Horses Under Glace Bay is the second of ADVRider’s Oddities Uncovered Series, a Series of Strange Places Found while Riding. 

Kim and I have been traveling to Nova Scotia, Canada on our bikes for years.  That part of the world has an extra special something that’s hard to put your finger on.

Nova Scotia possesses amazing natural beauty, wonderfully friendly people and very twisty roads.  Fresh, salty smelling, gleaming blue ocean surrounds much of the landscape.

Glace Bay coal mines

Nova Scotia’s charms had attracted us for many years but it wasn’t until we spoke with a local that we found out about the Glace Bay Coal Mines.  Located in the northeast corner of Nova Scotia, coal was first extracted in large quantities in 1861.

The workers

The mine shafts extended under Glace Bay for miles.  Men worked in shafts that were not tall enough to stand in for around $1.50 per 10 hour day.  Boys also mined coal and were paid about 65 cents a day.

We were led through a tour of some of the mines by Tom who spend decades under earth and sea mining coal from the Glace Bay mines.  Photo credit: Mike Botan

Horses contributed

But one other worker toiled in the darkness under the sea.  Horses were drafted into service and worked under the ocean hauling the mined coal to where it could be collected.

Once in the mines, the horses didn’t leave except for the two week period when all miners were given vacation.  Then the horses were also given their time off above ground.  But as soon as the vacation was over, the horses returned to the depths of Glace Bay.

Pit ponies above ground and on vacation from the Number 20 Colliery in 1952.  Photo credit:  Cape Breton Post

Horses called Pit Ponies

Called pit ponies, the horses were well kept and possibly led a more protected life than the miners.  Each horse was given a heavy leather cap and mask that fit between its ears and over its nose.

Pit ponies led a dark and difficult life under the earth and sea. Photo credit: Mike Botan

Housed underground (sea) each horse had its own stall.  They were well fed and ate grain and hay.  Most men loved their horses and took very good care of them.  Horses ultimately produced more coal than an individual miner.  So miners that didn’t take proper care of the animals were taken to task.

Injuries

Working in the mine was not a safe job either for the miners or the horses.  Horses received four main types of injuries:

  1. Painful scruffing of their heads against low beams which ripped the flesh and required the vet to stitch it up, sometimes even inserting a steel plate.
  2. Hastily prepared roadbeds caused injuries to the horse’s feet.  Their legs could get stuck and coal boxes would run into them and break their legs.
  3. Tight spaces also caused injuries.  As a result of the tight quarters, horses could rub their shoulders raw until they festered. The most effective treatment was coating them with kerosene oil. This resulted in many more horses being saved.
  4. The greatest danger to horses was pulling coal cars downhill.  More humane and sensible drivers ‘spragged the wheel’ by placing a short pole between the iron spokes of one wheel for braking.  A broken neck or broken legs were often avoided by doing this.

At a certain point in time, it could be determined that a horse should be retired.  Once retired, they were returned above ground to live out the rest of their lives.

Pit pony Fraser above ground on the occasion of his retirement from Pit 1B. Photo credit: Cape Breton Post

So unless you had visited the Glace Bay Miners Museum, you wouldn’t know the story of the people and horses that toiled for long hours under the sea.

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