In 2013 at the age of 36, Jesse McNeil—at times carpenter, commercial fisherman, dabbler in real estate—decided to buy an untrained horse, make himself into a horseman, and ride all the way across the United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.
A fiercely independent traveler, Jesse had navigated previous coast-to-coast trips—solo journeys by moped, bicycle, and small airplane. This time, however, he had a partner: a five-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse named Pepper. An inexperienced horseman with an equally inexperienced mount, Jesse would quickly discover the immense challenges of his new undertaking. Over the course of eight months and fourteen states—beginning in Oregon and ending on a beach in New Hampshire—he would be tested many times over as he learned not only what it took to keep Pepper safe and healthy, but the true value of qualities that he had once easily dismissed: patience and companionship.
We asked Jesse about his adventuring past and his new book ON THE HOOF, which shares his journey on horseback.
Your book ON THE HOOF tells the story of your journey across the United States, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, with your horse Pepper. This was not your first trek across the continent. Can you tell us a little about your other trips?
My travels coast to coast first began as a stunt: I took a moped as a cheap way across the continent. It cost me only $52 in gas to putter east for three weeks to my home state of New Hampshire. A few years later I earned my pilot certificate and did the same by air in a small trainer plane. The cost was way more, but the view grander. Another journey was by an old motorcycle—this time westward back to the San Juan Islands in Washington State—which felt much like the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I didn’t read until a year after.
It was by simpler means, a bicycle jaunt east across Canada to the Bay of Fundy in 2010, that triggered the idea of riding a horse. I was pushing down on the pedals across Saskatchewan when I saw on a horse in a pasture beside the road. It felt like it would be more real, more to the heart of traveling, to be on a horse than a flimsy bicycle.
You were not a horseman prior to buying Pepper as a green five-year-old with the trip you were planning in mind. What did you find challenging about training a horse for the first time? What did you find fulfilling?
Simply managing the size of such an animal was intimidating, although a thousand pounds of beast held by a thin rope felt comical, too. Then, quite quickly, I realized that a horse would know if it was possible to dominate me or not. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to act as if I did, otherwise the day’s training would fall apart. I learned, too, that subtleness of pressure and positive emotional energy was extremely important, and really enjoyed exploring how precise I had to be with Pepper for her to listen to me and respect our budding relationship.
Looking back, do you feel traveling 3,800 miles with a horse changed you? If so, how? Was this trip more transformative than the other adventures you’ve had?
Yes, traveling with an animal is much more demanding than handling a piece of machinery. Building a partnership is extremely important and takes a great deal of time, and there’s no manual to follow. It’s an intuitive experience that is truly a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Patience is key. I had to learn to have more than I ever had back at the Pacific shore.
Early praise for ON THE HOOF:
“Jesse McNeil’s memoir demonstrates the hardships that happen when taking on a challenge as daunting as his coast-to-coast journey on foot, with only a horse named Pepper as his companion. It’s not for the faint of heart or those enamored with the romantic concept of ‘just being with a horse.’ For Jesse, it would become a life-changing experience with the realization he could overcome almost anything he would face in his life ahead…. The bond that develops between Jesse and Pepper cannot be explained to others, as there are no words to describe the deepness that is reached…. We as readers can feel Jesse’s emotions in the words he shares. We can also learn to apply the lessons he learns to our own journeys—to life’s good days, best days, hard days, and ‘impossible’ tests.”
America’s Most Trusted Horseman
“Jesse McNeil and his four-legged companion Pep remind us that even the best-laid plans require constant adjustment. But through teamwork, flexibility, and tenacity they can be navigated to an outcome that’s really special, and that’s exactly what On the Hoof is. A long walk, rhythmic trot, and full gallop that will leave you
wanting to strike out on your own unique adventure.”
Author of Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova and The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites
“Those of us who breed horses and write of them hope to ride vicariously on the adventures to which we send them. So it’s doubly gratifying, as the breeders and initial trainers of a horse named Pepper, to see her adventures and those of her owner Jesse McNeil poetically narrated in a book named On the Hoof.”
Author of Sketches from the Ranch and In Trace of TR
Watch the book trailer:
ON THE HOOF is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE to download a free chapter or to order.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and videos, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.