Pony Express Mochila

Object Spotlight
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illustration of a man on a horse with a large leather saddle bag labeled US Mail
This illustration, from the cover of the comic book, “Tales of the Pony Express” shows a large leather saddle bag labeled “US Mail.” Not only is the “mailbag” too large, the Pony Express began as a privately-owned service and did not label its mochila pockets.

On April 3, 1860, riders began carrying mail for the fledgling Pony Express service. While the service itself has become legend, few understand just how the mail was actually carried. Riders used mochilas like this reproduction piece. Riders usually traveled 75-100 miles at a time, changing horses every 10-15 miles. Each time a rider changed horses; he snatched the mochila off of one saddle and draped it over the next.

Replica of a Pony Express mochila

Learn more about the Pony Express

Mochila is the Spanish term for knapsack, although the mochilas used by pony express riders did not resemble knapsacks. Prior to the Pony Express, Mexican riders had made use of mochila as tree covers for decades.¹ Made of leather, with four pockets, or cantinas, the Pony Express mochilas were used to hold mail. Riders sat on the mochila-covered saddle. Openings cut into the leather allowed it to fit over the saddle horn and cantle.

Weight was a critical component of everything that went on the service’s horses. Mail was often on the lightest paper possible, riders carried little with them, and the mochila and saddle were also as lightweight as possible. Pony Express saddles were specially made for the service, for the most part by Israel Landis’ saddle shop in St. Joseph, Missouri.

mid 19th century illustration, with a rider depicted as carrying bags of mail seemingly tied to the saddle horn and cantle
In this mid 19th century illustration, the rider is depicted carrying bags of mail seemingly tied to the saddle horn and cantle (the cantle is the rear part of the saddle seat).

Each cantina’s packet of letters would be wrapped in oil silk as protection against water damage. A sender’s main purpose in keeping the mail light was the cost of the service - $5 per half ounce at first. Rates were lowered, but were still $1 per half ounce at their cheapest. Businesses, governments, and news organizations were the service’s best customers. Newspaper publishers in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco used the service to ferry news from correspondents back to the newspaper.

Mochila pockets were kept locked. Three pockets could only be opened at military posts (which were located at Forts Kearney, Laramie, Bridger, Churchill, and at Salt Lake City). The fourth pocket, which could be opened by a station master at any of the other stations, held a time-card to record riders’ arrival and departure times.

mid 19th century illustration showing a Pony Express rider carrying mail in a backpack labeled 'express'
Another mid 19th century illustration shows a Pony Express rider carrying mail in a backpack labeled “express.”

The Pony Express roused some curiosity and attention during its lifetime, but its greatest fame came years after the service had ended. Writers and showmen such as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody breathed new life into the service through dime novels and Wild West shows. Illustrations of the service’s riders over the last 150 years have depicted a variety of mailbags and satchels for carrying mail. As can be seen in these images, few got it right.


1) The “tree” is the main structural support of the saddle.

For further reading

Pony Express: Romance vs. Reality

Written by Nancy A. Pope

Additional Imagery

late 19th century illustration depicting a rider with a mail satchel marked 'Poney Exprezz'
The artist of this late 19th century illustration depicted a rider with a mail satchel marked “Poney Exprezz.”
illustration of a rider speeding into the station with a mochila on his saddle while a young boy and woman watch
This illustration, from the book, “We Were There with the Pony Express,” is the best depiction of a mochila of all of these images. In the image, a rider speeds into the station with a mochila on his saddle. He would transfer to the second horse in the foreground, after draping the mochila over the fresh horse’s saddle.