The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1887 contained the first national
legislation to protect horses working underground. The section
referring to the horses was minimal but it allowed mines inspectors to
investigate the treatment of horses and consider whether haulageway
roofs were high enough to prevent injury to the horses’ backs.
Unfortunately injuries to pit ponies were common, and frequently they
had to be put down because of broken legs and their feet getting stuck
or damaged in the points in the tub rails.
The above legislation was not enough and protest groups such as the
National Equine Defence League and the Scottish Society to Promote
Kindness to Pit Ponies put a lot of pressure on the government
resulting in a Royal Commission Report in 1911.
This report resulted in major protective legislation. The Pit Ponies’
Charter brought in mandatory rules about:-
• The condition of stablesDaily records had to be kept A competent
horse-keeper was required for every 15 horses.
• Ponies had to be at least four years’ old before they could start
Many people, mistakenly believed that pit ponies eventually went blind
underground but in fact the use of blind ponies was expressly
forbidden by law. Unfortunately some ponies did go blind but it was
from old age or they injured their eyes at work before the
introduction of effective leather headgear with eye. Later, in 1949
and 1956, further legislation was brought in to regulate working
conditions for pit ponies and rules governing their welfare.Now, by
law, ponies could only work a maximum of forty-eight hour a week,
except in exceptional circumstances. This meant that a pony employed
to carry supplies or on repair work frequently worked no more than
three or four hours in a shift. A pony was not allowed to work for
more than two shifts in 24 hours or more then three shifts in 48
hours.A shift was limited to 7.1/2 hours or less. Each pony had its
own driver who was responsible for it and might work with the same
pony throughout its working life. Every pony leaving the stables had
to be recorded in a Mines and Quarries Act record book. The Chief
Horse-keeper had to sign the book each day before sending it to the
surface to be initialled by the Colliery Undermanager and Manager.
Although life in the coal mines has never been easy for either men or
ponies, few working horses have been given better care and respect
than the pit pony. The miners also respected the sixth sense that the
ponies seemed to have for danger. Many miners were saved from death or
injury because their ponies suddenly stopped and refused to go on,
then suddenly the roof collapsed in front of them.The task to be done
governed the breed and size of the ponies used.
• Ponies up to 1.7 meters high or 16 hands were used close to the
shafts, where many tubs had to be kept moving and the roofs of the
haulageways were higher. Ponies up to 1.4 meters high or 13 hands were
employed in the main haulageways with their higher roofs.
• Ponies around 1.2 m meters high or 11 hands tended to be used near
the coal faces.
Some stallions were used but geldings were preferred, while mares were
very unusual underground.Both Shetland and Welsh ponies were common,
as were Dale horses but breeds varied considerably through out the
coal fields. During times of high production and pony shortages very
high prices could be paid for good animals meaning that ponies could
be imported from as far away as the USA, Iceland and Russia.The
selection of each pit pony was carefully considered before it was
accepted for work in the mines. For preference the pony had to be
between 4 and 5 years old, certainly no more than 14 years old. He 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, more
lively horses were a danger to the drivers and could cause injuries to
others and possibly fatal accidents underground. Nervous, timid or shy
horses took too much time and expense to break in.Before a pony
started working underground, he went through several weeks training.
This time also gave the trainers time to observe the ponies and remove
the unsuitable ones before going underground. Once underground, ponies
pulled empty tubs or carried materials such as pit props into the
workings then brought back tubs full of coal to the shaft.The ponies
were expensive and in the interests of the pits continued,
uninterrupted work they needed to be kept strong and healthy. Their
stable conditions were very important and much was done to keep the
ponies as comfortable as possible which in turn also lengthened their
useful working lives. The ponies had to be able to raise their heads
in the stables, the height of the roof was to be seven feet when a
five foot horse was in use and the horse should be able to relax its
muscles because it had to work all day carrying its head low. Fire
prevention meant that as little wood as possible was used in the
stable.In 1913 records show that in the UK 70,000 horses were working
underground. It was the peak of employment for horses underground.
After that, as mechanical coal cutting and haulage systems became more
efficient the use of pit ponies declined.Horse transport could not
keep pace with the increasing production of the new coal cutting
machines and they began to be replaced by locomotives then conveyors.
By the end of the 1930s underground pony numbers had declined to
around 32,000. When the coal industry was nationalised in 1947 there
were only 21,000 pit ponies and numbers continued to decline so that
in 1952 there were only around 15,500
working in major mines in the UK in 1984 and by 1962 there were only
6,400. The numbers continued to drop to token numbers, by 1973 there
were only 490 and in 1984 there were a mere 55 ponies still working.
The Pit Ponies Charter
(Third Schedule Coal Mines Act 1911 amended in 1949)
1. No horse shall go underground until it is four years old and free
from glanders, a highly infections disease which affects the horses
lungs and causes severe breathing difficulties.
2. Every horse shall be examined once in every 12 months by a
3. Any horse certified as permanently unfit for work or work in the
mine shall as soon as practicable be brought to the surface.
4. Any horse unfit for work shall be destroyed immediately unless
disposed of to a home of rest or to a responsible person, other than a
5. Each horse shall be housed in a stall adequate inn size, and
supplied with clean straw or other suitable bedding.
6. All stables shall be cleaned daily and kept in a sanitary
condition; all roofs, walls and partitions not painted or made of
slate, tiles, glazed brick or iron shall be lime-washed once at least
in every three months.
7. Stables shall be;
Separated from the main roads;
Ventilated with intake air;
Fitted with a loose box to every 25 horses;
Fitted with one or more drinking troughs;
Floored with paving or concrete.
8. Every loose box and stall shall be suitable drained.
9. There shall be only one horse to a stall.
10. Each stall shall have a manger.
11. There shall be at least one horse keeper to very fifteen horses in
12. A sufficient supply of food and water shall be provided in the
stables and at work, as far as possible dust free.
13. Sufficient medicines and dressings, and suitable appliances
for the destruction of horses, shall be readily available.
14. No horse shall be worked in an unfit condition or unless properly
shod and harnessed.
15. No horse shall work during any period;
a) of 24 hours for more than 2 shifts
b) of 48 hours for more than 3 shifts
c) of 7 days for more than 7 shifts or for more than 28 hours
in the aggregate except by reason of unforeseen
circumstances for the purpose of:
1) saving life;
2) remedying the effect of an accident; or
3) preventing serious interference with the working of the
16. The driver shall feed and water the horse if out of its stable for
more than 4 hours and return it at the end of the shift. If
unattended, it must be properly secured.
17. No blind horse shall be worked in a mine.
18. Every underground roadway on which a horse is used shall be of
sufficient size to allow the animal to pass without rubbing the roof
19. The driver shall report any injury or overworking of the horse, any
insufficiency of food or water, any case in which horse or
harness rub against the roof or side of the mine or in which the
harness or shoeing is defective or any other matter affecting the
care of the horse.
20. The horse keeper shall examine each horse after work and clean
and groom it.
21. Every official under whom the driver works and every
horse keeper shall report to the manager or under-manager any
sickness, injury, marks of ill-treatment, overworking or any defect
of the harness.
22. Every horse keeper shall make a daily to report on each horse
under his care in a book open to inspection.
23. Ether the manager or the deputy for the purpose shall exercise
such personal supervision top ensure that the provisions of the
act are carried out.
24. A detailed return shall be made annually concerning the horses
in each pit.