Twenty thousand leagues under the earth

In France, the first horse made its descent into a mine in 1821, in Rive-de-Gier (Loire). It took more than a century and a half for the last horse to climb out, in 1969. During that period, the animal facilitated considerable industrial development and mining output for man. Its strength and work rate thus gave rise to an increase in daily extraction, a decrease in mine worker numbers and a decrease in the cost per tonne transported. Every day, the horse was accompanied by a driver who guided it, ordered it to stop, set off again and clear the path if obstacles encumbered the way. It thus travelled 20 to 30 kilometres in the gallery. Some drivers developed a close bond with their animals and shared snacks with them. Others, however, were abusive towards their companions in misfortune. This is evidenced by the existence of statements of offence setting fines for, inter alia, abuse and overwork. However, it must be noted that the grooms responsible for caring for, feeding and grooming the horses quickly healed injuries and abuse. In addition, veterinarians affiliated with each mine reviewed the animals' condition and provided treatment. The farrier paid a visit about once a month.

At the top of the shaft, [the horse] would fight desperately when it was put into a net; then, once it felt the ground disappear from under its feet, it would remain petrified; as it disappeared from view, it would be absolutely still, its huge eyes staring ahead... The descent lasted almost three minutes.

Émile Zola, Germinal, 1885

Underground, horses suffered numerous injuries: collusions against the walls, falls, foot and skin diseases due to standing water on the ground and high humidity and harness wounds. Accidents, such as gas explosions or collapses, could cost them their lives.

Contrary to the popular belief whereby any horse that descended into a mine never saw the light of day again, many mining horses were able to savour the flavour of grass once again. From 1920, certain mines had types of goods lifts to lift out horses every weekend. And from 1936 onwards, as if they were employees, mining horses were entitled to two week's holiday (pasture) per year.

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