Founder takes one last ride before closing academy
by:  Blue Heaven Therapeutic Riding Academy founder Carrie Perry takes a client on a ride.  Perry is closing the academy after 10-plus years because of health problems.

When Estacada resident Carrie Perry was 27 years old, she knew she was facing some difficult challenges in life. She was in the middle of a divorce with her first husband and was working two jobs to support her kids, ages 18 months and 3 years old. And, if that wasn't enough, she was working on launching an accounting business with her mother. But the stress proved to be too much for this hardworking mom.

On that typical morning in 1991, Perry was rushing to get ready for work and drop her kids off at daycare when it happened. Without any warning or health-related indicators, Perry collapsed in her room and suffered a massive stroke. She went into a coma caused by the severe brain injury, and would have a long road to recovery to regain some sense of normalcy for her and her kids.

'It was pretty horrific,' Perry said. 'I was in the hospital for two months. I couldn't walk, talk or see when I woke up from my coma. It was really a struggle to learn all those things again and try to take care of my kids after I got out of the hospital.'

After months of physical therapy and efforts to retrain her brain to compensate for the effects of the stroke, Perry resolved to make the most of her situation. She had the help and support of her family and her young kids. She remarried and her husband, Tim, provided her a gift that would change her life.

'He bought me a horse in 1995,' Perry said. 'We actually got two at the time, Sassy and Heaven. At first I couldn't ride my horse. I couldn't saddle her, I couldn't clean her stall, but I started to learn how to do all those things. I noticed this gradual progression taking place, and I was finally able to do all of these things I couldn't do before.'

That's when Perry launched Blue Heaven Therapeutic Riding Academy in Estacada. She opened the doors to the non-profit program in 2000 and has helped hundreds of clients overcome physical and mental challenges much like her own in the last 11 years. However, faced with declining health, Perry finally decided to call it quits to Blue Heaven earlier this year.

'I've seen people come through her who are in wheelchairs and are able to learn to start walking again,' Perry said. 'I've seen little kids who haven't learned to speak or have developmental delays learn to talk in complete sentences. Socially, I've seen so many kids benefit from this program and learn to relate better to their parents and their peers. I've seen young people suffering from depression come out of that, and so many other things because of what horses can do.'

Therapeutic horseback riding, also known as equine-assisted activity or adaptive riding, is used to help people learn to ride horses, but also offers a wide variety of benefits to people with disabilities. Therapeutic riding is beneficial for children and adults who present with any of a wide range of cognitive, physical, and emotional conditions. That's what Perry discovered for herself, and for a little more than a decade she helped others experience the transformation working with horses can create.

'With a horse, you get absolutely unconditional love,' Perry said. 'They listen and sense what you are doing, and nudge you along. When a horse reacts, listens to you and follows your direction, it's very empowering. … And when a horse starts walking, the movement mimics the same movements we make when we walk. Just getting on a horse can strengthen your muscles, get your body used to the rhythm and get into the gait. If more people knew how important horses were, they would be treated like sacred animals.'

In the 10-plus years since Perry opened Blue Heaven, she has seen a transformation take place in the lives of hundreds of clients, from youth born with developmental disabilities to adults trying to recover from a serious accident or brain injury similar to her own. She's witnessed the miracle that's taken place in her own life first hand and is grateful for the experience Blue Heaven has provided.

Along the way she has learned a lot about her own challenges, become a certified brain injury specialist and learned a lot about the care and training of therapy horses.

'I always say that my kids saved my life after my stroke,' Perry said. 'And Blue Heaven saved my future. … I'm so thankful for my kids and my family. I wouldn't be here today without them. I also really appreciate everyone who made Blue Heaven possible.'

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