KURRI Kurri should have its permanent reminder of their gentle giants of the underground sometime mid-year.
Costing about $100,000, the pit horse memorial is a tribute to the virtual army of big equines who once faithfully served on the Northern Coalfields, hauling heavy coal skips and timber roof supports.
Many hundreds of these misnamed 'pit ponies' worked in deep tunnels for decades, helping miners on the South Maitland coalfield, which once boasted 28 pits and 11,000 men. The horses were invaluable until mechanisation began to replace them from the 1950s.
Newcastle's last pit horse is believed to have been called Murphy. He worked underground near Minmi until being made redundant in 1983. Australia's last pit horses were retired at a Collinsville, North Queensland, mine in 1990.
After 18 years of crowd funding, the community there unveiled a pit horse memorial in late 2015.
That same year a group of local Kurri Kurri enthusiasts began a similar campaign, but this time to honour their pit horses working in underground mines from 1861.
The Hunter project comprising fund-raising barbecues, raffles and country music concerts then accelerated rapidly after a generous $50,000 donation from the miners' union, the CFMEU.
Now, four years later, the statue will soon be a reality in Kurri's Rotary Park. Kurri's life-sized bronze statue of the pit horse, skip and wheeler is gradually nearing completion in a studio/foundry in the village of Wongarbon, near Dubbo, after a series of setbacks.
Award-winning sculptor Brett Mon Garling is casting and piecing together the various components of the two tonne, three-piece metal artwork, which he hopes to finish by June or July.
"The project's incredibly labour intensive, moving a little slower than I expected," Garling says.
"The delays were caused by factors like recent extreme heat and total fire bans. There were several times I couldn't light my furnace and there's also been a shortage of materials which come from overseas, like the USA.
"But now, fingers crossed, everything will be OK. Now I'm restocked, the weather's fine and it's all go. I'm blazing ahead, tackling the horse and harness sections to be cast in bronze now. I've virtually done the man (coal wheeler). That alone, I think, was 20 individual sections to cast, with the fiddly bits like the headlamp.
"Casting the whole sculpture in bronze involves creating 90 to 100 separate sections which first had to be moulded (in clay then a rubber fibreglass skin over a tube and wire skeleton) before being cast in bronze," Garling says.
Once the sections have all been cast they then all have to be welded together and finally smoothed over to hide the weld seams.
"And, as I'm a one-man operation, it's a huge project doing 30-kilogram sections at a time. It's a project close to my heart as I'm draught horse mad, but it's fiddly also, installing a lot of stainless steel rods internally, some 300 kilograms of them, for stability."
Garling was fascinated, not only with the crucial role of pit horses in underground mines, he became obsessed with the anatomy of the creatures.
The ideal pit horse to spend its working life in mine tunnels were big Clydesdales mixed with thoroughbred mares and carefully prepared and trained.
According to Garling, a horse owner, there's probably nothing more unnatural than a horse working underground.
"It goes against their every instinct. It shows how highly-trained and reliable the big fellas were," he says.
"Many a story is told of how a pit horse would suddenly baulk at work. Soon that section of roof might collapse, saving men's lives.
"They had a sixth sense. A better perception of what we hear and see came into play. They became very much the miners' mate."
They became very much the miners' mate.
From his research, Garling believes that perhaps 70,000 pit horses were registered Australia-wide in 1919. This dropped to 22,000 in the 1950s.
Although inspired by the task, his clay prototype also proved challenging. With his own horses used as models, Garling says he had to proceed with caution to get everything just right; feeling what the correct shape of the muscles and the bone structure should be.
Working at first with a giant metal and wire horse skeleton, Garling had to keep the clay moist and pliable daily with wet towels before standing back and judging his emerging creation from multiple angles.
With the many setbacks experienced before he could begin pouring bronze using the 'lost wax' method, Garling says in retrospect that it's been a mammoth task.
"Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love the job," he says.
To remedy the situation, Garling says he's lining up other commissions to work on soon to make up for lost time and money. These tasks include an ambitious brumby sculpture for Forbes and a light horseman statue for Wagga Wagga, having previously done one for Muswellbrook.
MEANWHILE, what really happened to Newcastle's last pit horses?
The answer seems to lie in an old Newcastle Herald clipping from June 1992. It's a strange story, but with a happy ending.
The clipping focused on a horse called Murphy. Back then, this grand survivor was living out his days quietly grazing in a Wallsend paddock after being saved by the animal welfare body, the RSPCA.
Murphy was reported to be the RSPCA's last pit horse from NSW's last big underground team made redundant at Stockrington No.2 colliery, near Minmi, in 1983.
Murphy was among nine pit horses rescued, literally at the 11th hour, bought after an RSPCA public campaign. Another rescued horse, Sam, had died only fairly recently of old age at its animal shelter.
The Herald spoke with then RSPCA assistant manager John Carter (pictured with Murphy) who revealed the nine retired horses had actually got as far as the knackery in Bourke, in far western NSW. Here, they were about to become horse meat for the Japanese pet market.
Carter said he rang on the off-chance on a Sunday at 2pm and located the manager who was also a horse lover and agreed to sell them so that they might live. It was a narrow escape. The horses had been on the abattoir list for 6am the next day.
The public raised the money and the horses came back to be split up among various private owners. The RSPCA, however, kept Sam and Murphy to live out their days at its animal shelter.
Murphy the 'pit pony' was recorded as being a very old 38 years in 1992, or probably more than 100 years in human terms.
Carter said Murphy was regarded by miners as a very safe horse. If it didn't want to go into a certain tunnel, then it usually meant that the roof was about to fall in.
"Murphy had real horse sense, I suppose," Carter said.
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