Miners and a pit pony gathered around a tub.
Taken at Calverton Colliery between 1950 and 1960.
© Harold White Collection/NCMME
Pit ponies were mainly used in coal mines in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s. They did a variety of jobs.
On the surface at a mine, horses measuring 1.7 metres (16 hands) were used to transport coal and mining materials such as timber for roof supports.
The majority of ponies worked underground. The smallest ponies, measuring 1.2 metres (11 hands), worked with miners called putters or trammers. They took full tubs of coal to a collecting point called the ‘flats’. From this point, they would bring empty tubs back to the coal face. Larger ponies, measuring 1.4 metres (13 hands), working with a miner called a driver, would collect the tubs from the ‘flats’ and pull them along the main roadways underground to the pit bottom ready to be taken to the surface. They returned empty tubs to the ‘flats’ for the smaller ponies to take to the coal face. Ponies were also used to transport supplies such as tools, equipment, new pit-props or items needed for repairing parts of the mine. Boys of 13 or 14 were often employed as drivers when they first started working down the pit after leaving school. Four important characteristics made ponies suitable for the work and the conditions found in coal mines. Small ponies could work in low and narrow roadways. Strength: they could pull several tubs at the same time and work long hours. Hardiness: ponies could cope with the harsh working and environmental conditions of the pit.
Ponies having a break at Ellington Colliery,
© Martyn Pitt Collection/NCMME
The number of working ponies reached a peak just before World War I, with 70,000 ponies in 1913. After this the number declined, firstly due to the demands of the War, and after that, as more machines were introduced. This meant that by 1932, only 32,000 ponies were used by mines. In 1947, the coal industry in the UK was nationalised. This made the process of modernisation quicker, and so fewer ponies were needed. By 1962, only 6,400 ponies were used underground, and the number continued to drop. In 1978 there were only 149 ponies employed to work underground. A very small number of mines continued to employ ponies until the 1990s.
Underground stables at Calverton Colliery,
between 1950 and 1960.
©Harold White Collection/NCMME
Ponies in an underground stable with the stableman.
Contains public sector information licensed under the
Open Government Licence v3.0
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 was “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.
Ponies at The National Coal Mining Museum
Meet our very own resident celebrities!
The Museum's ponies can be visited in the Stable Yard during the day (usually between 10am - 3pm), so do stop by to say hello and find out about the role that ponies and horses played in coal mining through the centuries.
At other times, Eric, Ernie, Bud and Finn, our gentle giant Clydesdale horse, can be found in the fields of the Museum site, stretching their legs!
Finn is our Gentle Giant! He is a Clydesdale and stands at a huge 17.3hh! Bred for temparement, size and strength, horses such as Finn were largely used above ground for delivering coal and shunting on the railways as well as in agriculture. In some areas, mines had high roadways. In these mines, large horses could be found working underground.
Today, these magnicent creatures are more commonly seen as riding horses, or in the show ring where ridden classes are becoming quite popular with heavy horse enthusiasts.
Bud is the latest addition to the Museum's equine collection. He is a small 'Cob' and stands at 13.0hh.
He was born in a mining area, very close to the former Trimdon Colliery, Durham. He joined the Museum in May 2017 at the age of 4 years. At this age many years ago, he would have been ready to start working life as a pit pony. Bud is a laid-back pony and he can often be seen laying down fast asleep in his stable! its a hard life!
Eric is a welsh mountain pony. He stands at 12.2hh. Eric has never worked in a mine but ponies of his size and type worked in deep mines pulling tubs full of coal from the coal face to the pit bottom. Ponies like Eric were small, strong and hardy, and would have live their lives underground, only returning to the surface for annual holidays or during long strikes.
Eric came to live at the Museum in June 2007 together with his friend Ernie. Their owner abandoned them, together with eight other ponies, on winter grazing land in Wales when they were very young. When one of the ponies died through neglect, the RSPCA were called in and rescued the remaining ponies in April 2006. Once recovered they were put up for adoption and came to live here at the Museum.
Ernie is a welsh Mountain pony and stands at 12.2hh. He is very popular with visitors and he has a lovely nature, but he is a little nervous of new situations. Perhaps he never forgot his bad start in life. He likes to show off in the field, galloping round and trying to get the others to join in his antics! It is doubtful that Ernie's lack of confidence would have made him suitable for life in the mines. Ponies that couldn't cope were often sent to the horse dealer and replaced. Luckily for Ernie, things are very different now and he has a good home for life.
Learn all about Pit Ponies and their role in coal mining history. Our Horsekeepers have lots of stories to tell about how miner and pony worked together deep down in the darkness. Hear how strong bonds were formed between them and the antics they got up to!
Adopt a Pony
The Museum's 'Adopt a Pony' Scheme is very popular and many of our members come and visit their chosen horse or pony at the stables regularly.
The perfect gift that is a wonderful idea for all ages.
It supports a great cause too! Click here to find out more.