Woman rides horseback across U.S.

By Benny Westcott
Lebanon Local

Lebanon residents might have been surprised to find a young woman riding a horse through town on Friday, Sept. 22.

The horse is a seven-year-old named Finley. The woman is 23-year-old Gin Szagola, originally from Pennsylvania. Both are quite the adventurers.

The duo traveled coast-to-coast from New Jersey to Oregon, about 3,500 miles. They started in May 2022, wintered in Chadron, Neb., and then set out again this spring. That’s about a 16-month trip in all, including 12 months of active traveling. Szagola expected to finish the journey in or around Newport on Sept. 29.

Finley is a former wild mustang from a herd management area known as Palomino Butte just south of Burns. According to Szagola, he was captured in August 2021 when his herd was rounded up due to overpopulation and water shortages in the area – without intervention from local ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, many of the horses would have died of dehydration.

Szagola adopted Finley in January 2022 at a BLM facility in Tennessee. She chose him based on a single photo she saw of him. She then worked with him for the next three and a half months. The duo left for the trip when Finley was just 120 days out of the wild.

At their start in New Jersey, Finley was still too scared to be touched by strangers and he could not be safely ridden, so Szagola opted to lead him across the entirety of the state. By central Pennsylvania, Finley became fully comfortable around people and Szagola began riding him solely in his rope halter.

Szagola planned to arrive in Sweet Home a day earlier than she did, but fell behind schedule when she lost Finley somewhere in the Cascades. It wasn’t the first time Finley wandered off. He went missing in May for an entire week at South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. After he was found, Szagola braided a GPS tracker into his mane, a move that proved quite useful after Finley broke his rope and wandered away in the Cascades. This time it only took Szagola four hours to locate Finley.

Throughout the long trip, the horse and human have stayed either on public lands or with a host.

Gin Szagola poses with her horse, Finley, while staying in Sweet Home. Photo provided by Tammie Atwood

One of those hosts was Tammie Atwood in Sweet Home, who agreed to host the pair after a close friend heard about the epic journey and asked if she would be able to put them up for the night.

Not only was Atwood able to offer Szagola a warm bed and hot meal, but, since she has four horses of her own, she was able to provide Finley with a field, as well as seed and grain. The duo left the next morning at 9 a.m. and headed through Lebanon for Tangent, where they stayed the night on the Tangent City Hall grounds.

Naturally, Atwood asked Szagola why she is undergoing the journey. Szagola responded, “When I was in school, I was a person who was by myself. I didn’t have any friends and was a very introverted kind of person.”

She told Atwood that she just wanted to accomplish some things and that this was what she decided to do. Atwood said she was impressed with Szagola’s horsemanship.

“I think that Gin is absolutely in sync with that horse, and she put everything for him first, everything he needed,” Atwood said. “She limited how far they would go every day. She walks for part of the day, and she takes a 10-minute break every hour so he can stop and graze or get water wherever they’re at.”

Atwood also noted that Finley looked great.

“He looked no different than any one of my totally pampered horses,” Atwood said.

Atwood also experienced a magical moment with Finley.

“There is an old wives’ tale that wild mustangs face the sun as it rises,” she said. “So I got up at the crack of dawn to go watch the sunrise to see if he actually did it. And he did.”

Szagola and Finley walk along Airport Road in Lebanon on their way to Tangent. Photo by Benny Westcott

As unbelievable as Szagola’s journey sounds, it’s not the first epic trek she’s undergone. In 2019 she walked solo from Delaware to California, a trip that took nine months to complete. Then, in 2021, she cycled from South Carolina to California, which took 81 days. That same year, she cycled from Washington to Michigan, which took 40 days.

Szagola is a University of North Carolina student who is interested in attending veterinary school in the future. Those interested in learning more about her journeys can check out her blog at http://Ginandfaith.com.