On a road trip to McClelland’s Beach, Iowa, I made a sudden left at Oakland, Nebraska. The turn was enough of a surprise to leave Gregg grabbing at the hand grip above his door.
In my defense, Gregg did say he wanted to stretch his legs, and personally, I think serendipity was at work.
We turned again at a little park, and there in the middle of farm country, which rarely wastes space on horses, we found a woman, two horses, a dog, a trail-riding saddle, and a pack saddle. The little group was on a grazing break from their ride, which started in Austin, Texas. You read that right, Austin, Texas, 913 miles away.
Meet Bernice Ende, lady long rider.
To be technical about it, Bernice started in Montana, many years ago. This is her fourth loop around the country with her horses and dog, Claire.
A classical ballet teacher who also rides, Bernice came to a turning point in 2005, and decided if not now, when? She saddled up and headed out, leaving everything behind. Well, OK, except for the website dedicated to her efforts, www.endeofthetrail.com.
Bernice is not alone in this kind of quest. Check out the Long Riders’ Guild, www.thelongridersguild.com, a group of “equestrian explorers”.
Putting in 20 or so miles a day, you do get a chance to see the country in a way you’ll never experience by car. “I take as many back roads as I possibly can, a lot of power line roads, railroad-track roads, forest service roads,” says Bernice.
Claire, and Essie Pearl, the Norwegian Fjord pack horse, have been with Bernice for 15,000 miles. Don't worry about Claire’s poor little dog pads. Claire did most of those 15,000 miles riding in a box on top of Essie Pearl’s pack.
Bernice pays special attention to the horses’ feet, too. They are shod with cleats that give them special traction and make their shoes last a long time. When the horses need a trim, Bernice pulls the shoes and resets them herself.
Bugs are the worst problem, and Bernice fights back with custom-cut bed sheets, customized fly masks, as well as garlic juice and Bag Balm “lathered all over their legs”. Personally, Bernice allows herself the luxury of the Tucker saddle, provided by the company, which she says has done a great job.
The Ende team suffered a heart-rending setback several months ago in Austin when penned together, Essie Pearl kicked Bernice’s veteran mount, a Thoroughbred mare, and broke the horse’s leg. The Thoroughbred had to be put down. Well-wishers stepped forward to offer Bernice many mounts, and she picked Hart, the big Paint. Hart is green, but says Bernice, “by the time I get back to Montana, Hart’ll be broke.”
Riding tens of thousands of miles requires hands-on horsemanship skills, and Bernice credits 4-H with teaching her the important stuff.
“4-H is not just an organization. It is an American tradition. It takes the study of something and makes it applicable,” said Bernice. “It was instrumental in giving me the wherewithal to know how to do this.”
Bernice is in it for the long ride, and the lessons from the road. If she ever wrote a book (“I’ll get around to that some day.”), it would be about the “lessons of devotion and lessons of respect”, she learned through the special bond with her horses. “Respect yourself, and they will respect you,” says Bernice. “They’ll only trust you as much as you can trust yourself.”
The horses will occasionally lie down next to Bernice. Once, the Thoroughbred mare protected her from two hostile dogs. “She put her ears up and her head down, and just circled around me,” said Bernice.
Bernice dedicates all her rides to her mother, Cornelia Ende, who taught her daughter, “Live your life to inspire others, and you too shall be inspired.”"L
The people Bernice meets prove the truth of her mother’s words. “I just meet really good, kind people,” says Bernice. “If there’s a message in all this, it’s the goodness in our country. It’s an absolute miracle.”
If she happens to be in your town, Bernice does talks for pass-the-hat donations. You can check her website, mentioned above, for updates, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Special thanks to Gregg Doster, who took the photos for this story.)
(Karin Livingston is a career 4-H horse leader. Winning Bet is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, IndieBound.org stores, on the Kindle/iPad (use the Kindle store), and to librarians and retailers through the Ingram Book Group.)