Photos by Julia Purdy
Bernice Ende, a.k.a. Lady Long Rider, leads her two Norwegian Fjords (Essie Pearl and Montana Spirit) across a pasture in Plymouth before they departed for New York.
By Julia Purdy
Some people challenge themselves by jumping out of airplanes, competing in Spartan events, or scaling dizzying cliff faces. In 2005, 50-year-old Bernice Ende of Trego, Montana, made a life-changing decision to take a borrowed horse, Ribbons Pride, on a trail ride of 2,000 miles, from Trego to Edgewood, N.M., outside Albuquerque. Ende calls herself Lady Long Rider.
The idea struck her suddenly, after a 20-year career as a ballet instructor. She explained that she had always ridden horses since her childhood on her family’s Minnesota farm—“I came out of my mother’s body riding a horse”—and so it seemed the natural next step in her life odyssey. Her equipment was primitive, piled around the saddle, and Pride, a tall Tennessee walking horse, was perhaps not the best choice.
“I cried for weeks. I wondered what I was getting myself into,” she remembers. On that ride she learned that her worst enemy was not the perils of the trail, but her own fear. But she also discovered an entirely new and satisfying way of life, and since then she has put almost 25,000 miles behind her, leaving for a new adventure every year or two.
Nowadays she travels with a saddlehorse and a packhorse—two gentle Scandinavian blondes: Essie Pearl, a 12-year-old Fjord mare, and Montana Spirit, a 5-year-old Fjord-Percheron mare. She says they make great trail horses: sturdy, steady, amenable, with broad backs for carrying herself, her now voluminous gear, and on most trips, Claire her dog. The horses will plod placidly along on highways with tractor-trailers zipping past, although one incident nearly spelled the end of this trip—they spied a “pink dinosaur” statue and both jumped sideways into the travel lane.
The Mountain Times caught up with Bernice at mile 3,400 in Plymouth Union, where she was spending several days and giving talks in our area. It was her second trip through Plymouth, having gone to the coast of Maine and come back over the past month.
On the day she departed, the air was frosty and snowlaced the bare slopes of Round Top, the route that she would take to reach Fort Edwards in New York, where she will be wintering before returning home via Canada in the spring.
This will be her eighth expedition. She left her snug Montana cabin in April 2014 on an 8,000-mile ride that ended at the Atlantic Ocean in Wells, Maine. In Plymouth she had the luxury of sleeping in a converted van next to the horses’ pasture. Normally, “I sleep, eat, live on the ground,” she said. She camps wherever she is at day’s end, with permission from landowners, who are usually delighted to host her and her team, she said. When high winds threaten she seeks out the nearest shelter or barrier, sometimes just the lee side of a barn or clump of trees. When she hits a town she sends items ahead to the next post office, care of general delivery, does a load of laundry, and buys a good meal. At this particular stop she needed to visit a dentist in Rutland to check a bothersome tooth.
Bernice Ende’s first rides put her equipment to the test and she has shared her experience with the outfitters, who now sponsor her and have furnished her with a fine saddle, boots, panniers, and a SunBody sombrero with the broadest brim you have ever seen and, in her experience, the best hat she has ever owned. But over the years Bernice has also customized much of her equipment.
The horses’ safety and comfort are as important as her own. She has fashioned wool pads to lie against the horses’ skin beneath the packs and saddles. To prevent their hooves from icing up, she cuts gaskets from old tires and fits them to custom-made steel shoes, which last three times longer than ordinary horseshoes. She also is her own farrier on the trail.
The horses wear clanking cowbells around their necks and fluorescent white-orange-and-yellow gaiters and breast collars. Crossing Michigan in early summer the mosquitoes were ferocious and she draped both horses in large bedsheets (“cheap and easy”). With bug masks on their heads, they looked like something out of Halloween, but they weren’t annoyed by insects.
Meals on the trail consist of grains, tea, dried meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables in season, and peanut butter. She carries a single-burner propane stove, one pot, one spoon, and one knife, as well as her personal effects. She is often invited to enjoy a good home-cooked meal from locals she meets.
Ende swaps the job of pack horse and riding horse between the two. The pack horse carries a modified sawbuck pack-saddle and two panniers, containing horseshoes and shoeing equipment, picket lines and hobbles, veterinarian supplies, halters and spare bridle, brushes and curry combs, as well as her own supplies.
The horses were ready to move out as Bernice Ende loaded them up. They stretched their necks for a last bite of green grass as Bernice said her goodbye to her hostess. Then, astride Montana Spirit, Bernice led Essie Pearl toward Route 100. Before they were out of sight their gait assumed the steady rhythm of the trail.
The stripped-down, nomadic life is only a fantasy for many of us, and yet Lady Long Rider sees herself as a role model of sorts, having dared to break with convention and facing many unknowns on a daily basis. Yet while she believes that her story could be instructive to others, she is not imposing but friendly and approachable, interested in every place she goes and everyone she meets. She enthusiastically remarked that our New England villages, landscapes and deep history have given her a much better concept of the beginnings of America—quite different from the lessons of the West. May we all be so open to life.
For more information visit www.endeofthetrail.com.