WEEKI WACHEE - When Leslie Fender passed through the Sand Trap Bar and Grill in Weeki Wachee last week with his horse, Angel, they had traveled about 7,000 miles.
Not in a truck or with a horse trailer, but the old-fashioned way like how the Pony Express riders of the 1860s did when they went west on horseback across the Great Plains with messages in hand.
For Fender, 55, who had a severe stroke several years ago that left the right side of his body paralyzed, that message is stroke awareness.
One recent recipient of that message was Fender's vascular surgeon at Beaumont Health System, the Detroit-based hospital where Fender underwent a life-saving, experimental surgery that required placement of a stent in his carotid artery.
Beginning his excursion in North Texas, Fender first rode horseback to Detroit to thank his vascular surgeon and demonstrate his progressing health, according to the hospital.
Now he is making his way south. Fender rode east through Florida's Panhandle before turning toward St. Petersburg - his destination - where he has friends.
"He rode right up and dropped the reins on the grass," said Sand Trap patron Daryl Champion.
Susan Suozzo was at the Sand Trap when she had a rare encounter with a man in Hernando County wearing full cowboy attire.
"This guy's a lunatic," Suozzo said she thought at first glance. "How many guys walk into a bar around here wearing a cowboy hat, boots and chaps?"
"He wasn't a (pretender)," Suozzo said, who also owns and rides seven horses. "He's not a fly-by-night. He was just a very nice man, and raising awareness and money for stroke victims, for hospitals and their units."
Suozzo said Fender told her he sleeps in a tent, lives mostly off of the land and his horse, Angel, eats grass rather than grain.
Patrons said emergency medical personnel went to Sand Trap on Dec. 26 to check on Fender. They said Fender was sweating and had been dehydrated from the heat.
"He was laughing about it the next morning when I gave him some coffee," said Champion.
"He went riding straight down (U.S.) 19 to St. Pete," Champion said, adding that Fender left early Dec. 27.
He could not be reached for comment.