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Pit ponies in West Virginia

Underground stables
Underground stables
Illustration from book: Stable in a mine (This work is in the public domain in the US because it was published before January 1, 1923)

Horses were used in the coal mines for many years. Because of their size, the most common breeds used were Shetland ponies from Scotland. Other breeds, like Welsh ponies or even bigger breeds were also used. In West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky the tunnels were only 36 inches high though, so the ponies had to be smaller than 34 inches.

There is a difference between a pony and a miniature horse. A Shetland pony (the smallest pony breed) is small (especially the mini Shetland) but more square. The miniature horse (like the Falabella) is actually a really small horse, slender and refined. The Shetland ponies were more suited for work in the mines because they are stronger build.

Horses, ponies, mules and donkeys were used in England and Northern Europe as far back as the 1700's to pull carts in the coal mines. Walter Smith McCoy imported and bred small pit ponies in West Virginia in the early 1900’s to sell to the mining companies. Moorman Field of Bedford, Virginia also raised pit ponies, He and Smith McCoy became close friends because of their pony business.

Mostly geldings were used underground, sometimes stallions, mares were unusual in the mines. Pit ponies normally were stabled underground (like you can see in the picture) and they did not see daylight very often, if ever. In Britain a lot of pit ponies were bred underground, and stayed there practically all their lives, whether this was humane or not is being disputed.

The selection of each pit pony was carefully considered before it was accepted for work in the mines. The pony preferably had to be between 4 and 5 years old, certainly not older than 14 years. They had to be sure-footed, strong, low set and heavy limbed to cope with the heavy, relentless work, and he needed a low head to cope with low roofs and steep roadways. The temperament of the pony was very important, a good pit pony had to be even-tempered and kind, high temperate ponies were a danger and could cause injuries and possibly fatal accidents underground. Before a pony started working underground, he went through several weeks training. Once underground, ponies pulled empty carts or carried materials such as pit props into the mines, then brought back carts full of coal to the shaft. The ponies were expensive and to maintain the work uninterrupted the ponies needed to be kept healthy and working. They were well cared for and their stable conditions needed to be perfect which in turn lengthened their working lives.

Ponies continued to be used in the mines of the southern states as recently as 1950. In the UK they still had 55 ponies working in the mines by 1984.

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  • joan 5 years ago

    sounds like a tough life, glad they're no longer used!

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    How much would a cart full of coal weigh? I'm curious as to how much weight the pit ponies pulled.

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