A lone rider gallops across rolling hills of prairie grass and sagebrush. The sound of approaching
hoofbeats is heard from afar. Another rider and horse awaits in the shade of a tree. The incoming rider reins in and greetings are exchanged. Dismounting, the incoming courier lifts a leather mochila from the saddle. It is placed on the new horse and the fresh rider steps into the stirrup swings into the saddle and begins a ride over the horizon and back into history. No, this isn’t a scene imagined 160 years ago; every June, members of the NPEA recreate the Pony Express in a Commemorative Re-Ride over a 10 day period.
More than 700 riders carry a thousand or more letters using traditional mochilas (the special saddlebag that was designed for the riders) and horsepower to traverse the original 1,966-mile trail. The event spans eight states and, like the authentic Pony Express, goes on around the clock until the mail is delivered to its destination.
Riders for the re-enactment don’t have to ride as long — or as hard — as the original riders who rode 75 miles a day, changing horses every 10-15 miles. Since speed was of the essence, the Pony Express riders were typically small, wiry men, weighing no more than 100-125 pounds, roughly the size of jockeys. It’s hard to imagine 14-year olds riding across the country on their own, but the majority of riders were between 14-25. “Bronco” Charlie Miller claimed he was only 11 years old when he first joined the Pony Express, which gave him claim to being the youngest rider.
The “pony” part of the service was pretty accurate. The horses purchased averaged 14.2 hands and 900 pounds. The typical cost was $200.
Although the Pony Express only lasted for about a year and half — between April 1860 and October 1861 — the mail service has become synonymous with the Old West. The story of riders delivering mail from Saint Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in ten to eleven days at the time was the fastest a letter was ever delivered before electronic communication.
One way riders were able to travel so quickly was because of how the saddle was designed. Jeremy Johnston, the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum, said the Pony Express saddles had a special mochila.
“The way that it [mochila] fits over the top. The mailbags would get over the top of the saddle so they could easily be removed and they could easily shift it over to another horse with a saddle,” said Johnston. “So the rider could get a fresh horse and not worry about taking the saddle off the horse.”
He said this allowed the rider to switch horses without worrying about changing the saddle.
Sadly, the Pony Express was a short-lived venture. It was too expensive for regular mail. The service cost $5 for every half ounce, which is the equivalent of $130 today. Most of the mail delivered comprised newspaper reports, government dispatches and business documents. During the 18 months of the service, the riders carried and delivered about 35,000 letters.
If you’d like a shot at riding through history, you can learn more about becoming a rider or a volunteer here.
Riders must be 14 years or older, with a suitable horse, apparel and equipment. They must also take the Pony Express oath:
“I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”
For those of you who want to participate but not be a rider or support team, you can also send a letter. Thankfully the price has stayed the same. It’s $5 dollars to send a commorative letter (and a mere $10 for a personal letter).