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Sunny, the pit pony who found a new life in Lancashire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 July 2019

Sunny enjoying the freedom of his field at Bilsborrow

Sunny enjoying the freedom of his field at Bilsborrow

Glynn Ward

Pit ponies had a miserable existence hauling wagons in harsh conditions but there was a happy ending for one of these plucky horses.

Sunny with Susie StricklandSunny with Susie Strickland

Watching Sunny gambol across the fields next to his stable, you would never imagine his life was once spent in semi-darkness, hauling heavy wagons in cramped conditions.

Today, as he rolls across a Lancashire meadow, kicking his legs in the air, he looks like he hasn't a care in the world. But Sunny, a fell cross, was once a pit pony and his life was very different.

Tens of thousands of small horses were used down Britain's coal mines until they were phased out - as were the miners - in the late 1990s. Sunny was one of them, along with his brother Seamus, working in a colliery near Whitehaven on the Cumberland coast.

While the Shetlands worked deep underground, fell cross ponies like Sunny were kept closer to the surface, hauling heavy wagons of coal to the collection point.

Sunny and Cally in their field at BilsborrowSunny and Cally in their field at Bilsborrow

Eventually Sunny and Seamus were given a degree of freedom, sold in a Penrith auction to a trekking centre where they worked for many years. But by 2007, they'd moved down to Lancashire and were at Elswick Equestrian Centre where Susie Strickland's daughter, Imy, was learning to ride.

Their owners never returned to collect them so Susie and a friend bought one each. They were kept at Susie's family farm and stables in Bilsborrow, near Garstang, and Imy, rode him from age eight until going to high school. 'We bought her a quite expensive pony, but Sunny was always Imy's favourite,' said Susie.

Sadly, Seamus only lived a few years but Sunny, now at least 39 years old, is still going strong. Despite his advanced years, he struts around the stable yard as if he owns the place, moving from horse to horse like a sergeant major inspecting his troops. But he seems to linger longer with the females. 'Yes, he's a terrible one for the ladies,' said Susie, a trustee at the former diary farm. 'He really thinks he's the boss of the yard.'

Sunny enjoying the freedom of his field at BilsborrowSunny enjoying the freedom of his field at Bilsborrow

After years in the mine, Sunny, who is 12.2 hands, developed a respiratory ailment but this improved significantly once he was moved into the fresh air. He also has a problem called Cushings, a common disorder in older ponies causing increased body fat. It means carrots are off the menu because of their high sugar content, but it's a small price to pay for spending the rest of his days in comfort, in the stall next to his lady friend, Cally.

'Sunny is enjoying his well deserved retirement with Cally,' said Susie. 'They go out in their paddock for a couple of hours every day and out for a walk through the fields most weekends. He is fit and well thanks to his vet of many years, Alison Swift, and his farrier, David Beardmore.'

So, life down the pits is long forgotten? Not entirely. 'When we had coal deliveries, both ponies would sniff the air and snort and then they would stand at the back of their stables.'

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