The image of a cowboy galloping on his cow pony across vast stretches of rough terrain carrying mail is synonymous with the old West. The Pony Express covered an astounding 1,966 miles in only ten days, bringing mail from Missouri to California. The Pony Express National Historic Trail (PENHT) traversed eight states and was considered the preferred and speediest method to communicate from east to west.
Riders could not weigh over 125 pounds (57 kg), and the horse-and-rider team was changed out about every 75–100 miles (120–160 km). Riders received $125 a month as pay. Alexander Majors, one of the founders, acquired more than 400 horses, choosing small, tough, speedy animals averaging 14.2 hands (hence the name ‘pony’) for which he paid around $200 each. The service operated day and night.
The Pony Express was short-lived, however, galloping and delivering mail for only 18 months from April 3, 1860 through October 26, 1861 when telegraph lines were completed coast-to-coast, rendering the brave horsemen and their speedy ponies superfluous. Despite this, the Pony Express has become an icon of the American West.
Fast-forward to present-day America and you’ll find the National Pony Express Association (NPEA), which organizes a full re-enactment or “re-ride” of the original route. This year the Re-Ride galloped off on June 16 in Old Sacramento, California, and is set to wrap up on June 26 in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“I personally have ridden the Re-Ride since 2002 here in western Nebraska because I am enamored of the history and sheer guts of the Pony Express riders, station masters and principal owners of 160 years ago,” says stablemaster Mary Cone, who runs steers on her ranch in Nebraska during the summer. “I love horses and feel privileged to honor both the riders and the horses that served the country at that time in this daring endeavor. Because of the Pony Express, the telegraph, railroad and major east-west Interstate highway follows the same route though the central United States.”
The NPEA consists of the eight state divisions that the PENHT passes through. In 1860 there were only two states, Missouri and California; the land in between was considered territories that are now part of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
Each state division is responsible for their miles of the Re-Ride. Trail or Ride Captains within the states manage smaller lengths of the trail, engaging riders and making sure the mochila (the backpack carrying the mail) moves along at the prescribed average speed of 10 mph, which was the same speed in 1860, which translates into a fast trot or easy lope. (In reality, the real Pony Express riders would only gallop at high speed to escape danger.) Today, Re-Riders typically cover legs from two to five miles, depending on the terrain.
Riders must be members of a state division to participate, but you don’t have to live in that state to be a member. The organization has waiver forms and rider guidelines on its site for those who might want to sign up. Some requirements are that riders must be 14 years of age or older, provide their own horse and tack, and in keeping with tradition of the original Pony Express riders, wear “blue jeans, long-sleeve red western shirt, chocolate brown vest, yellow scarf, boots and western hat.”
Riders typically ride alone, but riding in pairs is allowed. The mochila exchanges are according to Cone, “short and sweet, the rider coming into the exchange point, dismounting, the mochila is put on the fresh horse, the new rider mounts up and they take off.” Re-Riders carry the mail 24/7, just as their historic counterparts once did. Contemporary riders will often pre-ride their leg(s) of the trail to familiarize themselves with the terrain, bridges, traffic and anything else that could impact their leg of the trail.
Cone completes her part of the Re-Ride on two horses, both Quarter Horses of cow pony breeding. “We go in two-mile legs and leap-frog along, giving the steeds a rest before they ride again, usually up to three to four legs,” she explains.
Over the years, the Re-Ride has alternated between a west-to-east/east-to-west direction every year. The Covid-19 pandemic cancelled the Re-Ride in 2020, so the group is riding the same direction as was planned in 2020, west-to-east, then will begin alternating again in 2022.
The NPEA works with the National Park Service to provide an interactive map which allows you to follow the Pony Express Re-Ride in real time. Riders carry a pinger in the mochila that connects with a GPS. The pings are sent at five-minute intervals and show up on the map as a black pony rider icon. The actual PENHT is colored in green, with the modern re-ride a burnt orange color.
And make no mistake, riders still carry real letters on the Re-Ride, and fans and supporters can fill out applications to have their correspondence delivered by Pony Express. The deadline was in May, so mark your calendars for next year.