COZAD — As horses and riders travel east from California this week to re-enact the 150th Anniversary of the Pony Express, they are carrying a mochila.
Made of a large piece of leather, the mochila is designed to slip over a saddled horse. It has holes cut through the leather for a saddle horn and cantle.
At each of the four corners is a hard leather box called a cantina, where the mail is stored. A rider sits atop the mochila with his legs between the boxes.
Though he didn’t make this year’s mochila, Gordie Musil of Cozad has made them in years past, including one used when riders carried the Olympic torch to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Musil said each mochila represents a week or more of work. “It takes a good week, maybe longer, two weeks, but I don’t work as hard as I used to,” he said. “I’m slower.”
Because the mochila mail pouch is separate from a saddle, it can be pulled off one horse and thrown on the next horse, already saddled and ready to go, with minimal delay. The original Pony Express riders changed horses within two minutes about every 10 miles. There were about 157 stations along the route.
Each year, states take turns furnishing a mochila for the annual National Pony Express Association re-ride.
This year’s re-ride will stop in Fort Kearny at 5 p.m. Sunday. There will be historical re-enactors and other activities for families starting at 1 p.m.
In 1994, Musil was asked to make a mochila representing Nebraska. Fulfilling that request led to other opportunities, and Musil has made mochilas for Utah, Colorado and Kansas, each according to the state’s specifications, each with unique markings.
“Somewhere along the line, I made another one for Nebraska because it was their turn again,” he said.
Musil said he prepares himself mentally before the project begins.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about it before I actually work,” he said. “That’s a pretty big sized piece of leather, and you can’t afford to mess that up and throw it in the trash and start over.”
He said he has been fortunate that no mishaps have occurred. Still, “I dread the thought of that first cut. Once I’m in the right frame of mind, it is all right,” he said.
In addition to the tooled markings, Musil said he tries on each mochila to vary the details such as adding rivets or braiding on pockets.
“They are kind of fun to make,” Musil said. Riders report that the ones he makes are comfortable.
“They have to be made to fit a lot of different saddles,” he said. “It can’t fit just one saddle.”
The latest mochila he made was for a museum in Casper, Wyo., for display. “It’s more authentic because I didn’t make the boxes as big,” he said.
Musil said mochilas made for today’s use by re-enactors have bigger boxes because they need to be able to hold more mail. He also recently made a mochila for Fort Kearny.
He obtains leather from a supplier in Wyoming, where he also goes for advice on leather tooling.
“Every year I go up to Sheridan, Wyo., to see a saddle maker up there — I guess you’d call him my hero — because he’s an outstanding saddle maker. Whatever I can learn from him is a bonus,” he said.
Musil said he started crafting leather as an 18-year-old when he went to work for then-83-year-old Ed Cuckler in Cambridge as an unpaid upholstery apprentice.
“Back then, you didn’t need much money because things didn’t cost much,” he said. He worked baling hay when he needed spending money.
He purchased the business a few months after starting there and moved it to Cozad in 1986. In the early 1970s, he started building saddles, including one for himself, and learning tips from Bus Brown of North Platte.
“I always roped in rodeos and stuff,” he said. He owns 20 horses on property a mile east of Gothenburg along Highway 30.
“A lot of upholsterers don’t like to do leather,” he said. “It was just something that I could do.”
Musil said he enjoys his line of work. “It’s just a challenge, and you get a lot of satisfaction when it’s done. It shapes up.”