About Pit Ponies
Working shifts of eight hours and more, pit ponies hauled material in mines until people mechanised the process. A horse would haul up to 30 tons of coal on the underground railway each day. The coal was in tubs which the ponies would take to a collection point. They would then pick up empty tubs and transport them back down into the shafts.
Small but Strong Ponies
The ponies used were usually no more than 12 hands high. Shetlands were commonplace but mines also extensively used Welsh, Russian, Devonshire (Dartmoor) and Cornish ponies. The ponies were typically low set, heavy bodied and sure-footed animals and only geldings and stallions worked in the mines. On the surface at the mines, horses measuring 1.7 metres (16 hands) transported coal and mining materials such as timber for roof supports.
Thousands of Pit Ponies
Horses began working in mines in the 18th Century. The number of horses working underground peaked in 1913 when there were as many as 70,000. Then the number began to fall due to the demands of the First World War and because systems were becoming mechanised. When the national coal board was established in 1947 there were 21,000 pit ponies in the UK but by 1984 there were just 55 still working.
The practice of stabling the ponies underground ended in 1994. Some of the last ponies to be retired left the Pant y Gaseg mine, near Pontypool in 1999. The relationship between miners and the horses was a difficult one. Whilst most miners felt affection and empathy for the horses, they ended up having to work them very hard.
The 1911 Coal Mines Act ensured improved conditions for the ponies. They received regular inspections, a better diet and clean stables. From this time, people would generally keep the pit ponies’ stables very clean and each animal would have its own stall. The ponies often had single syllable names like 'Star' or 'Champ' which the miners could voice quickly and clearly in an emergency. Despite the better conditions, pit ponies generally didn’t live as long as the ponies in the fields above the mines.
Miners and Their Ponies
Many miners believed that the ponies possessed a kind of sixth sense and could alert the men to impending danger such as mine collapses. Miners have always loved to recount stories of heroic horses who saved their lives. The men were only too aware of the privations that the horses suffered as the miners had to endure the same conditions underground.
The poor ponies that were living in stables underground were only brought to the surface when the pits were closed for two weeks in the summer. The shock of the fresh air and daylight often sent them into a frenzy. The miners’ strikes also gave pit ponies breaks on the surface.
Pit ponies served for hundreds of years in British mines living hard lives and working long hours. It is astonishing to think that horses were still working underground as recently as the 1990s. Thankfully horses no longer have to endure life underground as most of the mines are now shut and those which still operate are fully mechanised.