Price County Review – Park Falls, Wisconsin
April 4, 2019
By Anna Maria Hansen
Author and long-distance horse rider Bernice Ende stands with her stalwart companions from earlier rides: Honor and Claire Dog.
Bernice Ende shares a moment with one of her horses while traveling through New Mexico.
In 2005 at the age of 50, Bernice Ende mounted her horse and rode south, starting an odyssey that would take her 2,000 miles away from her starting point of Trego, Montana, to Edgewood, New Mexico. The experience that unfolded over the following five months would have been the journey of a lifetime for most people, but for Ende, it was just the beginning.
Over the past 14 years, Ende has essentially adopted the life of a nomad, riding 30,000 miles through the United States and Canada. While she still owns a log cabin in northwestern Montana, Ende spends the vast majority of her life traveling with her horses, constantly outdoors, ever on the move.
Ende’s life wasn’t always this way.
Before her first ride in 2005, Ende grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm, riding horses from the time she could walk. When she grew up, Ende pursued an education in ballet, teaching dance for her entire career. In 1992, Ende moved from the west coast to Trego, Montana, where she opened a small dance school and began giving riding lessons and training horses.
Then it happened.
“I just suddenly had the realization that I had to move, had to change, had to do something,” she said. Although horses and riding had been a lifelong passion, riding across the country had never been something she’d considered. Until now.
As Ende tells it, she saw a window of opportunity open and climbed through.
With nothing but her horse and her dog, Ende set off, aiming for New Mexico. The journey was exhausting, both physically and mentally. With a horse determined to return home to the safety of his pasture, Ende felt she couldn’t safely take her hands off the reins. For two weeks, she never let go of her horse. The only way to keep them both sane was to keep moving, so they rode — 30, 40, 50 miles in a day. Ende recalls her legs collapsing when she tried to dismount. She slept in ditches. During the few hours of sleep she got in a night, the only thing that kept her warm was the body warmth of her faithful dog. Ende cried as she rode, often only able to focus on taking one step after another.
Yet, eventually, horse and human found an equilibrium. While that first long ride was a challenge from start to finish, Ende rode into New Mexico with the realization that she could never return to normal life. The experience had forever changed her.
“It was as if, at 50 years old, I had crawled into my own skin for the first time,” she recalled.
Only months after returning to Montana, Ende was on the road again, which is where she has found herself ever since. Many things have changed since that first ride, both in how Ende personally approaches the experience and in the country she is riding through.
After 14 years of moving at a walking pace through the country — traveling east, west, north, and south — Ende has gotten a taste of the world she could never have experienced if she had stayed in her “normal” existence. She has experienced both true danger and true kindness on the road, from encounters with grizzly bear and people pulling guns to perfect strangers welcoming her into their homes and greeting her with a hero’s welcome.
Perhaps the most surprising realization for Ende is the fact that so many people long for such adventure in their own lives, and how many people she now brings vicariously on her rides.
“This is a unique way to travel in the modern world,” she said. “Not just the physical experience, but the romantic image people hold in their head of a lone person crossing the country on horseback. I realized I wasn’t just on a journey for myself — I am out here for hundreds, maybe thousands of other people who want this.”
By her own choice, Ende’s life is one different than most. Year-round, she lives outdoors with her horses, sleeping either in a tent or sometimes her horse trailer. Her days are not as simple as riding from one point to another; horses, even those well trained, are still powerful and unpredictable animals. Every moment Ende is riding, she must remain alert to the possibility of something unexpected occuring. While she maintains that the vast majority of her interactions with other humans are positive, Ende does carry a gun for her own safety.
As she rides, she navigates her routes along small highways using state maps that she carries with her. The routes she chooses are based on a litany of variables: weather, food, people, and road conditions.
In a life stripped to its bare essentials, Ende lives on about $3 a day. Every day she is on the road, her focus is in finding food and shelter. At the end of day, there are often quiet moments, when Ende might find time to read or write in her journal as her horses graze nearby.
“Living this way has changed my sense of space and time,” explained Ende. “My awareness of other people, animals, the weather, has all broadened. To leave behind your walls and stalls, all the things that separate us, is an experience so unique and intimate.”
Yet such freedom always comes at a price.
“It is a trade-off,” Ende freely admitted. “To live like this, you give up community and relationships. I don’t have a home or a job or a town. There are times when that’s hard. But what I have in an expansive group of people that believe in what I’m doing, and have been so generous to me.”
Perhaps the hardest experience Ende has had to face in all her many years of riding has been the loss of some of her longtime companions. Her faithful first companion, a mix-breed dog of unknown origins that answered to Claire Dog, passed away at the age of 16 in 2015 after covering 17,000 miles with Ende. While her first long-distance horse is happily retired on a Montana ranch, Ende lost her beloved second horse to a freak accident. A third horse passed away in retirement, and a fourth horse died of a brain parasite. Through the strong bonds forged after years and countless miles spent together, these are losses Ende will always carry.
The gumption that comes from a long line of strong and independent women is part of what has given Ende the inner strength required to stick with her way of life. Ende dedicates each of her rides to her mother, who she describes as a capable woman that always encouraged her daughter to seek adventure. In turn, Ende hopes that in some small way, her own journey will encourage other women to surmount challenges and become strong leaders.
Since October 2018, Ende has been on the road traveling once again, this time with a trailer for her horses and boxes of books in her truck as she tours the country sharing her story with others.
Ende’s eight long-distance rides have become her first book, “Lady Long Rider: Alone Across America on Horseback.” Ende will be visiting the Park Falls Public Library at 6 p.m., Monday, April 8, to tell her story, which will also be the topic of a documentary released later this summer.
While Ende’s journey has taken her across the country, it is still far from over.
“I think I still have several good rides left in me,” she said. “At this point, my trips operate a lot more smoothly than they did when I started. I’m not sure where I’ll be heading next, but I have a couple ideas in mind.”