Even after several years and 16,000 miles on the trail, Bernice Ende isn’t sure why she became a long rider.
She withstands shin splints, horrific weather and swarms of bugs that make the local mosquito population hardly worth mentioning. She has been hungry and thirsty. She has lost four-legged friends along the way.
But Ende has also seen breathtaking places as she, her horses and dog plod across the country. She has been the recipient of boundless generosity more times than she can count. And while she can’t explain why she rides, she knows she’s lucky to get to live a life she loves.
“I’m just captivated by this,” she said. “In my tent it says above my head, ‘I love my life as a lady long rider.’”
Ende shared photos and stories from that life during a recent presentation in Kalispell. About 25 people attended her talk at the Flathead County Library.
That day, Ende had wrapped up her fourth long ride, a 6,000-mile circuit from Trego to Oregon to Texas to Minnesota to Montana. The trip, Ende’s fourth long ride, took two years, three months and 10 days.
She left March 20, 2009, riding her thoroughbred, Honor. Her dog, Claire, “a rare, one-of-a-kind Montana breed of unknown origin,” rode in a box atop Essie Pearl, the Norwegian Fjord horse Ende enlisted on her third long ride to pack supplies.
The quartet averaged about 20 miles a day at a gentle 4-mile-an-hour pace. When she first started long riding, Ende said she would “push out” 50 miles a day. Now, she’s content to go a little slower.
“Twenty miles a day, that’s plenty any more,” she said.
Much has changed since Ende’s first ride, which she took on a borrowed Tennessee Walking Horse named Pride. The horse was loaded down with gear and supplies, Ende recalled, but even her carefully thought-out plans hadn’t really prepared her for the rigors of long riding.
“I prepared for [that] ride,” she said. “Then I got out there and fell flat on my face.”
Ende said she cried every day of that trip and was ready to quit after crossing the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. She walked about half the trip.
“I’m on my knees crying,” she recalled. “My dog’s feet are wrapped up in duct tape. My shins hurt; I can hardly walk.”
One kind stranger changed everything.
“A rancher took me in and put me back on my feet, put me back in the saddle,” Ende said. “He gave me lots of meat and said, ‘You can do this.’”
He was right. Ende wrapped up that first ride, a 2,000-mile journey, in 2005.
“By the time I finished with that ride, I knew I was going to do this again and again and again and again,” she said.
Her second ride took her on a 5,000-mile, 22-month circuit. She traveled light, with no pack horse, and slept on the ground without a tent.
At the end of that trip, Ende decided to change her traveling style. She wanted Claire to be able to ride, too; a pack horse would solve that problem and allow Ende to travel with more supplies. She, Claire, Honor and Essie Pearl traveled 3,000 miles in 2008.
On their next trip, they made it from Trego to Wimberley, Texas, before tragedy struck. Essie Pearl kicked Honor and shattered the thoroughbred’s leg. When Honor was put down, Ende was at a loss as to how to proceed — but she knew she had to keep going.
“I felt if I didn’t keep moving, I would have just simply crumbled,” she said.
Several people offered her horses, and Ende ended up gratefully accepting the gift of a 16.2-hand paint quarter-thoroughbred mix. Hart, as she christened him, hadn’t been used for 10 years and wasn’t conditioned for long riding. They had only made it as far as Kansas when sores on his back made the saddle too painful to wear.
So Ende shipped the saddle ahead, fashioned a pad to sit on and rode Hart bareback for 300 miles.
“What else do you do? Stop?” Ende asked.
Stopping wasn’t an option, she said. Hart would have lost the conditioning he’d been building, and she had already been delayed too long in her journey. By the time they reached Minnesota, the horse’s back was healed and he was ready to wear a saddle again.
Other trials along the way were more challenging. Bugs drove the horses berserk, even when they were covered like children dressed as Halloween ghosts. The weather was another threat; Ende woke up in a barn after one windy night to find the roof missing and all the trees outside flattened.
Weather eventually forced the travelers to hunker down. Ende spent the winter in her tent outside Forsyth. Bags of leaves banked the tent, which was inside a barn, and Ende wrapped her shelter “like a yurt” in dozens of blankets.
“It was like hibernating, like living in a cave,” she said.
When she added a space heater, Ende was quite cozy — so much so that she hopes to spend the next winter in Forsyth, too.
Even now, at home in Trego, Ende doesn’t plan to spend much time indoors. She doesn’t sleep in her cabin; she sleeps in her tent where she can hear her horses outside, just as she does on the trail.
“That’s my home right now,” she said. “I love that. I love that life. I’m not willing to come out of that.”
Her next ride will take her on a 2,000-mile trip through Canada. Ende expects the journey will take about six months, but she never knows for certain what turns the ride might take. That’s what she explains to people who want to know how to prepare for their own long rides.
“All the preparation in the world is never going to prepare you for a long ride,” she said. “The word for long riding is uncertainty.”
Nostalgia and inspiration are other words that might sum up Ende’s rides. Everywhere she goes she is reminded that the image of a horse and rider is branded into the American West mentality. She is a symbol of days gone by.
“It’s a reminder of freedom,” she said.
Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by email at email@example.com.