Lila Car­son writes about how pit ponies were vital to mines.

Cape Bre­ton mines would have had dif­fi­culty op­er­at­ing with­out the four-legged work­ers

Cape Breton Post - - News - Lila Car­son Lila Car­son used to be an ele­men­tary teacher who re­turned home to Cape Bre­ton. She took a course on the his­tory of Cape Bre­ton at Cape Bre­ton Uni­ver­sity and de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in learn­ing about where she lived. She now wants to share this k

Lis­ten­ing to the Barra MacNeils on Coast Ra­dio 89.7, the words to their song spoke to me, re­mind­ing me how much his­tory a song can teach:

“and they make the ponies pull til it nearly breaks their backs and they’ll never see again … down the Coal­town Road.”

I’d heard of pit ponies, who hadn’t af­ter the book and the movie and the CBC-TV se­ries?

Imag­ine 700 horses/ponies liv­ing, work­ing and sleep­ing un­der­ground. With the min­ers also work­ing there, it was like a whole other un­der­ground civ­i­liza­tion.

The poor horses never saw the light of day ex­cept for the two-week min­ers’ va­ca­tion ev­ery sum­mer, start­ing in 1947. Some­one men­tioned when they came out, they would need blin­ders on un­til their eyes ad­justed to day­light. Com­ing up from the depths of the earth, they’d have two weeks of glo­ri­ous free­dom in fresh air to run and romp in a big green field on Minto Street be­fore re­turn­ing to an­other year of drudgery.

Prior to the 1961 gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion granted to Sable Is­land horses, they would be rounded up and shipped to Cape Bre­ton to work as pit ponies.

Horses were so cru­cial to min­ing be­fore mech­a­niza­tion that trips would be made out west and to P.E.I. to buy them. Many peo­ple say they were more val­ued than the min­ers.

Stabled be­neath the sur­face, each horse had its own stall and ate grain and hay. They worked hard for their keep and had to be well-trained, with no biters or kick­ers tol­er­ated.

The pit ponies were pro­tected to en­sure their health and safety, their heads es­pe­cially. A heavy leather cap and mask was fit­ted be­tween its ears, com­ing down over its nose. They wore a dou­ble horse col­lar to hook onto the carts and were bri­dled so the driver could con­trol them. I don’t think they got a ‘clanny lamp’ to wear with their pit clothes.

Most men loved their horses and took very good care of them. If they didn’t, they would be taken to task for it. Even so, ac­ci­dents could still hap­pen.

Dr. John L. Sul­li­van, who went to France in 1916 with the Royal Army Ve­teri­nary Corps, be­came the full-time vet­eri­nar­ian and built a ve­teri­nary horse hos­pi­tal across from to­day’s Ster­ling Mall, to pro­vide equine med­i­cal care. His brother M.T. Sul­li­van worked for the coal com­pany in New Aberdeen and lob­bied for clean wa­ter and sewage dis­posal. Pre­vi­ously they had part-time vets, Dr. Jake­man and later Dr. MacIsaac.

Af­ter an in­ci­dent, the horses were brought to the sur­face and taken to the hos­pi­tal. Dr. Sul­li­van cre­ated a slow-axle sloven am­bu­lance to trans­port in­jured an­i­mals. He also built an in­no­va­tive op­er­at­ing ta­ble that brought the an­i­mal along­side the ver­ti­cal ta­ble, where they were strapped se­curely, chlo­ro­formed, and the ta­ble cranked into a hor­i­zon­tal po­si­tion to al­low ex­ams, treat­ment and/or surg­eries. This greatly im­proved the care of the horses and pro­longed their lives.

Of course, not all an­i­mals could be saved and some did end up be­ing shot in the Ster­ling Yard. Here, there was an old chim­ney of red bricks that had been aban­doned by an old col­liery. Rather than hav­ing to dig a hole to bury the horse, its body was in­cin­er­ated or cre­mated. I guess there were no glue or dog food fac­to­ries back then.

It wasn’t a vet who took care of their daily needs, it was Patrick MacNeil, a ve­teri­nary as­sis­tant, prob­a­bly sim­i­lar to to­day’s an­i­mal health tech­ni­cians. He be­gan his ca­reer driv­ing a team of pit ponies de­liv­er­ing goods be­tween dif­fer­ent sites.

Although Paddy MacNeil never had any for­mal train­ing, he did watch and learn on­the-job. His love of the horses made him a car­ing, ded­i­cated care­giver.

You’ve prob­a­bly heard the say­ing, “Find what you love to do, find some­one who will pay you to do it and you will never work a day in your life.”

I think MacNeil may have been one of those lucky peo­ple who found just such a job.

Ei­ther he or his sta­ble friend were well into their 90s and still walk­ing sev­eral miles a day. I’d say he lived long and pros­pered.


What’s hap­pen­ing the Bay?

Tonight at Old Town Hall, Ca­role MacDon­ald, au­thor of “His­toric Glace Bay,” will speak at 7 p.m.

The Fri­day Night Knit­ting Club meets at the Glace Bay Li­brary at 7 p.m.

A CD launch for Matthew Earhart will take place Fri­day at 7 p.m. at the Savoy The­atre.


No. 20 Col­liery, 1952. Horses on Va­ca­tion. The only time the pit ponies were brought to the sur­face was dur­ing the min­ers’ two-week va­ca­tion pe­riod.


No. 1B Col­liery, 1955. Fraser. The last of the 1B pit ponies. Fraser spent most of his life in the ser­vice of the coal com­pany. He is shown here on the oc­ca­sion of his re­tire­ment.


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