly used in coalmines in the 1800s to mid-1900s, pit ponies did a variety of jobs, both on the surface and underground. The ponies that worked aboveground typically measured 1.7 metres (16 hands), and you’d usually expect to see them transporting coal and mining materials such as timber for roof supports.
With that being said, the majority of ponies that worked at a mine were underground in very important roles. The smallest ponies, measuring around 1.2 metres (11 hands), worked with miners to carry full tubs of coal to a collecting point called the ‘flats,’ before returning any empty tubs to the coal face. As for the larger ponies, typically measuring 1.4 metres (13 hands), you would usually find them working with a miner called a driver, collecting the tubs and pulling them along the main roadways to the pit bottom so that they could be taken to the surface. From here, they would return the empty tubs to the ‘flats’ for the smaller ponies to take to the coalface.
Other duties for the ponies included transporting tools and supplies, equipment, new pit props or any items needed for repairing parts of the mine. In order to carry out their jobs, it was important that ponies possessed some key characteristics:
- Size: small ponies could work in low and narrow roadways, while bigger ones could do much of the heavy lifting in the spaces where there was more room.
- Strength: ponies had to be strong in order to pull several tubs at the same time for many hours a day.
- Hardiness: ponies had to be able to cope with harsh working and environmental conditions in the pit, with many of them rarely seeing daylight.
Initially, ponies never left the pit, however, following intervention by animal welfare, ponies were allowed 2 weeks out during the summer. As you could probably imagine, being underground for so long affected the eyesight of the ponies, so when they were exposed to life aboveground they often had to have restricted vision or only went outside at night.
Just before WW1, the number of ponies working underground peaked, with there being 70,000 ponies working down pits across the UK in 1913. Along with the War, however, came a rapid decline in this number with many horses going to help fight. In addition to this, machinery became increasingly more common underground, taking over many of the jobs that used to be the responsibility of the ponies. As a result, by 1932 there were 32,000 ponies working underground, by 1962 there were 6,400, and by 1978 there were only 149. By the 1990s, there were only a very small number of pit ponies still in use, with them being completely redundant by 1999.
Pit ponies needed to become used to being handled and harnessed. The horsekeeper might spend a few days preparing them for the type of work and conditions underground. The pony was trained to wear a harness and pull tubs along rails. The horsekeeper might also try to get the pony used to noise and darkness, but this type of training was not common.
A pony’s first journey underground was stressful; therefore it often took place at night. If there was a drift (a sloping roadway to get underground), the ponies might be walked in through this route. If not, ponies went down in the cage or were slung underneath it.
Once underground, ponies would spend most of their lives in that environment. There would be properly trained in the following five areas:
• Being harnessed
• Pulling a heavy weight
• Turning around in a small space (known as “britching”)
• Opening the ventilation doors with their heads
• Responding to verbal commands
A pony that showed he could adapt to working underground was accepted. Unsuitable ones were returned to the horse dealer. The pony was then prepared for a life working underground.
The pony’s hair was clipped to help it keep cool in very warm pit conditions. The mane and tail were “hogged” (clipped very short) to keep it clean in the dirty environment.
Ponies were given a name. Sometimes the ponies that had been bought at the same time were all given names starting with a particular letter of the alphabet. This helped the colliery keep accurate records. In some cases, the pony would take the name of the pony that previously lived in their stable stall as their own. Short names of one syllable were popular because the pony would be able to respond quickly to verbal commands.