Throughout history, equines have had to endure some grueling things in their service of man. Tasks like plowing our fields, hauling loads and even carrying soldiers in battle. Perhaps one of the most horrific of these was the work of a Pit Pony.
Did you know that children were once made to work in mines? That is until a tragic accident in northern England, where 26 children died. The deep shafts of the coal mine they were working in flooded. The event prompted the passing of the Mines Act of 1842, banning children younger than ten years of age from working in mines. While this was great news for the welfare of children, the mines suddenly needed to replace their little workers. So more and more ‘pit ponies’ were used. Pit ponies were used from the 18th until the mid 20th century to work underground.
These ponies had to endure hours and hours of relentless work in unforgiving conditions. Hauling heavy carts in the dark depths of coal and anthracite mines, inhaling toxic soot. Their small size meant that they could fit in the narrow mine shafts and small tunnels. In some mines, these ponies lived on the surface near the entrance of the mine, while in others they were stabled underground. While some mines had sloped tunnels, there were others where ponies had to be lowered down into the mine shafts. Can you imagine putting a horse down a mine shaft?
It’s estimated that in 1913 there were more than 70,000 pit ponies in use in Britain’s mines. Can you imagine that . . . thousands and thousands of little horses living and working underground? Some smaller mines in the United States and Europe still used pit ponies till the 1950’s. Thankfully, technology has made the need for ‘pit ponies’ obsolete.
Interestingly, the diminutive breed of American Miniature Horses, standing 34 inches or less, are descended from the bloodlines of some of these pit ponies.
In the late nineties, the CBC released ‘Pit Pony,’ a fascinating television series, based on the best-selling novel by the same title. It tells the story of coal mine workers in the early 1900’s in Nova Scotia. In particular, the plot examines the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and the pit pony he works with.