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.
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.