We felt trapped. Three women and three horses, we were caught between a vertical rockface 50 feet high and a lake that was rising after 12 hours of rain. The trail was narrow and slick with clay and rocks. When it dipped into the lake we had to lead the horses through. We were soaked and discouraged.

We had started at Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes, Del., on May 5. We'll finish at Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco in September. July 4th found us deep in the tip of southern Illinois - nearly halfway.

That day at Big Slackwater on the C&O Canal near Indian Springs, Md., we found a break by an old mill and climbed out to the road. Since then we have climbed out of a number of fixes.

We began with three women, three horses, two pickups with trailers carrying feed and supplies, and one drivre. Now it's just this mother-daughter team, our Arabian and Quarterhorse mares, and one rig. We have weathered breakdowns, a thrown shoe, blackflies and ticks, cold rains, and sun poisoning. Often it's plain hard work. All of it is leaving us lean, brown, and determined.

We feel a bit like pioneers, tracking down a lifelong dream. As a teen, Pat plotted a ride north from California into the Alaskan wilderness. And when I was growing up, I remember her saying, "Someday I'm going to ride a horse across the United States."

That day is here.

Pat is a 55-year-old grandmother and I'm 30, a writer. We spent a year planning this trip, after Pat signed onto a commercial ride that was canceled. At least $11,000 went into these horses and this rig. More of our savings are keeping us on the road. In the last seven years, Pat has lodged 1,800 miles on long-distance rides. She's the "trainer," I'm the "mechanic". I just like to travel, and I grew up with horses. When Shelly and the driver decided to go home to Ohio, we figured we had too much invested to give up.

Maybe it's the country we see as we ride, 15 to 20 miles a day. We have watched daisies and wild roses bloom and fade, corn and tobacco poke up in rich green rows, and hay being mowed and baled. Children pace us on bicycles and old folks nod howdies in tiny crossroads towns. We have looked down the throats of every color dog that can bark at us. Deer, rabbits, and wild turkeys have fled across our path. Like kids out of school, we are waiting now for the wild raspberries to ripen.

Or maybe it's the people who keep us going. We smile, we ask, and we are offered campsites - all free. We usually stay at fairgrounds, public forest campgrounds, and farms.Add to that gas stations, an intersection, a gravel pit, a boys' home, and a convent.

Just for giving a nun a horseback ride, we garnered blessings enough to take us to Antarctica. A farmer's wife donated home-canned applesauce, jelly, and relish. When Pat's mare lost a shoe, a retired farrier nailed on a new one, refused our money, and let us camp in his field.

We have been spoiled from our first day in Lewes.People there gave us breakfast, a bottle of champagne for our toast at the beach, and a police escort out of town. Not once have we been threatened.

Four to six hours a day, though, Pat and I ride alone to the rhythm of hoofbeats. Without a driver, we spend up to four more hours moving the rig and scouting a campsite. Even with a moped for help shuttling, our gasoline bill is staggering. Our day begins at sunup, 5 a.m., and ends at dusk. About every fifth day we rest.Then we call home to my father, Ed Schamber, and my sister and her kids in Mansfield, Ohio.

We can't ride every step, ocean to ocean. Jeff Spivey did it in 1968 and Johns Egenes in 1974, in six to seven months each. We have less than fix months. Fewer than a dozen horsemen have completed transcontinental rides in as many years. Only one was a woman. A couple of commercial attempts have failed.

We will probably ride 1,500-2,000 miles and trailer the Western deserts. Since May 5 we have ridden more than 600 miles. We need ourpickup-trailer rig to carry feed and supplies. Gazing, or packing feed are completely impractical.

We used the trailer to carry the horses across Chesapeake Bay from the Eastern Shore, and around Annapolis and Washington to Seneca on the C&O Canal. We rode the C&O Towpath 160 miles to Cumberland.Probably the longest, prettiest off-road east-west trail we'll find, the C&O only let us down that one day on the Big Slackwater.

We followed U.S. 40 to Wheeling. Heavy traffic, when the slipstreams from hugh trucks would whip our ponchos over our heads, made the riding extremely hazardous. Cold rain plagued us for a week before Memorial Day.

In southern Ohio we picked up more than 100 miles of the 900-mile Buckeye Trail system. It was just more road riding, with outdated maps. We rode in Kentucky, then trailered to catch up to our schedule in Illinois. The 80-mile River-to-River Trail will take us to Missouri. Part of the route is scenic forest trails, linked by gravel roads, but we ride with a compass because the trails are an unmarked maze.

Through all of this, our horses have stayed fat and strong and beautiful. They are our wards, like children, nice or naughty, 24 hours a day. They are our ticket to a unique look at America.

Most of it is rural America. Sometimes, riding through it, I feel as if we've living in a Norman Rockwell print. Folks out here are clannish, nosy, and speak with drawls you could spread on your toast. They are descended from settlers, from a time when you "put up" the strangers who came riding through. They still go - if the strangers are women and riding horses.

"You're in the country now," a man told us, "where people take care of each other!"

They have CBs on their tractors, gunracks in their pickups, and manure on their boots. They are real. And right where they live, they tell us, time and again, is "God's country!" CAPTION: Picture, In May Shelly Keplar, Linda and Pat Schamber toasted the beginning of their ocean to ocean ride.