Pit ponies, otherwise known as mining horses, were used from the 18th until the mid-20th century to work coal mines. Their small size meant that they could fit in the narrow mine shafts and small tunnels. They had to endure hours and hours of relentless work in the hardest conditions of coal mines. Pit ponies were used to pull the heavy carts of coal, as their small yet sturdy stature enabled them to move through the cramped conditions in the mines.
Pit ponies had to endure hours and hours of relentless work in the hardest conditions of coal mines
According to historians, the first pit ponies were sent underground in 1750 at the Durham coalfield in northeast England. This wasn’t a widespread practice in the 18th century, when it was more common for children as young as eight to work in the pits. In 1838, 26 children were killed in a British mining accident, which led to a Royal Commission studying working conditions for children in the mines. Parliament then passed the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which prohibited boys under 10 years and all females from working in the mines. The use of horses in mines increased to replace women and younger children.
The average working life of pit ponies was only around 3+1⁄2 years, while 20-year working lives were common on the surface
While treatment of pit ponies varied from mine to mine, in general, they were adequately cared for since operators understood that their efficiency was directly related to their health. The pit ponies’ main duties were pulling heavy carts of coal, so they had to be strong and sure-footed to avoid stumbling on the underground paths. On average, they worked an eight-hour shift daily, hauling around 30 tons of coal to the underground railway. The average working life of pit ponies was only around 3+1⁄2 years, while 20-year working lives were common on the surface. Pit ponies lived in the mines but were taken out, when possible, during emergencies. During labor strikes, miners were allowed to cross picket lines to care for the horses and by the 1940s, horses were removed from mines during miners’ vacations.