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by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Kat Barrett, Horse Sense Riding School founder, snuggles with Bear. The two helped each other recover from illness and neglect.There is a horse named Bear.

Or, Bear Bear to his friends.

But Kat Barrett also refers to the gelding as her “unicorn.”

When hearing their story, it’s hard not to assume fate was involved.

Barrett had always been fond of horses and grew up riding, but as she grew older she got “distracted” and pursued other interests.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education, with a concentration in child development and family studies. Her studies drew her into an intense line of work.

During college, Barrett worked as a unit manager for the University of Mexico’s Children’s Psychiatric Hospital. She later worked as a counselor at the University’s Center of Alcohol, Substance Abuse and Addictions.

Upon moving to Portland, Barrett worked as an alcohol and drug counselor for Outside In.

And when she needed a break from “the hard world of mental health and addictions,” she took a job in the insurance industry.

She stayed in the insurance business for five years until she reached what can easily be described as a turning point in her life.

Barrett mysteriously fell very, very ill.

“It was slow at first, but over time I became sicker and weaker. I had a series of strange infections and some of my organ functions (liver, kidney, ovaries) were slowly shutting down,” Barrett wrote in an email. “I was passed around from specialist to specialist. They all acknowledged that there had to be a common thread driving my illness and wacky infections, but none seemed motivated to help resolve it.”

Barrett stayed sick for years and years and watched as her job, savings, retirement and home slipped away.

One day, Barrett’s then roommate, Erin Starner, “dragged” her along to a riding lesson.

Barrett is grateful she did.

“It was so liberating. No matter how sick or exhausted I felt, that horse had my back and would get me around safely,” Barrett wrote.

Barrett credits her rekindled relationship with horses for speeding along her recovery.

“Just having a friend... Because when you’re sick a lot of people go away,” Barrett said.

Eventually Barrett landed on the Oregon Health Plan and found a doctor willing to perform enough tests to be able to diagnose her condition, which turned out to be “critical vitamin deficiencies.”

Luckily, the condition was quite treatable.

“It boggles my mind that I suffered so long over something so minor. In the last months of my illness, I could barely get out of bed, but if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have found Horse Sense,” Barrett wrote.

A couple of months after her diagnosis, Barrett was checking out a horse to lease at a barn when Bear caught her eye.

“When I first met Bear in that dark, sad barn I thought he was a black horse, until I saw that the color was a writhing mass of flies,” Barrett wrote. “He looked so sad, like he was waiting for a little girl that never showed up (which was more or less true). He was skinny and had filth and parasites matted in his tail.”

She couldn’t get Bear out of her head and sat up nights thinking about him.

She knew she had to take him home.

Barrett tried everything she could think of to get him out of the “Barn of Woe,” as she calls it. She contacted the barn owners, she called attorneys and investigators from the Humane Society and Animal Control.

With no job and no money, Barrett worried she’d never be able to rescue Bear.

But that’s not how the story ends.

One day Barrett was telling a trainer about Bear when a woman happened to overhear. The woman used to ride at the barn Bear was at and knew his owners.

“The angel that got me in contact with the owners was only going to be at our facility for a few more days. It was only by luck and chance that we met,” Barrett wrote.

They contacted Bear’s owners who were shocked to hear how badly the $400 a month facility was caring for their horse.

The family had wanted to find Bear a home, but had been told that he was too old and no one would take him. If Barrett hadn’t found him in time, he might have been euthanized.

Barrett got to take Bear home the next day.

The two grew healthy together and Barrett got the idea to start the Horse Sense Riding School.

The idea was to “give a job to senior horses.” Horses like Bear.

The horses in the program have been through some “dark experiences.”

For example, Beau, a handsome chestnut quarter horse, had been severely abused by methamphetamine addicts before being rescued by an elderly couple.

Beau, along with the rest of the Horse Sense equines, enjoys a great deal of pampering nowadays.

Several of Barrett’s students spend whole days at the barn grooming the horses and making sure their stalls and runs are ship-shape.

The horses enjoy massages, joint supplements and dental care.

“They earn their keep. They can have whatever they want,” Barrett said.

The senior horse rescue is just one of the things that makes the Horse Sense Riding School unique.

“What started as a program for senior horses really turned into a program about inclusivity,” Barrett said.

Barrett’s students rage in age from 6 to 64. Students on either end of the spectrum had been disqualified from most other riding programs because of their age.

Barrett will teach anyone. A love of horses is the only requirement.

There’s your average teen, there’s those with health issues, some students have learning disabilities.

The program was soon flooded with students.

But it faced another problem: it was having a hard time finding a home.

Some barns were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of students that came in.

Barrett likes to teach everything about horses: feeding, grooming and stall care in addition to equitation. This philosophy didn’t always fit in with more traditional and formal stables.

“As we were moving...I was telling my students and parents that I was moving the program 25 miles away and offered to refer them to other programs. One teenage girl told me, ‘Of course I’m going to follow you. I called every program I could find and you were the first person that didn’t tell me I was too fat to ride.’

“Even if a student is too large to comfortably ride a horse, there are other things that they can learn, like groundwork and showmanship,” Barrett wrote.

Then Craigslist brought together Barrett and Carrie Perry.

Perry ran the Blue Heaven Therapeutic Riding Academy in Estacada for 11 years before retiring in 2011.

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Barrett teaches Clayton Smiths second lesson. His mother said that Smiths first lesson was all he could talk about. He rides Senji, the senior Arabian horse. Kati Moyak assists.The spacious facility was vacant until Barrett came along.

“Best thing that ever happened to me because I can’t do it anymore,” Perry said of Barrett coming to her facility. “My barn is alive again and it was built to be alive.”

“It really was a match made in heaven,” Barrett said of Perry, who is a consultant for the Horse Sense Riding School nonprofit board.

Since the move to the Blue Heaven facility in July, more than 100 students have come to take lessons from the Horse Sense Riding School.

And Barrett hopes they’ll just keep coming.

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