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Ponies began to be used underground, often replacing child or female labour, as distances from pit head to coal face became greater. The first known recorded use in Britain was in the Durham coalfield in 1750. The use of ponies was never common in the United States, though ponies were used in Appalachian coal fields in the mid-20th century. The last pony mine in the United States closed in 1971.
At the peak of this practice in 1913, there were 70,000 ponies underground in Britain. In later years, mechanical haulage was quickly introduced on the main underground roads replacing the pony hauls, and ponies tended to be confined to the shorter runs from coal face to main road (known in North East England as "putting") which were more difficult to mechanise. As of 1984, 55 ponies were still in use with the National Coal Board in Britain, chiefly at the modern pit in Ellington, Northumberland. When Ellington closed for the first time in 1994, four pit ponies were brought out (no ponies were used there during the RJB era). Of the four, two went to the National Coal Mining Museum for England at Caphouse. The last surviving pony was Tony who died in 2011 aged 40. Probably the last colliery horse to work underground in a British coal mine, "Robbie", was retired from Pant y Gasseg, near Pontypool, in May 1999.
Breed and conformation
Larger horses, such as varieties of Cleveland Bay, could be used on higher underground roadways, but on many duties small ponies no more than 12 hands high were needed. Shetlands were a breed commonly used because of their small size. In the interwar period, ponies were imported into Britain from the Faroe Islands, Iceland and the United States. Geldings and stallions only were used. Donkeys were also used in the late 19th century. The ponies were low set, heavy bodied and heavy limbed with plenty of bone and substance, low-headed and sure-footed. Under the British Coal Mines Act of 1911, ponies had to be four years old and work ready (shod and vet checked) before going underground. They could work until their twenties.
In shaft mines, ponies were normally stabled underground and fed on a diet with a high proportion of chopped hay and maize, coming to the surface only during the colliery's annual holiday. In slope and drift mines, the stables were usually on the surface near the mine entrance.
Typically, they would work an eight-hour shift each day, during which they might haul 30 tons of coal in tubs on the underground narrow gauge railway. One 1911 writer estimated that the average working life of coal mining mules was only 3 1/2 years, where 20-year working lives were common on the surface. Recollections differ on how well the ponies were cared for in earlier years, but they represented a capital asset to the mine, and that the best work could be obtained from animals that were in good condition.
- Benedict, Les (director); Knudtson, Steve (producer) (1972). The Last Pony Mine (motion picture). Iowa State University Library, Special Collections. Available on Youtube in 3 parts part 1, part 2, part 3.
- "Last Northumberland pit pony passes away" published in the Evening Chronicle 21 July 2011, retrieved 26 February 2014 from http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/last-northumberland-pit-pony-passes-1401845 .
- Thompson, Ceri (2008). Harnessed: Colliery Horses in Wales. Cardiff: National Museum Wales. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7200-0591-2.
- Coal Mines Act (Schedule Three), Act No. 50 of 1911.
- "The Care of Mine Mules". Mines and Minerals (Colliery Engineer Company) XXXI (11): 650. June 1911.
- International Correspondence Schools (1900). "Surface arrangements at a mine opened at a point below the tipple level". A Treatise on Coal Mining. The Colliery Engineer Co. pp. 33–35.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pit ponies.|
- Pit Pony (1997) at the Internet Movie Database
- In a digital story, an ex-mine worker from North East England describes the life and work of his pit pony
- Fforest Uchaf Horse & Pony Centre, website of the Pit Pony Sanctuary, a small UK charity (no 1002933) that cares for several former pit ponies gathered from the small private coal mines in Wales during the 1990s