M: What just went through your mind? Were you shocked? Appalled? Stunned? What you see here was part of everyday working life for pit ponies, or mining horses. From the mid-19th century onwards, thousands of horses and ponies were put to work in German coal mines. They toiled under ground alongside their two-legged fellow mine workers. Pit ponies were mainly used to transport the coal. They hauled the heavy wagons – sometimes up to ten at a time.
F: The history of mining horses is a tale of rationalisation, cost-cutting and efficiency. In the early days, the wagons were pulled by miners, known as hauliers. But in the mid-19th century, there weren’t enough of them, and the German mining industry was falling behind the competition in the UK, France and Belgium.
M: By using pit ponies, mining became more cost-effective. They performed better and were cheaper. So following the first successful boost to production, more and more of them were deployed. By 1882, two thousand two hundred pit ponies had replaced some fifteen thousand hauliers. That era only came to an end in the 1960s – with Tobias, the last official mining horse. He worked below ground for twelve years at the "General Blumenthal Colliery" in Recklinghausen in the Ruhr District.
F: If you’re wondering how the horses were persuaded to go down into the mine, take a look at our exhibit. The animals were made to wear a special harness, to which chains were attached, and then they were lowered into the shaft. However, that method was rarely used in the Ruhr area. If the shaft was big enough, a pit cage could be used – though that was no less exhausting and nerve-racking for the animals.
M: In the early days, the horses were taken down the mine and brought back up every day. But the larger the number of animals deployed in a particular colliery, the more difficult the procedure became. This led to the horses being kept permanently underground. In many collieries, the pit ponies were given regular "holidays" to keep them fit for work. On average, horses remained underground for six years in the major collieries.
F: Stables for up to 50 pit ponies were built. Some had electric lighting and running water. Above the individual stalls, there was a panel with the animal’s name, the number of its work area, and an abbreviation identifying the current shift. Except during the war years, the food was generally good and usually plentiful. But despite all the "care", a pit pony was above all a tool of the mining trade. A vet described the situation in around 1897 as follows:
M: "After leaving the stable, the horses are at the disposal of the various foremen, who seek to squeeze the greatest possible amount of work out of them, regardless of whether the animal is capable of meeting their requirements or not. One may say, without exaggeration, that the horses are routinely regarded as machines by the mine officials, and treated accordingly."
F: The first animal welfare regulation for pit ponies was issued in 1933. Under this regulation, the keeping of mining horses required a permit, and the animals had to be registered and regularly examined by a vet. Any injuries, diseases and cases of cruelty to animals had to be reported. Nails, protruding wires or metal parts regularly caused injuries to the eye area. Coal dust is an irritant, and many animals developed cataracts. That led to occupational safety standards for pit ponies. For example, the animals were given protective head gear made of leather or rubber.
M: And now, come and join us on a trip underground! Watch our audio guide’s animated video. Our pit pony, Mirko, will take you deep down into one of the galleries.
© Westfälisches Pferdemuseum
© Medienhaus Bauer Recklinghausen
© VDI Verlag GmbH
© Friedrich Roth-Büser: Das Grubenpferd