Cowboy Leslie Fender doesn’t wrangle cattle. He’s wrangling a childhood dream.
Residents traveling through Eminence last week on Wednesday morning might have caught a glimpse of Fender’s quarter horse Angel untied, patiently waiting in a parking space for Fender to finish his breakfast. The scene of a horse outfitted with saddlebags parked next to an El Camino made for quite a juxtaposition.
Ten years ago Fender suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. Vascular surgeon Graham Long performed an experimental surgery placing a stint in Fender’s carotid artery.
“After the surgery, I’m laying there in recovery and I couldn’t believe it,” Fender said. “I reached up with my hand and could sit up. After the stroke, I knew I had to do this. I could’ve been stuck in wheelchair the rest of my life.”
Fender said he lived temporarily in Dublin, Texas, taking care of his mother. He worked in hospitality jobs as a server at a gourmet restaurant and as a butler. Fender dreamed of traveling across the country on horseback since he was 10 after watching a John Wayne movie.
“I found Angel and bought her from a cowboy outside Dublin. Cowboys train their horses like tools,” Fender said. “I went up to her and said ‘Look I think you are great horse. I won’t hit you or beat you all you have to do is ride’.”
Fender trained his quarter horse Angel and another horse Cherokee for the trip, riding 20 to 30 miles a day with weekends off. He trained them two years for the trip.
In April, Fender put a saddle on his dream and rode his horses for 30 days before crossing the Texas border. He traveled through Louisiana, Alabama and visited relatives in Florida before heading north. Fender made his way to Michigan to see his son and made a return visit with the doctor that saved his life. Fender parted ways with his horse Cherokee in October, as the two horses started to not get along.
Fender uses maps to navigate around larger cities choosing back roads, a tent to sleep in and saddlebags packed with just the necessities.
“We’ve been riding 50 miles a day, but Angel bit me in the butt and said no more. So we now go 30 miles a day,” Fender said. “I usually find somewhere off of the side of the road for us to sleep. She’s a great horse and I make sure she has plenty to eat. I stop at a motel if I can at least once a week to do laundry and clean up.”
Not all the days on the trail have been happy ones.
“I’ve been robbed. During the drought in Texas, it would shoot up to over a 100 during the day and riding in that for a month was hard,” Fender said. “There was also a rain that lasted for weeks and we couldn’t continuously ride in it.”
After reaching Michigan, Fender and Angel headed back south with Evergreen, Ala. as the final destination on his map.
“I was told in Muncie, Ind., that I couldn’t ride a horse through town,” Fender said. “I was eating breakfast at one place when a deputy told me I had to leave after I finished my breakfast. Then, another deputy found me afterwards and said I had to leave right away before I could finish eating.”
Fender rode through Eminence Wednesday morning, ate at Chat-n-Nibble and proceeded to Shelbyville. Fender and Angel will make their way from Shelby County to Nelson County.
But seven miles outside of Shelbyville, Angel threw a shoe. Fender walked with her seven miles into town. After Thanksgiving, Fender was still stuck in town. A notice was posted on Facebook and within less than half an hour two high school friends, who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, reunited over a plan.
“I saw him in Eminence and wish I had had the chance to meet him,” Charles Lee Davis III said. “I just happened to have a farrier I knew on speed dial and he was coming this way from Bardstown.”
Kevin Harnden, farrier and owner of Fire Horse Farrier Service arrived, at the Probus Motel just before dark. The scene of glowing horseshoes and sparks flying as Harnden brushed them looked cinematic. Harnden outfitted Angel with four new shoes and trimmed her hooves where needed.
“I’ll always remember there are some good people in Kentucky,” Fender said.
When Harnden finished up and turned the gas off of his forge, Fender asked him how much he owed him.
“Nothing,” Harnden said. “Consider it a Christmas present. If you ever see me on the side of the road I hope you can stop and lend me a hand.”
Davis shared the same sentiment.
“It was one of the most amazing nights I have ever been a part of,” Davis said. “The need and the kindness were there. We may never see him again, but I’m sure he’ll pay it forward.”
Fender and Angel headed south on the trail to Alabama the following dawn. They rode into the sunrise.
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