More Than a Joy Ride

by | Apr 23, 2024 | Animals, Nonprofit, People

After a record-breaking cross-country horseback ride to raise awareness for the veteran safe space and animal sanctuary he plans to build in North Carolina, Matt Perella passed through Surf City.

They say life is all about the journey, but for 42-year-old Marine Corps veteran Matthew Perella, his journey is all about saving lives.

In the fall of 2023 Perella completed a 179-day cross-country horseback ride to raise awareness for both veterans with PTSD and rescue animals. In the process he set a new world record as the fastest person to travel coast to coast on a single horse. He is now hard at work building the Righteous Life Rescue Ranch, a sanctuary in the mountains of Asheville for retired horses, death-row dogs and military men and women searching for hope in tough times.

At the start of 2020 Perella owned a successful, high-end event-planning business in New York City, and life was good. He’d recently adopted his dog, Raffe, an experience he says felt like it was meant to be.

“I saw Raffe’s photo online and read about his aggressive bite history, but I was just drawn to him,” Perella remembers. “I’d never seen anything so vicious before in my life, something so angry at the presence of people, but I wanted the dog and I knew I was his last chance because he was going to be euthanized.”

It wasn’t long after adopting Raffe that COVID hit and everything in Perella’s life began to crumble. Forced to close his business, he went into extreme debt and soon found himself needing to move from the city and into an RV in Massachusetts. Shortly after Christmas in 2020, his depression descended to an all-time low, and he says one night he decided to take his own life.

“It was in the exact moment I was about to end it all that Raffe jumped on me and wouldn’t let me up,” Perella says. “It was so unlike his behavior that it made me stop and think that I must be here for another reason. What’s crazy is that several months later I contemplated suicide again, and Raffe did the same exact thing, so he saved my life twice that year.”

After those two pivotal moments, Perella knew he needed to make a huge change, and he decided he would take Raffe and his horse, Buck, on a journey across the country. However, he realized he didn’t want to do this for just himself.

Surf City Matt Perella

“I wouldn’t be here without my animals, and there are so many other animals out there needing to be rescued, dogs like Raffe that need a second chance,” Perella says. “I also had many friends from my time in the military who had committed suicide, and I used to get so angry before COVID because I never understood how people could get to that level, until there I was about to eat my own bullet.”

Perella says he realized that if animals saved his life, they could also save others, and the idea of the Righteous Life Rescue Ranch began taking shape.

He decided to use his plan of traveling across the country on horseback to raise awareness for both animals and veterans in need and then build a sanctuary where he would bring them all together.

“I wanted to take everything that had helped me find myself again and see if it could help others, and that’s dogs, horses and nature,” Perella says. “Being outside with my animals is the only place where I’m not lost in my mind, so this ride across the country turned from being about myself to wanting to help others.”

Perella’s original plan was to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast atop Buck with Raffe walking alongside. The trio started in May of 2022, but only made it halfway before Perella realized the trek was too much for his dog. Canceling the journey, he packed up his things and animals and drove the rest of the way to California, but soon decided he and Buck weren’t done yet. Perella realized that by altering his strategy, the duo might be capable of setting a new world record.

“I decided to go from the West Coast to the East Coast this time, and I built a camper for my truck and hired drivers for different legs of the journey to follow behind me and Buck,” Perella says. “We left on April 11, 2023, from Delmar Beach on Camp Pendleton. My driver, with Raffe and all our provisions in the truck, would hang back for 30 minutes, then pull up to wherever I was and give Buck water, and we would just continue that way. It was the safest way for Buck, who’s now the fastest horse in history to go across the country because of the strategy I picked.”

The group often set up the camper and slept on the side of the road, in parking lots, ballfields or anywhere they could find some grass to tie Buck alongside the truck for the night. Showers were scarce, and with 10 hours in the saddle daily, Perella was so tired he needed every bit of sleep he could get. Perella says he wouldn’t have completed the journey if it wasn’t for the help he and his animals received from others along the way.

