Pit Ponies

Only one of these statements is true: Sable Island horses worked in Cape Breton coal mines. Pit ponies went blind in the darkness underground. Find out which one is true below.

Horses (aka pit ponies) used to be used at mines and quarries, both at surface and underground, to drive machines and haul loads, as they were in forestry, farming, manufacturing, transportation and many other sectors. The use of horses used to be so widespread that the term “horsepower” is still used as a unit of measurement for engines today. Scottish inventor James Watt coined the term to explain the power of steam engines after studying ponies and calculating how much power they produced in a minute.

Horses had been used in British mines since the 1700s, but prior to 1842, women and children were also widely used to either push tubs of coal or to haul them, often while wearing a harness similar to what a horse would wear. The women and children were smaller than the male miners, and better-able to squeeze through tight spaces to haul coal to shaft bottoms or other central locations in mines. Tunnels were not much bigger than the coal seams being mined, so only smaller people and animals could do it.

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 the women and younger children.

The General Mining Association (GMA) was an English company that had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals rights from 1827-57. When it arrived in Pictou, it brought British miners, engineers, capital and mining practices, including the use of horses in mines. The GMA initially had horses pull skips, sled-like vehicles that were pulled over wooden roads made up of logs laid horizontally along the tunnels, according to a 1996 report by the National Museum of Science and Technology called “Coal Mining in Canada: A Historical and Comparative Overview.” The skip was gradually replaced with a wooden coal tub or box bolted to an iron frame that was fitted with a wheeled undercarriage designed to run over underground rails.

By 1867, there were 418 horses in Nova Scotia’s coal mines and by 1871 the GMA had several miles of light underground railway in place in its Cape Breton and Pictou County mines. (See the GMA’s story at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/general-mining-association).

While they were worked hard, pit ponies were generally well-cared for, at least partly because their role was so important. They were fed well and sometimes received medical attention from a veterinarian. Horses often wore leather head gear to protect them from scraping their heads on a mine’s low ceilings. They usually had one person, often an adolescent boy, as their driver, which gave the horses the comfort of familiarity.

According to Pictou County historian James M. Cameron, “The horses adjusted quickly to their new habitat underground. Tales of men whose lights had gone out seizing a horse's tail or harness and being guided to the underground stable were commonplace. The animals seemed to be possessed of instinct which permitted them to feel their way through the dark and know the location of bad footing and low roof timbers.”

Horses lived in the mines but were taken out, when possible, during emergencies. During labour 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. One of the photos below shows pit ponies at surface during the miners' vacation at No. 20 colliery in 1952. Horses often had to have their eyes covered before they were brought to the surface, since seeing the sunlight after so much darkness could send them into a frenzy.

Several British laws regulated how pit ponies were cared for. In 1887, the Coal Mines Regulation Act required mine roadways to be wide enough for the ponies to walk through without rubbing along the sides of the wall. In 1911, the Pit Ponies Charter was written to ensure that ponies did not go underground until they were at least four years old, and that they had to be examined by a veterinarian before commencing work. The horses also had to have housing that was an adequate size and clean straw and bedding provided by a competent horse keeper. There had to be one horse keeper per 15 horses.

After British coal mines were nationalized in 1947, a 48-hour work week for horses was put in place, with these hours being split into shifts of 7.5 hours. Each horse having its own driver became mandatory so a horse could build a relationship of trust with its handler.

Nova Scotian mining companies, so heavily influenced by English mining practices, seem to have generally followed Britain’s example in caring for pit ponies.

The use of pit ponies gradually decreased starting in the late 1800s as mechanical haulage was introduced to mines. Rope and cable haulage - ropes and chains pulling tubs, driven by horse gins and later, by steam engines and electricity – was more efficient and ultimately less expensive than horse haulage since it eliminated the cost of the horses and the jobs of the horse drivers.

This was particularly true as mines got larger and underground roadways lengthened. As “Coal Mining in Canada” put it, “Horses were exhausted travelling long distances and expenses associated with maintenance of roads climbed. Roads had to be kept well drained of pit water, which could be particularly corrosive in Cape Breton's submarine mines where it was quite acidic and salty. Sitting water could interfere with the movement of coal tubs underground and aggravated cuts on the horses' hooves. Roof-brushing, i.e. raising the level of the roof to permit freer passage of horses, was expensive in lengthy underground travel-ways, as was roof-buttressing, the placing of wooden props at regular intervals. As well, rails had to be well ballasted to prevent the tubs from tipping over and injuring the horse and driver.”

The first system of mechanized rope haulage in Nova Scotia was introduced in the early 1880s at the GMA's Princess colliery at Sydney Mines, where longer levels (tunnels) could extend for over a mile. According to “Coal Mining in Canada,” at all other provincial mines, coal continued to be hauled by horses until the end of the 1880s. By the early 1890s, however, rope haulage had become more common in larger mines.

The switch to mechanical haulage was sometimes hampered by the fact that the mines had been designed for hauling by people and horses. For example, laying the better tracks needed for mechanical haulage could be a problem. Despite mechanical haulage being more efficient, and three pits at Sydney Mines having completely stopped the use of horses by 1910, most Nova Scotia coal mines continued to use horses until the 1930s or 40s.

The use of horses in Cape Breton mines ended in the 1960s. The last working pit pony in North America was led out of Westville’s Drummond mine in 1978. In Britain, the last of the pit ponies worked until 1999 in mines that were too close to shutting down to justify investing in mechanical haulage.

Back to which of our two opening statements is true:

Before the Sable Island horses were protected in 1961 under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act, many were used in Cape Breton coal mines. Many of them were small and strong and well-suited to the work. According to the Sable Island Institute, they were only used in Cape Breton, and not in Pictou County coal mines, because larger coal seams in Pictou County allowed larger horses to be used.

It is often said that pit ponies went blind from living so much of their lives in the darkness of underground mines. This is a myth. A horse could injure his eyes in the mine or go blind from old age, but they did not generally go blind as a result of being in a mine. In fact, British law prohibited using blind horses in mines.

The life of a pit pony was obviously a tough one, as it was in many ways for the miners of past generations. The horses were often injured by low ceilings and narrow tunnels, or by hidden obstacles and slips on the difficult roadways. There were many cases of them being put down due to broken legs or killed by explosions and fires.

However, pit ponies made it possible for women and children to stop hauling coal in Britain and served a vital function in mines on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean until mechanical haulage replaced them. Like many historical mining practices, haulage by horse was important in its day but it is thankfully a thing of the past.

Haulage in mines and quarries today is, of course, fully mechanized with equipment such as haul trucks, rail and conveyor belts.

While child labour is shocking to us today, it was common in many industries in the 1800s and early 1900s. Learn more at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/child-labour