May 10, 2013

Points East: Seeing the ponies run

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I know the Derby has been run but these spring horse racing meets at Churchill Downs and Keeneland almost always cause me to start reminiscing about the races we Blair Branch Boys used to conduct by putting mining ponies to good use on weekends.

I haven’t tried as hard as I probably should to find it, but it seems to me that very little has been written about the use of, or, for that matter, the importance of ponies and small mules in the early days of eastern Kentucky’s evolving coal industry.

I am not sure whether or not the practice of using draft animals to pull coal from deep inside the mountains to earth’s surface was outlawed, or if it simply became economically and productively impractical. I believed the practice originated in Wales and, by far, the most popular breed of mining ponies was called “Welsh.”   

I do know that the very last mining ponies on Blair Branch left in 1960 and that my Dad worked in the last little mine that still used them.  By that point in time, small mines relied on rubber-wheeled, electric shuttle buggies which did not require the time-consuming, labor-intensive practice of installing steel rail tracks to transport coal from inside the mine.

But in the early days, coal was hand loaded by shovel at the coal face into “cars” that hauled about two tons each and pulled along the tracks by sturdy ponies and small mules.   

By the mid-70s, almost all underground mining relied on conveyor belts to get coal to the surface and the use of wheeled vehicles became obsolete.  

During the 50s, Dad provided room and board for anywhere between four and a dozen mining ponies and mules at a time in our big barn.  Two of them were used at the mine in which he worked, and the others were used at mines nearby.  The coal companies delivered hay and sweet feed to the barn and our job was to keep the animals fed and watered.  

And, we boys believed, to make sure they were properly exercised on weekends.  

Racing the ponies actually began before I was even big enough to ride.  Several boys on the holler had fathers who worked or drove coal trucks for the “pony mines” and my older first cousins sometimes showed up too.

Many of the ponies were not willing participants.  They had to be practically dragged from the barn to the end of our narrow lane which covered a distance of some 350 yards or so, but the more stubborn and meaner the better because all they wanted was to get back to their peaceful barn stall as rapidly as possible.  

The more docile ponies that would go anywhere you wanted were not usually serious contenders in a race.  

The lane was so narrow we could only race three or four at a time but, even at that, I can remember jockeys suffering broken arms and collar bones from spills they took.   In fact, it was generally against  the rules to come to our house and “ride” ponies but several boys did it anyway.     

The ponies had names like Bob, Bill, Ted, Jim, Joe, etc., but John was the most popular name so if we had three Johns at the same time. One would be called First John; the next, Second John; then Third John, all named in the order in which they showed up to take temporary residence in our barn.

By the time I was 10 or 11 years old, the ponies had all been sold off to private owners as pets or small utility animals.  I became so attached to the last two or three we boarded, particularly one Shetland named Ted, that Dad would sometimes take me to visit them and their new owners.  

Their racing and mining days were over and old Ted didn’t seem to miss it at all.

In fact, he was treated with such fondness by his new owners that I’m pretty sure he came to think of himself as the family dog.


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