The Life of The Coal Mine Pit Pony
 By Winniefield Park   •   3rd Apr 2014   •   7,853 views   •   0 comments
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A long time ago, a friend's mother took my sister and I, and her two daughters to see a Disney movie, The Littlest Horse Thieves. The movie was released in 1976 and was about three children, who on learning that a coal mine's pit ponies were about to be destroyed to make way for mechanized mining methods, decided to steal and hide the ponies. Like most Disney movies, it was over-the-top dramatic with a tear-jerker ending. I barely remember the movie, but I still remember the heart-rending last scene. I also remember all four of us riding home in the back seat of the car, crying our eyes out and my friend's mother wondering at her decision to let us see the movie.

We can only imagine the lives of the ponies and the people that worked in coal mines. And, it's hard to believe that a few mines still used pit ponies until very recently. The use of pit ponies began in Britain in the 1700s. Ponies were used to pull the tubs of coal along narrow railway tracks to the point where it could be lifted out. Ponies were lowered down into the shaft either in a cage, or by pulley attached to a harness. The ponies worked in the dark, and often knew every nook and cranny of the mine by heart. The footing was hazardous, with uneven floors and lump coal that fell off of the drams or tubs the ponies pulled. The tracks that the tubs ran on was often uneven, making the pulling difficult. The air was thick with dust and ceilings were low. Collapse of the shafts was always a danger.

Ponies only saw the light of day during a colliery's yearly holiday or during a strike. In pits that were closer to the surface and not vertical shafts, the ponies were stabled close to the entrance of the mine. Effort was taken to care for the ponies well, because they were a significant investment providing a valuable work effort. (Prior to ponies being used, women and children pulled the tubs.) During an eight-hour shift, a pony might move close to 30 tons of coal. Although the work was hard, and conditions often dangerous, the miners bonded closely with the ponies. Many miners credit the ponies with saving their lives, by sensing when there would be a cave-in.

Sadly, when a pit pony's working life ended, they often had trouble adjusting to life above the ground. Many were raised from birth in the pit, and instead of a happy leisure in a grassy pasture, they were so used to life in the pit, they did not live long once retired. They had worked so closely with humans, and in such unnatural conditions, that they simply didn't know how to be ponies. Many suffered from the same types of respiratory diseases that affected their human co-workers.

At the turn of the 20th century, more than 70,000 ponies were being used in British coal mines. Up until the mid-1990s, a few ponies were still used in mines. The last mine to use ponies in the U.S.A. closed in 1971. Ponies were not as commonly used in the U.S. or Canada.

Pit ponies have been commemorated in many ways. In the Blue Mountains of Australia, a bronze statue of a miner and his pit pony stands outside a mine entrance. Most recently, a County Durham mining museum has built a replica stable to house several Shetland ponies, descendants of pit ponies once used in a nearby colliery, so the contribution of these valuable workers would not be forgotten.
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