ORIGINALLY POSTED 3/11/11
Let’s Celebrate Pit Ponies! What a rotten job!
On this Labor Day…
How would you like to live your entire life underground?
Oh yeah, underground AND pulling a cart in a coal mine… Yeesh. Yet, that was the life of a Pit Pony.
(Thank you to the reader who forwarded the idea of the Pit Pony… she had read my blog about the Sable Island Ponies and let me know that this hearty breed was used as Pit Ponies.)
The pit pony replaced women and children in the coal mines. I guess that is a good thing…
Since mine shafts were small and had a low ceiling, it made sense to put smaller ponies into play here. At the height of Pit Pony usage in 1913, there were 70,000 working in the mines. As of 1984, there were 55 still in service. The last pony, Robbie, retired in 1999.
It is true that most of them were employed by the British and Australians, but they were employed in the US as well. Mr. Wikipedia says they weren’t, but I read several accounts of native pit ponies here in the US…
PIT PONY REQUIREMENTS
Well, of course they needed to be small yet hearty. Ceilings were low and the roads were rough and steep. Consequently, ponies had to be full bodied, large boned and short. A kind temperament was preferred and sure-footedness a must. So, Shetlands and the Sable Island Ponies were the popular breeds.
Ponies were mostly raised IN the mines so they didn’t rebel against the conditions (nice). However, they weren’t put to work until they were 4 years old. Most ponies were retired in their late teens.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
I guess it makes me feel slightly better that most of these ponies had never seen the sunlight so they didn’t know any better…
Here is an excerpt:
“Stable conditions were very important and much was done to tend to the comfort of these animals and lengthen their term of usefulness. In the stable, the height of the roof was to be seven feet when a five-foot horse was in use. It should be able to raise its head and relax its muscles because it had to work all day carrying its head low. Ventilation was to be arranged so that the direct current would not strike the horses. As little wood as possible was used in the construction of the stables to lessen the chance of fire. All stables were well drained with pipes and well whites washed for sanitary purposes.??The stableman usually shod the horses with shoes made on the surface. Sometimes, a ferrier went into the mine when a higher degree of shoeing skill was required. He would take the measurements underground and make the shoes on the surface.It was desirable that the horse have only one driver who would take more pride in the animal and so that they might both understand one another. It is true that a horse’s disposition was spoiled when drivers were changed.??The roadways were to be kept in the best possible condition to prevent accidents. The roof was also to be carefully brushed to rid it of protruding booms and rocks that might cause head injury to the horse.The horses were taken below ground in a cage or were walked into the slope mines on the footpath. Their daily working shift was normally the same as a man’s and drivers did not like their ponies to be double-shifted. When the animal got older, their work period was usually reduced to four hours. They generally stayed below ground for approximately five years, unless killed or maimed, and then they were either moved or replaced.”
THE KINDER SIDE
I also read where they used only one worker per horse. In this way, they created a bond and a friendship.
The mine owners knew that with no horse, there was no profit. So, it was mandated that the horses were well cared for. Of course, the conditions varied between mines, but the general consensus was to feed them quality food, have fresh water available at every station throughout the day and to only have one handler who was responsible for feeding, grooming, bathing and caring for his particular pony.
It was often documented that ponies were quite upset when their handler was removed. So, they tried not to do that.
Retirement was OK for the Pit Pony but stressful and usually short. You see, they lived underground for so long under unnatural conditions that life on the outside was too foreign and confusing. They didn’t know herd behavior and they didn’t understand paddocks.
If these ponies did assimilate, most of them died from the respiratory conditions that killed many miners.
But, the good news is that there were several Pit Pony retirement facilities created after an uproar when the Britains realized that the Pit Ponies were sold to slaughter once done with work. There was a massive campaign to aid these ponies in their mining afterlife.
Sadly, many of the ponies were terribly maladjusted and needed extreme care to rehabilitate them. But, it did happen and people did care.
In fact, in Australia, there is a bronze statue in front of a closed mine which celebrates the Pit Pony.
THE LAST PIT PONY
No one is sure if Pip was the very last surviving Pit Pony but they think he was and they honored him as such.
Pip passed in 2009. He was 35 years old. He met Princess Diana.
Here is an excerpt:
“He worked at Blackburn Drift, Marley Hill Colliery, near Sunniside, Gateshead, working the narrow seams 150 feet underground until it closed 30 years ago, when he was aged five.
He then moved to Sacriston Colliery, near Durham. He worked there until it ceased production in 1985. Pip was kept on for another year to help with salvage work before being given to Beamish.
Pip lived for the past 23 years at Beamish Open Air Museum, near Stanley, where he passed and was deeply mourned.
He had a long and happy retirement at Beamish and he trained his successor, Flash, to wear his harness to show visitors the type he wore down the mine. To celebrate his 30th birthday, the museum produced a family activity booklet, called Pip the Pit Pony Explores, where a charismatic caricature of Pip takes families on a light-hearted tour of the award-winning Town Street.”
