NAPANOCH – Ann Byrns had never intended to own a horse, let alone lead one on a walk across the United States. But now she's doing just that.
Having lost her business, a mailing and shipping franchise in Storrs, Connecticut, Byrns found that she was unable to afford the stabling fees for the mustang — named Winnie, after her mother — that she had acquired by accident several years earlier at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction.
This presented a dilemma. She could give the horse away, but she had become very attached to Winnie. She could ship Winnie across the country, but she didn't have the money to do so.
"I thought, 'I can't leave this horse,"' says Byrns. "And I couldn't afford a trailer. But you know what? I have two good legs."
Now Byrns is leading Winnie across the United States to her daughter's small farm in Paradise, California, where the pair will enjoy a frugal retirement.
In the interim, Byrns and Winnie have quite a trek in front of them. The pair started out their nation-wide journey in early June, leaving from western Massachusetts and heading south toward Pennsylvania. The Journal caught up with Byrns and Winnie at the Loosestrife Farm in Napanoch, where the owners Myron and Jean Langer had been gracious enough to offer shelter for Ann and Winnie while they took a short respite from the road.
"I kind of got this horse by accident," says Byrns.
She says that she visited the BLM auction out of curiosity, and that she had never intended to take on the burden of caring for a horse — let alone a mustang that, until a few months earlier, had been running wild on the plains of the western United States.
But there were six horses that had received no bids, and several of those had "three strikes" on them, meaning that they had been auctioned three times with no interest from bidders. This meant that the horses could be destroyed.
"After they've been to three auctions, they can dispose of them," Byrns says.
A friend then offered Byrns a temporary shelter for the horse. And since she had been an avid rider in her youth, she figured that, at the very least, she was doing a good deed in rescuing Winnie.
Thus Winnie and Ann began their relationship. Over the following year, Byrns set out to gain Winnie's trust.
"I started out with a DVD on horse taming," she says. "I used a bamboo pole to begin touching her withers."
After a few weeks of this, Byrns was able to get closer to Winnie. Eventually, she was able to touch Winnie with her hands. She then began to treat the sores Winnie had developed from the halter she was wearing, and before long Ann had won Winnie over.
"Once she trusted me, she was easy to train," says Byrns. "But it took a lot of patience."
Shortly after this, Ann's business collapsed, yet another victim of the economic downturn. Byrns says that she then became depressed.
"I was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning," she says. "But I had to get up to take care of this horse."
It was the caring for Winnie — day in, day out — that kept her emotionally grounded during the crisis.
"I really feel that she rescued me," says Byrns.
So, what started out as a pairing-up by necessity has became one of choice, as the two are now inseparable.
Byrns also realizes that she has a very long way to go if she's going to reach Paradise, a California town situated just north of Sacramento. She just hopes to make it to her uncle's place in Ohio before the winter sets in. After the cold weather ebbs, she'll continue her trek west.
Ann also hopes to lead Winnie along a section of the Santa Fe Trail in homage to Ann's mother, who, in 1925, at the age of twelve, drove the family livestock from New Mexico to more fertile land in western Colorado.
"It's hard to believe some of the things people used to do to get by," says Byrns.
As for now, the duo will continue south toward eastern Pennsylvania. Along the way they hope to encounter kind-hearted souls who might be willing to stable Winnie for a night or two.
And Byrns isn't alone in her endeavor. She has some outside assistance from her friend Mark McPartland, who keeps tabs on her progress and comes to her assistance as necessary. In fact, McPartland was in Napanoch on the day of this interview, having come to replace Ann's dead cell phone.
Later that afternoon, Ann's Bluetooth headset in place, the two hit the road again.
Byrns sees her trek west not just as a chance to save a single horse, but also as an opportunity to highlight the plight of the wild mustangs of the west, horses whose range continues to dwindle due to encroachment by ranchers.
"There's a debate as to whether these horses use too much rangeland," Byrns says.
Byrns herself has no doubt that wild mustangs are worth saving.
"After all, she saved me," Byrns says, as Winnie, oblivious to her fortunate turn of fate, munches away on the onion grass nearby.
If you are interested in keeping tabs on Ann and Winnie's progress, you can do so by visiting Byrns's website, walkingwithwinnie.com. Also, if you can assist them on their journey, you can contact Ann by email at [email protected] or by phone at (860) 463-1477.
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