A pit pony was a type of pony commonly used underground in coal mines from the mid 18th up until the mid 20th century.
Ponies began to be used underground, often replacing child or female labour, as distances from pithead to coal face became greater. The first known recorded use in Britain was in the Durham coalfield in 1750. In later years, mechanical haulage was introduced on the main underground roads replacing the longer pony hauls ("driving") 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 at use with the National Coal Board in Britain, chiefly at the modern pit in Ellington, Northumberland. At the peak in 1913, there were 70,000 ponies underground in Britain.
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 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 before going underground; they could work until their twenties.
Pit 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. 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. Recollections differ on how well the ponies were cared for in earlier years, but it should be remembered that they represented a capital asset to the mine, and that the best work could be obtained from animals that were in good condition.
- The Stars Look Down
- Pit Pony - 1997 film
- In a digital story, an ex-mine worker from the North East of England describes the life and work of his pit pony.