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Jobless Woman Headed For Texas On Horseback

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Jobless Woman Headed For Texas On Horseback

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Jobless Woman Headed For Texas On Horseback

Jobless Woman Headed For Texas On Horseback

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Following Donna Byrne

Several of Byrne's supporters have started a Web site called A Cowgirl's Journey to track her progress.

Donna Byrne rides her horse Jay as Tonto carries her belongings, on her trip along U.S. Route 301 in Riverview, Fla. Paul Lamison/Tampa Tribune via News Channel 8/AP hide caption

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Paul Lamison/Tampa Tribune via News Channel 8/AP

Donna Byrne rides her horse Jay as Tonto carries her belongings, on her trip along U.S. Route 301 in Riverview, Fla.

Paul Lamison/Tampa Tribune via News Channel 8/AP

Donna Byrne "parks" her horses. Brian Reed/NPR hide caption

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Brian Reed/NPR

Donna Byrne "parks" her horses.

Brian Reed/NPR

On roads teeming with motorcycles, pickup trucks and 18-wheelers, it isn't too hard to spot a woman on horseback.

So Donna Byrne is attracting a lot of attention. After she lost her job as a ranch hand in Arcadia, Fla., the 44-year-old couldn't afford her rent, so she decided to ride her horses, Jay and Tonto, to Texas — maybe even Montana — in search of work as a cowgirl.

In the first few weeks of her journey, Byrne has already received a large showing of goodwill. She says every day people stop to ask about her journey and offer a hand.

"She loaded up her horses and all her worldly goods and hit the road," says Daniel Skidmore, who pulled over on U.S. Route 301 in Wildwood, Fla., after reading about Byrne in a local newspaper. "I don't know many women [who] would do that."

At a rest stop up ahead from where Skidmore found her, Byrne ties Jay and Tonto to a handicapped parking sign, and they gulp down five buckets of water. Byrne pats them on the neck, nuzzles them and scolds them when they start drinking too sloppily. She says Tonto has a nice demeanor — that is, until someone tries to ride him.

"Then he wants to buck," she says, which is why she's designated him as her packhorse.

And as for Jay, "She gets one of them temperaments," Byrne says. "She wants to go, go, go, go — you've got to hold her back."

The horse's personality is not unlike her rider's. Byrne was a truck driver for many years, and that road mentality has stuck. She has no family, so when work didn't pan out in Florida, Byrne says, heading west was the best solution she could think of.

"It's been a dream of mine to do this ride," she says. "Lost a house, lost a job. Had to do something quick. I figured right now'd be the best time to do it."

Byrne spent the first few nights of her journey sleeping outside, until two local newspapers picked up her story — The Tampa Tribune and the Bradenton Herald. And that's when people started looking for her. Drive-by benefactors pulled over and donated cash. Some people offered their homes and their stables. A vet gave the horses roadside shots. A farrier gave them a new set of shoes.

In these tough economic times, something about Byrne's old-fashioned earnestness seems to strike a chord with people. In some ways, it's almost as if she rode straight out of a John Steinbeck novel.

"Owning a log cabin house," she says, longingly describing her dream life in Montana. "Having my own piece of property. Doing my own ranching. Mountains all around it."

But of all the people who are helping Byrne, horse lovers seem to be especially galvanized.

"Horse people are kind of a stick-together bunch," says Lisa Pannell. "So you know you kind of help out somebody if you can."

Pannell was at the receiving end of an elaborate phone chain to find lodging for Byrne in Wildwood. She let Jay and Tonto stay in her paddock, while Byrne slept at Sandy LeNoir's house down the road.

"I just think she's trying to hang onto her horses, which is, for a lot of us, that's our sanity," LeNoir says. "And she's hanging onto them and going after her dream. She's got nothing to lose."

Members of a Florida chapter of Cowboys for Christ, a national organization, have started a Web site for Byrne, and they've been making calls on her behalf. They're trying to connect her with people through Florida and even on to Texas. Nobody's really thinking beyond that yet.

That is, nobody except for Byrne. She says the word is that there isn't much more work in Texas than Florida.

"It's tough all the way around. It really is," she says.

And if she finds the Lone Star State lacking in job prospects?

"Just keep on riding," she says.

And that's exactly what she's doing — every day. After the horses slurp their last bit of water, Byrne ties the bucket to Tonto's pack and hoists herself onto Jay. She tips the floppy brim of her cowboy hat, and the three head on down the asphalt trail.