All Strapped Up
Protecting Pit Ponies in the Hunter Collieries
Underground coal mines are dangerous workplaces. The pit ponies used to work coal were no less at risk than the miners. The pit pony’s job was to haul the coal wagons, or skips, and equipment in and out of the mine. This old, well-worn and hardened leather strap had a crucial role to play when it was in daily use in the Stockrington coal mine, near Newcastle.
So what did this strap do and how did it work? Called the breeching (or britching) strap this was an important safety brake to stop the wagon or skip. The function of the strap was to help the horse control the wagon when going downhill. Without this strap, if the wagon picked up too much speed, it could run into the back of the horse.
Placed around the pony’s rump, the breeching strap connected with side straps to a leather ‘collar’, worn around the horse’s neck. When the pony was pulling wagons up a mine, the straps were slack as the collar was pulled backwards on its neck. But when the pony was going downhill and the wagon pushed forwards, pushing the collar forward as well. This tightened the breeching strap around the haunches. The horse would push back against this pressure, slowing the wagon.
As part of their body harness, pit ponies also wore leather helmets to protect their heads from the mine’s rock ceilings. Some wore blinkers to protect their eyes from coal dust. And many had their mane and tails clipped short to help keep them clean.
But without the breeching strap the risk of a runaway skip could have been a real possibility and, in the confines of an underground tunnel, incredibly dangerous.