Transcontinental horse ride nears completion in Sisters


Last updated 9/19/2023 at 10:12am

Photo by Bill Bartlett

Gin Szagola and Finley have trekked all the way from New Jersey on a cross-country trip to the Oregon Coast.

A 21-year-old woman named Gin Szagola is riding her horse, Finley, from New Jersey to the Oregon shore. That's a 3,450-mile trek across 10 states. More amazing is that this is her third cross country-adventure; the first was on foot and the second on a bicycle. In 2019, she became the youngest woman to have walked across the U.S. solo.

None of this comes across when you meet her, as The Nugget did Friday when she came through Sisters, hours behind schedule. But "schedule" isn't really an operative word. Gin and Finley just get up each day and put one foot and hoof in front of the other. It's all part of the serendipity of it all.

Not knowing what obstacles they'll encounter or people they'll meet, they simply "just do it." We originally planned to meet at the Ranger Station and tour the town a bit. We had planned for a photo op at Sno Cap. However, as the day was turning into night it was critical for the duo to keep moving and get bedded down for the evening.

The Nugget caught up with Gin and Finley at Sisters Middle School, and mapped out options for them, settling on Cold Springs. As Finley feasted on the freshly mown grass field, the Sisters Park & Recreation District boys 5th/6th tackle team was scrimmaging. They stopped to welcome the pair to Sisters and ask questions, which Gin cheerfully answered.

Finley is a 6-year-old, 14-2 hand, 1,020-pound sorrel gelding. He is a mustang from a herd management area known as "Palomino Butte" just south of Burns, Oregon. He was captured in August, 2021. 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 (BLM), many would have died of dehydration.

Gin adopted Finley at the end of January 2022, at a BLM facility in Tennessee. She chose him, #7184, based off a single photo. She worked with him for the next three-and-a-half months. The majority of his foundation, over a 45 day period, was done in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, where Gin lived onsite as a stall hand and got to be hands-on in his daily training process.

They began their adventure when Finley was 120 days out of the wild.

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

We asked where they typically stay.

"The short answer is that we stay with hosts or on public lands," Gin said.

"In Iowa and Nebraska, I posted on Facebook groups for local trail riders to find accommodations. This social networking was wildly successful in securing hosts for those states.

"Otherwise, it's been a matter of happening upon people. Knocking on strangers' doors, even. Something always works out. So far, I've never had a sleepless night. At least not entirely.

"I often scope the area we're in on Google Maps, satellite mode. I always search for fairgrounds, rodeo grounds, stables, cowboy churches, and campgrounds. If I anticipate having trouble, I will look at rural cemeteries."

Of course having a horse adds an extra variable since, without hay, you need to be able to graze them overnight.

The assumption before meeting was that she was accompanied by a support vehicle. Not the case.

"We have also never skipped mileage, going the whole way together, start to finish, step by step," Gin said. "I am not above trailering over a dangerous stretch, that would be my duty to Finley, but as of today, we have never had circumstances warrant it, and I do not anticipate the need arising before our finish."

Finley has had routine farrier and vet visits along the way. He is fitted with protective hoof boots.

Gin has stories by the hundreds, often of the kindness of strangers. Especially when crossing major rivers as they did - the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri. They have received police escorts and been led by tractors in particularly tricky situations.

What's next?

"Outside of adventuring, I enjoy fangirling over Young Adult books, procrastinating on writing, drowning my sorrows in food, imagining I'm a sailor, sleeping my life away, getting too lost in my thoughts, lip-syncing show tunes, fostering with my local animal shelter, and staring in awe at the majesty of my dog, a 10-pound mutt named Rascal," Gin said. "I'm a soon-to-be junior at UNC, with an interest in one day pursing veterinary medicine."

They headed down Highway 242 into the rising sunset. The next day would take them to Big Lake via Forest Service roads.


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