A NICE THING…
A nice thing I read was a report about a book, CARING FOR THE LAST OF BRITAIN’S PIT PONIES, published in 1969. Here is a direct excerpt and it is heartwarming to read.
By John Weaver – February 1969
When Mrs. Margaret Bell tries to get on with the housework it’s Fred who gets in the way. He just marches into the house and generally monopolises the kitchen – which is surely his right as the retired member of the family.
Fred is on of the 1,500 remaining pit ponies whose twilight world down the mines is coming to an end. Within the next 18 months, the Coal Board plan to have found them all homes. Or if they are too old and ill, they will be destroyed.
For Fred, now 26, with 22 working years behind him, it’s time to rest at the Bell’s home at Witton-Gilbert, Durham. He’s not been “put out to grass” because left alone under those circumstances he would probably fret or fight. Instead, Coal Board officials and the R.S.P.C.A. have thoroughly inspected his new home; his sleeping quarters and the family’s ability to feed him through the year.
The Bell’s wanted Fred for a pet 14 months ago. But, like thousands of others in England, they had to wait four months. They could not choose him. It was a question of whether the Bells were fir enough to give Fred a good home.
Pit ponies probably get a better life than their relatives above ground. Their stables are spotless; their handlers dote on them and take down sweets and sandwiches for tit-bits. To quote the R.S.P.C.A. chief veterinary officer Colonel Ian Tennant: “They have to be kept at a reasonable temperature, the same was wine is kept in a cellar.
“The N.C.B. (National Coal Board) go to great lengths to help us find them new homes. We inspect the accommodation, the land, and the owners. So often, we get requests from children who just don’t have the facilities or the knowledge for looking after them. At one time, they were turned out to grass because people thought it was a good thing to do. But they just charged about, broke fences, and kicked. And the vandals would tease and frighten them.
“They are just not used to life above ground and they need careful handling.”
Fifty years ago, there were 73,00 ponies working Britain’s mines. “The best miners in the world”, was the tribute of one who looked after them for 30 years. Pony and handler have always been very close.
In Yorkshire pits they play “snap” with their owners by sneaking pieces of sugar from pockets, trotting forward to sample the sandwiches and fruit that should have been the miners’ lunch.
The tale goes underground that once the late Sir Harry Lauder, when he was a miner, called his pony Catherine. But Catherine refused to budge. Minutes later there was a pit-fall just in front of Catherine, and they say she saved Harry’s life.
The table has been turned. Six years ago a 19-year-old miner died trying to save his pony when it galloped into mine workings in thick gas in Derbyshire. Such is the bond between man and beast.
Now the end is near, Mr. Gordon Bagier, M.P. for South Sunderland has sought – and got – from the Coal Board chief Lord Robens, an assurance that these stalwarts of the black industrial revolution will not be exported for slaughter.
And next month, on May 9, is the third reading of Sir Robert Cary’s bill calling for greater assurances of the ponies’ welfare.
The fear is they will be exported for slaughter. But so stringent are the Coal Board and the R.S.P.C.A. about new homes for the ponies that even Lord Robens himself was turned down when he asked if he could keep one.
The R.S.P.C.A. decided his home at Walton-on-the-Hill did not have suitable stabling. The Board get at least 20 letters a day with offers of new homes. R.S.P.C.A. deal with four or five requests a day. But always the two bodies point out that is costs at least £5.00 a week to feed and stable them.
They have led sheltered lives down the mines. A Board spokesman said: “They are probably more spoilt than other animals. They must be hand fed; they lose the ability to crop grass like other ponies.”
Certainly many will have to be “put down”. This will depend on veterinary advice, and it will be humane methods.
Both bodies insist the ponies must not be ridden. They are not cheap pets, as so many parents think.
Fred, the Bells’ pet, breaks the rules, now and then. He is lead round their three-acre field with their five-year-old son Wealand at the reins. Technically, it is not allowed.
But, says Mrs. Bell; “it’s only for five minutes. And they both love it.”
To a nation whose conscience suffers more, than most over the fate of its four-legged friends, the hope is that the Freds of the twilight world will retire just as gracefully.
If you want (I did), you can go to Netflix and order the movies about Pit Ponies. There are 2!
Here is the first description:
Pit Pony(1997) NR
After his older brother John (Andrew Keilty) has a terrible accident, 10-year-old Willie (Ben Rose-Davis) quits school to work in the local coal mine. As the difficult job takes a toll on him, Willie forms a strong bond with a wild horse trained to work in the coal pits. Set on the island of Nova Scotia, this heartwarming drama also stars Richard Donat, Jennie Raymond, Denny Doherty and a young Ellen Page.
Here is the description of the 2nd one:
Pit Pony(1999) NR
A young boy toils in the coal mines of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and finds the brighter side of life in this heartwarming family drama. Set at the turn of the century, the story centers on Willie MacLean (Alex Wrathell), who works alongside a pony in the mines. Willie endures the harsh conditions of the mining town, tries to improve the working conditions for the pit ponies and experiences many an adventure with his friends.