H is for Horse

Out of the Deeps by Anne Carter and Illustrated by Nicolas Debon
Published by Orca Book Publishers

Pit ponies have a special place in my heart. One of the first films I went to see in the cinema was Out of the Dark (aka The Littlest Horse Thieves) a Disney film about three children who try to save pit ponies from slaughter. I remember a very dramatic ending when one of the ponies was trapped in the mine after an explosion. I hope, being a Disney film, the pony escaped but I don’t remember. With head gear pulley’s visible on the way to St Helen’s where my Auntie Irene lived, the fate of these hard working, loyal creatures was always on my mind. Out of the Deeps is based on the true story of Savino who was sent to work in the coal mines of Canada at only 12 years of age. When his miner’s lamp failed, Nelson the pit pony used his special sense to lead Savino to safety. The historical note at the end of the book describes how miners only got their first paid holiday in 1944 after years of strikes and negotiations. The pit ponies got a holiday too, but had to be forced back underground after their week of daylight and rest.

French artist Nicolas Debon perfectly illustrates the long journey into the cold, damp narrow tunnels and the men and ponies who worked to dig and pull out the coal. Ponies strain under the weight of the carts. They slowly plod along iron tracks (tub rails), through shafts supported by wooden trusts, the colours are dark, sepia tones. This is hard, dangerous work.

“A good pit pony can save a miner’s life.”

                                      Savino forced himself to speak. “Forward, Nelson.”  Nelson snorted. “Please.”Nelson shook his head.

They were one: Savino and Nelson.

“You have to trust me now, ” Savino said.

The pit ponies tore across the open field, kicking up their heels, wild and free.

I highly recommend using this book with students who are studying children’s, workers, and/or animal rights. I used it with Grades 4 and 5 when they were studying energy and we had a long conversation about child labour. We looked at photographs of miners and discussed the industrial revolution. The photograph that really captured their imagination was of a raised earth sculpture that pays tribute to the contribution made by pit ponies. The children were enchanted by the scale of the sculpture, called Sultan the Pit Pony, which extends over 200 meters and is made from over 60,000 tonnes of coal shale. We found more information and more photographs on MyModernMet.com. I could have taken this further with a research unit of my own culminating in an art project about how children think animals should be honoured for the contribution they make to our society but unfortunately I had no foresight on how the book and sculpture would captivate the class. If you live near the sculpture I would suggest a class outing and of course, take Out of the Deeps with you to evoke the gratitude we should all be giving to these amazing creatures.

Sultan the Pit Pony – Photograph by Jonathan Webb

You may also want to encourage your class to sponsor a former pit pony, like I did, with The Pit Pony Sanctuary. For only £25 a year you can help with the upkeep of a horse in need. I chose to sponsor Dylan, a beautiful roan pony who was rented out to small, private Welsh mines. It was astonishing to learn that pit ponies were used into the 1990’s. The students could also look at the welfare acts for pit ponies. The Pit Ponies Charter introduced in 1911 and amended in 1949 can be found on the Haig Pit Mining and Colliery Museum blog.What a great way to use primary resources and connect research to animal welfare.


Call the Horse Lucky by Juanita Havill and Illustrated by Nancy Lane
Published by Gryphon Press – a voice for the voiceless  

I read this book as part of the RedRover Reading Programme.  It is a beautifully illustrated picture book with appeal to any horse-mad youngster. Mel, a young girl, finds a neglected horse in a field.  Her grandmother calls the Humane Society who take the horse into the care of a rescue ranch.  Mel visits him and learns about caring for horses.  As much as she would like to own him she realises that horse upkeep is expensive and they need a lot of care and space.  So instead she decides to volunteer her time to groom and walk the horses at the ranch.  This is an uplifting story and I like Mel’s character as she represents many children who would love to own their own horse but understand that it is not always possible.  At the back of the book there is more information about helping horses like Lucky.

The next day Mel rode back to the coral with carrots in her back pocket.
“Hey, boy,” Mel called.

The horse didn’t raise his head.

Eyes half-closed, he stood like a skinny statue with a bony back and ribs that stuck out.  He didn’t swish his tail or shake his head to flick off the swarm of flies crawling on his rump, legs, and face.  Mounds of smelly muck lay around him.

“My name should be Lucky, too.”  Mel reached up to stroke Lucky’s neck.
“I’m lucky to have found you.”

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