Topsail Matt Perella

“The people we met were amazing, some waiting on the sides of the roads because they’d heard we were coming, bringing us hay and water, food, money and even offering showers and housing on their property,” Perella says.

“It was the most humbling experience. My faith in humanity was over in 2020, until I went out on the journey and realized Americans are amazing. I prayed every day, and my faith kept me going because I knew God hadn’t abandoned me, he’d just set me up for something great.”

Originally Perella believed he could beat two previous world records, one set in 2016 when Valerie Ashker traveled coast to coast on one horse in 194 days, and the other by Eustace Conway, the fastest person to cross the country on horseback using four different horses in 103 days. Hoping to surpass this record with one horse alone, Perella and Buck got two-thirds of the way across the country in nine weeks, traveling up to 50 miles a day, before a stone bruise on Buck’s foot stopped the pair completely in Texas.

“We took a six-day break in McKinney but it wasn’t getting better,” Perella says. “At that point I knew Buck wouldn’t be well enough to beat the 103 days record for fastest on horseback, so he was given an extended rest.”

A family offered him four horses so that he could continue on to beat the 103-day record Eustace Conway set on his four horses.

“I rode them an additional 300 miles from McKinney, but they weren’t mentally prepared to be on the highway and were spooking and running into the roads, which was chaos,” Perella says.

Matt Perella Horseback

So he decided to pull the plug at that point and returned all the horses before one of them, himself or someone driving was seriously injured. Coincidentally, Perella already planned to take two weeks off at that time to fly to Mongolia and participate in the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and most difficult horse race. On August 2, Perella set out on a nine-day race riding 30 different Mongolian wild horses.

“There were 28 stations with 18 to 22 miles between each, and at every station you change horses,” Perella says. “I rode an additional 700 miles in those nine days and faced challenges I had never experienced on a horse. Two flipped over on me causing me to fracture my collar bone, and another ran me full speed into the head of a horse that was tied up, fracturing two of my ribs.”

When Perella got back to America, he resumed the cross-country journey with Buck and Raffe. On October 6, the trio finally arrived at North Myrtle Beach, officially beating Valerie’s previous record by completing their journey in 179 days. Not wanting to stop there, however, Perella, Buck and Raffe continued up the coast through Surf City to Camp Lejeune. With this Perella set a second world record as the only Marine veteran to ever ride coast to coast from base to base on one horse, a journey that took 183 days.

Perella says although his trip is over, the real journey begins now as he tries to get the Righteous Life Rescue Ranch up and running.

His goal is to raise $10 million to build a 300-acre ranch in Asheville where veterans can come for free to clear their heads and connect with animals. Perella aims to have at least 200 horses at the sanctuary as well as numerous rescued dogs that will be trained as service dogs and donated to veterans in need.

Other plans include an equine therapy program, trail rides, cabins with overnight retreat options, a wild mustang rehabilitation program and offerings for children with autism. Now busy with the marketing and fundraising for his sanctuary, Perella hopes to have the funds needed this spring to purchase the land and start construction.

“The ranch needs to be so beautiful that when the veterans get out of their cars, just looking at it takes their soul to a wonderful place,” Perella says. “My ultimate goal is to rescue as many dogs and horses as I can and unite them together with veterans so they can save each other, and do it all amongst the beauty of God’s creation.”

Saddle Up
To learn more about Righteous Life Rescue Ranch or to donate to Perella’s cause visit:  therlrr.org

About the author

Annesophia Richards

Annesophia Richards

After spending a decade as an English teacher in Florida, I moved to Wilmington in 2014 to be closer to family. I now spend my time freelance writing, working as a school interventionist and raising two very energetic children. I love exploring all that makes North Carolina such a beautiful state and travelling as much as my family and time allow! My writing appears in various local area publications. In my free time I tend to read or go for a run, and I also love competing in creative writing contests. I’ve received awards for several pieces of flash fiction. My ability to tell a good tale is a talent that I use nightly when tucking my kids in with a bedtime story.