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Friday, April 09, 2010

Coal Mines and Pit Ponies: Farriers made sparkless horseshoes for safety underground

This horse is headed down the shaft of a coal mine in France, date unknown. (Wikimedia image)
If you are anything like me, you've been riveted to the news this week, and your emotions have run the gamut as hopes have risen and fallen so many times in the race to reach the miners trapped in the West Virginia coal mine.

This video shows you some of the last employed pit ponies in Britain; the voice is poet John Stafford, who eulogizes a pony named Dot. Dot was one of the last pit ponies to work at Annesley Colliery in Nottinghamshire, England.

Thinking about coal mines made me remember about the use of ponies, horses and mules deep below the ground in mines in North America, Australia and Europe. Perhaps they were used in other parts of the world, as well.

Horses and ponies weren't used much, if at all, in mines in the British Isles until 1842, when an Act of Parliament outlawed women and children under the age of ten from working in coal mines. Up until then, it had been women and children who lugged or dragged the coal out of the mines.

"Pit ponies" are most famous for being used in the British mines, where as many as 70,000 were underground at the height of horse-powered coal mine production in 1913. Larger horses were popular for underground work in Germany and mules were preferred in the United States

The pit ponies wore leather shields over their faces, like a solid bridle shield. Bare wires could cause sparks if a pony bumped into one. One statistic said that the ponies were not blind, as most people thought they would be from living in the dark, but a large percentage had lost at least one eye from accidents. In photos, you will notice that the pit ponies had their tails shaved, and probably their manes as well.

Heavy horse tandem hitch delivers feed to pit ponies during miner striker in England
 These tandem-hitched heavy horses aren't pit ponies, but they are pulling a load of feed for the ponies stranded during a coal strike in England. Do you think they made it through that mud? Double-click to view full size. (Libray of Congress image)
Pit ponies in Britain were one of the first really big public animal welfare campaigns. The RSPCA was concerned about the ponies, and campaigned so that ponies couldn't work more than 48 hours a week. But most of the companies took very good care of them. Many people said they took better care of the ponies than they did the miners. Good pit ponies were valuable and important to the success of the operation. But the public campaigned until finally the last pony kept underground was brought up to the surface in the 1980s.

Hooded mules and miners pose in Library of Congress 1908 image.
A1908 image from the Library of Congress shows us mules in a Pennsylvania coal mine. They wore ear hoods to prevent them from being shocked by low-hanging wires. No doubt, they learned to walk with their heads low. This was before there were any child labor laws in the United States. Notice that three of these young miners have whips around their necks.

In the United States, mules were preferred in the mines, and some quite big draft mules went down the shafts and stayed there, sometimes for a year at a time. Mules were especially popular in Pennsylvania. Before US child labor laws were passed, most of the miners are boys who could get into smaller spaces.

coal mine farriers shoe a pit pony at colliery in Wales
This horse was being shod by two young colliery farriers in Wales. Notice the horse is wearing a hood. His tail isn't shaved as is often seen in old photos, but his mane is roached.

The collieries in Great Britain employed farriers. They repaired equipment, made chains and spent a lot of time sharpening the pick axes of the miners. One reports states that each miner took pride in his ax and would take it to the forge to be sharpened in a particular way that suited his way of picking at the mine face. Farriers understood how to please each miner. The farriers also made shoes for the ponies.

When their work in the forge was done each day, the farriers went down the mine and shod the ponies as they finished a shift, or the ponies from another shift before they started. Ponies weren't allowed to work if they had a shoe off, so the farrier's visit was important. Every foot on every pony had to be lifted and looked at every day.

pit pony care in coal mine stable
Sign courtesy of Mining Culture Educational and Research Network

This was a long, long day for a farrier. There was no light in the underground stables except for miner's lamps. The farrier would take the vessel out of his lamp and put it on his tool box, like a candle. He would have been trimming and shoeing almost by touch.

brass studs in a pity pony's leather hoof boot at Keswick Museum
Yes, there were hoof boots long ago. This one is from a mine in the Lake District in Cumbria, England, near the Scottish border. The sole of the boot is studded with copper rivets. You can see it at the Keswick Mining Museum.

In coal mines and around explosives factories, horses were shod with brass shoes and special brass nails made by Capewell Horse Nails and perhaps other companies. Brass didn't cause sparks the way that steel did. Perhaps that is also why horse amulets, called "brasses" are always made of brass.

All the shoeing below ground was done cold, of course, in spite of all the available coal. Any spark could ignite a fire or, worse yet, an explosion, because of gasses and dust in the air.

You've probably heard about canaries being kept in mines, or even being sent in ahead of the men. A canary would die from the gas long before a man or a mule or a pony, and they served as a warning of the danger in the air.

Welsh miners lamps are a common sight around here. They're popular on wooden boats. They have a distinctive tall chimney and usually come with a hook at the top. Once British farrier Grant Moon, who is originally from Wales, brought one of the USA as a special award, and told us about how the mine's name and mark were engraved into the chimney. They are special.  (Photo links to

Many years ago I met a lovely gentleman from Yorkshire, England named Eric Plant, FWCF. He had worked as a farrier at a colliery and he was the first person who told me about pit ponies; I had no idea that as many as 70,000 ponies were working in Great Britain's mines in the early 1900s. Mr. Plant painstakingly photocopied all his booklets about pit ponies and the welfare movement to protect them and sent them to me. I always wanted to tape his stories, but I didn't have the privilege of seeing him again before he died. Most of the little facts about ponies and mining in this blog post came from my very precious file of Mr. Plant's memorabilia.

Coal has been mined for hundreds of years. The technology we've seen exhibited during this rescue in West Virginia is amazing. But one thing that hasn't changed about coal mining is the tragedy that seems to be linked to it. But sometimes there are miraculous rescues...and I hope this is one of those times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The last Pit Ponies in the UK (Robbie & Gremlin) came out of Pantygasseg colliery in South Wales in May 1999. If you are interested in Pit Ponies have a look at pitponyman on YouTube or go to If you think its time we made them history go to and sign our petitions asking for the Governmnet to make it illegal as many rumors abound about re-using them in some small private mines.