THE LAST two working pit ponies in Britain are due to retire later this year. Until such time, the Welsh Cobs must carry on their daily underground duties, hauling cast iron and steel drams of coal weighing two tons over an uneven railway in the pitch black.
The small, private drift mine of Pantygassed in South Wales, where the ponies are still used, is hard to find. It is hidden in a remote valley, in a once beautiful deep gorge.
The Independent went there last week and watched as Amos, a 13-hands- 2in bay Welsh Cob emerged from the hillside. struggling to keep the heavy load behind him moving. He waited patiently while the coal was unloaded before returning back into the darkness.
In 1913 there were 70,000 pit ponies at work in Britain, according to the Government Digest of Statistics. When the National Coal Board was formed in 1947 it inherited 21,000 pit ponies. By 1952 the total number of working ponies was down to 15,500 and, by 1973, to 490. These figures do not, however, include the thousands of ponies that have been employed over the years in small private mines such as Pantygassed.
Stan Fancy, who bought Pantygassed with its four ponies about a year ago, is planning to mechanise the mine. The ponies, two of which are already no longer needed, will join five other former pit ponies at the RSPCA's Wyndham Cottle Home of Rest for Animals, near Milton Keynes.
Roy Peckham, a trustee of the Fforest Uchaf Horse and Pony Rehabilitation Centre in Pontyridd, has campaigned tirelessly to end the use of ponies in mines.
"There has been no co- ordinated monitoring of the welfare of pit ponies," he said. "The last regulations were laid down in 1956, when the Morris Minor was the new car at the Motor Show and people were worried about Suez."
One miner, who retired two years ago after 24 years in the industry, said he prayed that the pit ponies at Pantygassed really were the last.
"At the end of the day, I was always a collier and the horse had a task to do," he said: "It had to pull 20 drams a day and, if it didn't, I didn't get paid. The horse had to do it. It was not a matter of choice."
Mr Fancy said his pit ponies are well looked after. "If we abused any of these horses we'd have the RSPCA and Health and Safety Executive on to us ... The vet comes when we want him and does a full inspection and inoculation every 12 months. That's the law."
At his home, Mr Peckham fed a Polo mint to a 17-year-old pit pony called Steel, which he rescued last year. Steel wheezed and coughed because of the coal dust on his lungs and refused to move. "He says, `I'm retired and I don't have to do anything I don't want to and you can't make me'," explained Mr Peckham, who entirely understood.
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