The Welfare of Pit Ponies

The Welfare of Pit Ponies

We are frequently told that Brits are animal lovers. There is an abundant past behind this consoling national myth. The Times guaranteed those who read it as early as 1860 that:

‘Whatever may be our shortcomings as a nation … we have little to blame ourselves with as far as animals are concerned.’

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), formed in 1824, had widespread support, demonstrating how well-liked ‘dumb animals’ were among the Victorian public.

If the latest RSPCA surveys give any indication, not much has changed. Animal welfare is consistently rated higher than human rights, global poverty, and child welfare as a worthy cause by respondents. Furthermore, in the 2023 survey, an amazing 69 percent self-identified as “animal lovers,” with only 3% admitting that they did not enjoy animals.

The Welfare of Pit Ponies

However, underneath the headline data is a more nuanced picture. Even though nearly three-quarters of Britons believe hens are sentient, more than 60% see no compelling reason to abandon intensive agricultural methods. Similarly, while over half of the population feels that “humans should never use animals in ways that cause them harm for any reason,” just about 10% of the UK population is vegetarian or vegan. As the authors of the RSPCA’s 2023 study put it, there are frequently gaping gaps between ideas and actions when it comes to animals and their wellbeing.

Few animals have felt this more deeply than horses forced underground to labor in mines. These living haulage engines were important to the growth of the coal industry in the nineteenth century. They were responsible for transporting tramloads of coal from the coalfaces to the mine shafts. They were enormously powerful, very maneuverable, and had one significant benefit over most other kinds of motive power: they were unlikely to ignite the combustible gases that could accumulate in the pits.

Horses have been used underground since at least the mid-nineteenth century, although their numbers surged dramatically when the coal business boomed in the Victorian era. Precise data are not known until the early twentieth century, however, it was estimated that 9,000 horses were engaged in South Wales mines alone in 1875. When we come to the 1910s, we’re on safer ground: 71,526 horses were buried in Britain’s collieries in 1912.

The horses and ponies experienced a whole range of human emotions. Many of the human laborers they saw underground treated them with respect; some even lavished them with attention. Keir Hardie, the future Labour Party founder, was famously bonded to the horses he worked with as a young man in Lanarkshire pits. In the 1910s and 1920s, Jack Edwards, a miner in South Wales, was determined that the horses did not suffer. He brought apples and ‘small titbits from the garden for them’ regularly.

Despite their gestures of goodwill, the horses may be brutally treated by their human handlers. The abuses were appalling, and in the worst cases, colliery firms filed charges. When haulers are irritated with animals who refuse to work, they may resort to severe beatings. Horses had their eyes removed, their tongues pulled out, and they were thrashed with iron bars and pickaxes. Kickings with hefty hobnailed boots were standard practice. Workers even purposely murdered some horses. In such a hazardous environment, it was simple to dismiss an execution as an accident.

The public was enraged when similar examples were revealed. The pit horses were adored in mining communities; coalfield residents were overjoyed to see the animals frolicking in fields after being hauled to the surface during lengthy industrial battles. When special colliery horse displays began in the 1880s, great crowds went to witness the horses enjoying a few hours in the fresh air and daylight.

A welfare organization particularly set up to care after the interests of colliery horses arose from this vast reservoir of popular affection for them. However, it took a long time. Working horses on the surface could expect RSPCA inspectors and members of the public to intervene if they were mistreated beginning in the 1820s, but the Pit Ponies’ Protection Society was not founded until 1908. The animals at the colliery were in far greater danger. Mine officials rebuffed RSPCA requests to inspect horses underground because the pits were too dangerous for visitors. They also said that keeping horses underground kept them healthier; the warmer, stable temperatures meant they lived longer than their counterparts on the surface. So the argument went.

Francis A. Cox, for one, was skeptical. He gathered testimony from miners ready to act as whistleblowers in the 1900s. He documented their evidence in a series of stinging pamphlets. He provided cases of individual haulers viciously assaulting their horses, but he was also keen to stress the structural violence that shaped the experience of every working horse. He described roofs that were too low for horses to pass under without getting cut. He emphasized how long the animals were supposed to labor. He emphasized how hungry and thirsty they were permitted to become while they were not in the underground stables. And he disproved the myth that living and working underground resulted in a healthier equestrian experience. For such highly sensitive ‘flight’ creatures, the pits were horrifying.

Cox’s efforts yielded results. He gave the pit ponies an organizational emphasis by establishing the Protection Society. And, owing to him, the 1911 Coal Mines Act included a slew of laws aimed at improving the working conditions for the horses. An inspectorate was established to ensure that the regulations were obeyed.

Nonetheless, as it is today, there is a significant gap between society’s views about animal care and its behaviors. Pit horses were revered in mining villages and throughout the country. Genuine and broad concern was expressed for their well-being. However, economic reasons ultimately affected the animals’ experiences far more profoundly than concerns about their welfare. Until the 1990s, horses were denied sunlight, fresh air, and settings in which they might enjoy ‘normal’ lives. Human interests, especially those classified as animal lovers, always surpassed the horses’ interests. The horses were finally retired when the last mine closed.

Robbie and Gremlin, Britain’s last two colliery horses, did their final shift in 1999. They were transferred from South Wales to an RSPCA care facility near Milton Keynes. Thus, two and a half centuries of underground equestrian labor came to an end. The same year, Welsh artist Mike Petts displayed his earthwork sculpture of a pit horse at Caerphilly on the site of a former colliery. The carefree ‘Sultan,’ measuring approximately 200 meters from nose to tail, gallops freely in the daylight. The ‘Pit Pony’s Friend,’ Francis A. Cox, would have approved.