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Coalhurst Mine Ponies

Taken from "Our Treasured Heritage-
A History of Coalhurst and District
Pages 167 - 169
by Charlie Watmough

Those Memorable Mine Ponies

Mine ponies were the same as any other ponies while they were colts growing up. They were all shapes and colors but all in small sizes. It was after they had proved their worth for a few years that they moved into a class of their own, many of them didn't get that far. It was a tricky job buying these horses and a lot trickier making mine horses of them later.

If the coal mine in question had lots of head room like the Shaughnessy mine, then horses could be picked up from farms, because there were lots of good medium sized horses available. They had proved themselves on the field and they had already had a few years in the harness. All they had to learn was to do everything on command, not with a pair of reins. Another thing that made it bad was that many farmers had worked in the mines at some time and felt sorry for the horses there and he wouldn't sell the mine company a good horse, but they would sell one that they couldn't do anything with themselves, and ask a good price for it too.

It was those little one's like Welsh and Shetland ponies that gave the real problems and yet some of them turned out to be real loveable characters, each in a different way. No matter how good or how bad a horse was, the driver made a lot of difference too. When I look back on it now, I think the horses taught the drivers to some extent and some of them taught drivers to seek employment elsewhere. However, some of the drivers learned easily and after a while they got along just fine. I think this was the case when I first started driving in about 1936, because that little white mare knew all there was to know about pulling cars and keeping herself out of the way.

If we were to speak of a mine pony among a group of men in Coalhurst fifty years ago a vision of the animal would flash into the minds of ninety per cent of the people. Today it would only register on a few old men who remembered them.

Mine horses didn't wear bridles with blinkers to keep them from seeing behind. They had to see behind for their own protection. They wore helmets with ear holes and straps to hold up the bit. The rein, if any, was usually a piece of light rope running alongside the horse, through loops on the harness, just around the rump and forward on the other side. The hames were only to the top of the collar and the traces were chains all the way to the butt stick. The harness had no back band or belly band, but a pair of breaching straps ran from the hames back to a leather pad on the horse's rump. Two small straps ran down each side from this pad to carry the trace chains and the butt stick, a short, stout wooden cross piece carried a few inches above the hocks and below the tail bone so as not to be in the way.

A stronger chain, but light as possible ran back about five feet to the clevis. The clevis had a ring on the top of the pin large enough for the driver to grab with two or three fingers and the pin had a slight flair on the bottom to keep it from coming completely out of the clevis. This was quite necessary as their driver had to be able to unhook the horse on the run and turn it into a slant and let the cars roll on by. The driver simply swung the tail chain gently over the horse's back and let the clevis dangle on one side. If the chain was left to drag it may get caught under a car wheel and drag the horse backwards. The butt stick and tail chain remained as part of the harness even when it was hung up for the night.

We are all somewhat aware of the methods of driving horses on the farm, but mine horses had to learn a lot more. The farm horse could learn his giddup, whoa and back-up by working with others, but the pony in the dark had to learn it all by himself. He also had to know "gee," (turn right), 'haw" (turn left), "haw, come here," (turn around completely and come back) and many other little signals. Some horses learned it all quite easily, especially if it had a good trainer and the horse gained confidence in him.

Albert Deitrich got a raw young horse, only halter broke, and in about one week he was hauling coal with it. He just talked gently to it always and his brother Frank, kidded him about whispering secrets into the horse's ear. It wasn't too long before he had the horse opening doors by ducking its head and pushing the door with the helment.

One thing most of them learned quickly was how to start off with several cars. Any experienced driver would hook his trip together and make sure all the cars were bumper to bumper, "Bumped-up," as we called it. This meant there was almost two feet of stock chain between each car and the next. Then he would hook the tail chain to the first car, point his spot light straight ahead to show the horse all the light he could and say "giddap" quite sharply.

