For most of the year, they lived below the surface. Many of the horses were born underground, deep within the honeycombed earth of the coal mine. They were trained to haul the coal skips. Some of the horses were able to identify when the full load of skips had been hooked up, and would refuse to move if an extra skip was tacked on.

There was a camaraderie of sorts between the men and the horses. Some of the horses were particular favourites, and fresh fruit and vegetables were brought down by miners to share with them. There were cheeky horses too that worked out how to nudge open a dinner box, especially if there was something tempting inside. Others would chew through pockets to get at something sweet.

Horses were in use in coal mines across New South Wales until the 1970s. It was dirty and dangerous work. In the 1950s, there was a fire at the Lithgow State Coal mine which claimed the lives of 27 horses. This was devastating for the horses and the men that worked and cared for them. Earlier that decade, miners in the town had gone on strike to fight for better working conditions for their pit ponies.

One of the nicest recollections is of the horses being brought above ground when the mine closed for holidays or long breaks. In the early morning as they trotted along the local streets on their way to the paddocks, locals lined the footpath and cheered them on. They were also celebrated during the Eight Hour Day parades.

There are some wonderful stories and photos of Lithgow pit ponies here, both above and below ground. The story of the pit ponies was part of a tour of the Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park.

Inspired by Discover Prompts – April writing prompts

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]