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Going to Work in the Dark - The Story of the Pit Pony
 By Valkyrie   •   17th Apr 2016   •   2,096 views   •   1 comments
The Story of the Pit Pony

When you think of pit ponies often images of 19th century coal mines springs to view – dark and damp, with sooty, stale air dull on the tongue. But pit ponies were still in service well into the 20th century. In fact – the last recorded colliery horse was removed from underground in Britain in 1999! Pit ponies could be of any size, but those who worked in coal mines were often very small in order to fit through the narrow tunnels. Shetlands were a popular choice, being short enough and strong enough to pull heavy loads. In 1913 there were some 70,000 employed underground, the first recorded use of a pit pony occurring in 1750. Pit ponies swiftly replaced the work of children in mines.

A pit pony had to be at least four years of age, shod and vetted, and often either a gelding or a stallion. Depending what type of mine they worked in they could either be stabled underground (in shaft mines) or close to the surface (slope and drift mines). They often worked well into their twenties and rarely experienced daylight, only coming up during the colliery's annual holiday. Direct sunlight could badly affect their eyesight so they had to be stabled in dark buildings. Collieries tried to keep their ponies in good condition as they represented a substantial profit. Guidelines insisted that a five foot pony be given seven foot of height in its stable in order to stretch the head, neck and back muscles that had been held low during its working day. Stables were well drained and ventilated, and little wood or straw used in case of fire.

Related: The Life of The Coal Mine Pit Pony
Related: Remembering the Horses of World War I

Pit ponies were heavily regulated. Among physical inspections and requirements they were also subject to set work hours (eight a day, often reduced as the pony aged), were fed a high-calorie diet of hay and corn, and were often only handled by one driver to encourage a good working relationship and care of the animal. They were mostly trained with voice commands and often didn't wear bits. Many had a working life of over two decades, in a job where miners were regularly killed on the job. There were reports of ponies struggling to adapt to new drivers after their usual one died. Drivers loved their charges – one 19yo pit worker died attempting to save his pony when it galloped into thick gas. Ponies loved their drivers as well – one pony named Catherine saved her driver from a pit fall by baulking and refusing to walk forwards. Moments later the tunnel collapsed ahead.

During the 1960s mechanization of mines threatened to end the useful days of the pit pony. The National Coal Board and RSCPA united to help find retired ponies new homes in order to save them from slaughter. Unfortunately a lot of ponies did not adjust well to a relaxed, easy going life, with reports of aggressive animals and some who tore through fences. They had no concept of herd behaviour and some never learned how to graze properly. Not suitable as kid's ponies, many unwary families who applied to give colliery horses a new home had to be turned down.

The ponies were incredibly intelligent animals who learned to steal miner's food, kick unsuspecting workers, stand on toes and how to avoid pulling too much weight. One pony named Mack was jet black and would hide in the darkness when the ponies were being moved, then slip out behind the drivers and head back to the stables! Another pony would work until 9am on the dot without complaint, whereupon he would kick up a fuss until given a piece of tobacco, then he would happily continue. Yet another pony would put maximum effort into hauling two loads, but upon being hitched to his third load he would lie down and refuse to move. His driver eventually learned to sit with him and wait until he was ready to move again, and off he'd go putting all his weight into the harness until he felt the need for another rest.

Many ponies ended up being donated to pit pony “retirement homes” where their unpredictable behaviour and quirks were tolerated and handled by experienced horse people. Some were donated to museums and kept on display as live exhibits of the dying era of pit pony work. The last recorded surviving pit pony passed away in Britain in 2009 at the age of 35, having lived 23 of those years at an open air museum.
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