The horse knew by the way he spoke that he meant "hit it." The horse would find good footing between the rails and lunge forward so the the first car had enough speed to start the second and then the weight of the two would start the third and so on. It helped a lot if the horse would slow down if you said "easy now" or something soft, but most of them never did. I drove a few horses that needed no slowing down, they were slow enough.

I don't remember all the horses I knew but a few had some memorable characteristics. Susie, the first one I drove would move the first car ahead about a foot so that I could couple the next, all I had to say was " giddap a step." She was so gentle that at quitting time in warm weather she would walk onto the cage and come out for the night and go back down with us in the morning. The laziest was Billy, fairly large for a Welsh pony. If I wanted to stay behind a couple of cars so that I could hook another one on further along, he wouldn't tighten the chain at all, I'd have to climb past the cars and get right behind him where I could encourage him with a sprag.

Timmy was ornery, small, mean and useless. He didn't stick around long. He got another job feeding foxes. Sammy was just the opposite, full of fire and vinegar. He was a small black stallion with sharp ears and every ounce solid muscle. The top of his collar was level with my belt buckle, but when he started out with a four car trip his back was about two feet from the rails and he was trying to push the ties out with his powerful hind legs. He would follow all the commands instantly, except " whoa. " As long as the cars came behind he tried to go faster and had to be held with the rein. I used him one winter in an area almost completely mined out and the roof was pressing down so heavily we had to dig holes between the tips for Sammy to put his feet in. There was about two or three hundred feet like that and it was hard for me to run between the horse and car so I just shone the light ahead and sent Sammy down alone. Sylvia Bridorolli was loading down there and he would set out a carrot for Sammy as a reward, then he would hook him up to the two cars and let him go. I would show Sammy some light and by the time he got up this hill I really had to move fast to get him unhooked and into an old room niche before the cars flew past. I had to put two sprags in the wheels of the second car as it passed, to slow the trip down for the next incline.

That horse had a lot of smart built into his head. Sometimes at quitting time I would bring four cars out with me as far as the stable. There was a swag or low spot in the main entry, so I cut Sammy off and let him run ahead and I eased the trip down with some sprags in the wheels. He would wait for me at the bottom and I removed the sprags and hooked him on and he could pull the four cars up the slight hill.

One day I tried to bring five cars and all went well till we tried to go up the little hill. When Sammy felt the jerk of each car starting off, there was one "bump" too many. He just stopped and looked back at me. If he had said "look, Buster, go and unhook that last car," I wouldn't have been surprised. I unhooked two cars just to make him happy.

Most horses wouldn't wander away in the darkness, but if Sammy got loose from the inside stable, he occasionally wandered all the way to the pit bottom just by staying between the rails. Sammy wasn't the only horse that liked lettuce sandwiches nor was he the only one that knew how to get them out of a lunch pail. Down the mine, you put your lunch pail where the horse ain't.

There were always long tales about those noble little beasts with the short tails, but now there are fewer people to tell them and even fewer to appreciate their contribution. When I think of the few horses I've known compared to some of the drivers who worked in Coalhurst mine or No. 6, dozens of horses working every day, all day, some of them must have been almost human. I don't know the record time that any particular horse stayed down below, but it may have been years without seeing daylight. Some were taken out for the slack time and Coalhurst mine had a section of land for pasturing the horses southwest of the village. It was not the easiest thing in the world to bring horses out either, especially if they were the scary type. These horses were valued very highly and there was a risk of injuring them on the cage.

These wonderful animals are now extinct in this area. They will no longer trot merrily along a dark entry with the tail chain just tight enough to know they are out of the way of the bumpers, banging on the switch plate with their steel shoes and watching the room necks go by, ever ready to step out of the way if driver decides to cut the cars into one of them. They drifted unheralded into the past never to return.

If ever a good replica of a mine horse was to be placed on a pedestal in Coalhurst I think the old miners would remove their hats in its presence. Yes, and I think a few tears may be shed there as well. Such was their love for those simple little band-tails.

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Mary Tollestrup