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The generous mind adds dignity to every act, and nothing misbecomes it. --Plutarch

Square Peg Foundation: Where Kids & Horses Heal Each Other

--by Joell Dunlap, syndicated from squarepegfoundation.org, Aug 20, 2020

The Square Peg Foundation employs ex-racehorses as therapy animals for children on the autism spectrum. Joell Dunlap is the founder of the group based in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Established in  2004, Square Peg now has two facilities and 20 horses, all of whom are off-track Thoroughbreds provided through CARMA, the non-profit dedicated to rehabilitation, retraining and/or retirement for horses that have raced in California. 

So the question comes up why horses? Here's the thing-- a horse never sees potential in any one. A horse sees you for exactly who you are and a horse offers you the dignity of that. The dignity to be scared, the dignity to be dis-regulated, the dignity to be curious, or kind, or excited. The dignity to just be you. A horse isn't capable of projecting a notion of who you should be, who you might be, or who you could be. As herd animals a horse's survival depends on the ability to size you up and understand your role/ Biologically they understand youth, they understand children, they understand that they're vital to the survival of the herd, and they react with some measure of protective care or a gentle nudge demanding independence. This isn't anthropomorphizing folks, it's survival. And the moment another being looks at you and sees you for exactly who you are is the moment you start to blossom. So how much would you pay for a therapist who could accurately assess you in 30 seconds or less? So what's our crazy idea to change the world? First we change the words and we lead by example by putting dignity first. Because every one of us at some point needs support and all of us deserve community. And with our feet pointed toward dignity will stumble and fail sometimes but the change will come. We imagine a world where always assuming intelligence is the norm and not the exception, where dignity for everyone won't be remarkable and the lives of families will change / families and opportunities for everyone to realize their human potential will occur this is how we move forward and the revolution of kindness marches on join us

The experts say that people won’t care what you do – they care why you do it.

Square Peg was dreamed up by a young mother with a child that needed to move and to be encouraged for his curiosity and to have his kindness understood as a strength.  It was created to make a space for ex-racehorses who had given their all on the track and now needed to have a place where they were safe and needed and cared for.  Square Peg was built  for a parent who was desperate for her child to be understood – perhaps admired and where that parent could hear the magical sound of her child laughing.

In 1984 at age 16, I became a mom. My son was born 9 weeks early and weighed 3 and a half pounds. While he grew in an incubator in the hospital, I finished both high school and my first quarter of college.

My son’s learning difficulty started early.  He had trouble focusing and staying still.  The more people tried to force him to sit in a classroom, the worse his frustration grew.  He was singled out for visits to the principal, suspensions, bullying from not just other kids, but by parents who felt their child wasn’t getting the education they needed because of his inability to “sit still.”

By 5th grade I’d run out of options.  He was expelled from school again.  I was working two jobs.  I pulled him from school and began to homeschool despite threats from the superintendent who warned me he wouldn’t get the socialization he needed.  I reminded him that my son was beaten brutally by another 5th grader at school. So much for the magic of school socialization.

What I learned about education – I learned from my son. I learned that he needed to touch things; to manipulate and feel them.  His brain required running and climbing and wonder. I learned daydreaming time is critical mind processing time.

We read books in trees, we learned fractions in the kitchen with measuring cups and bags of macaroni noodles. We learned history from reading foreign films. We visited art museums and splashed in the creek.  Because I still needed to work two jobs I sought out mentors – from the security guards – all retired policemen at the racetrack – who taught him about guns and their proper use and care (I was horrified) to the horseshoer who taught him proper care for tools – my son learned by doing and moving. He started believing he wasn’t stupid or unable.

We moved to Southern California where I enrolled him in an academically competitive junior high school. He floundered.  He fell in with “the wrong kids” and began  skipping school. School was more tortuous for him than ever. The downward spiral continued and I watched him sink into depression.

In 2004, we started Square Peg Ranch.  My son was now a young man, working on a farm in Maui.  In Maui, he re-discovered nature and beauty.  He was riding horses again and was mentored by the local polo pro who taught him the game he loves.  Alone, he explored the Haleakla Volcano by horseback for days on end.

As his life began to take shape, this thing called Square Peg did too. I knew how much kids who didn’t feel like they “fit in” needed a place where they were valued and accepted.  I also wanted to provide a space for the horses who didn’t fit in – mainly failed race horses could find safety.  My thought was that these kids would care for the horses and both would find peace.

Fifteen years later we are two facilities and working on more. We have over 20 horses and a thriving population of families who know the loneliness of having nowhere to fit in.

Every day, I sit with parents who tell me stories of how their child was expelled, shunned, rejected because of “behaviors” in the classroom.  I hear about how people came up to them in the grocery store to tell them that their child needed “a swift kick in the butt.”  They tell us stories of finding their child looking in the bathroom mirror and telling their reflection that they are “bad” or “crazy.”

At the ranch, difference is celebrated – childhood is revered.  The animals reflect back the innocence and the curiosity that the students project.  The natural setting creates a space with minimal sensory triggers – the things that often bring about behaviors such as aggression or elopement (running away) or the dreaded autism tantrums – (crying and screaming jags that can last hours).

The environment we developed at the ranch is set up so that there is an inherent feeling of peace for the parents and the animals and especially for the students.  Laughter is the original communication because it imparts the permission to be joyful.

Square Peg built a reputation of trust with these families by putting human dignity first – and that has made all of the difference.

Square Peg will be successful when nothing we do is special. 

We work tirelessly to make that happen.  We show the world that a person’s dignity is sacred and worthy of reverence. To help others understand that a child’s curiosity is a force more important than facts and procedures and that the most important skills in life – joy, self advocacy, building community and compassion are essential to cultivate and encourage so that these “Square Pegs” can live up to their potential. When neuro-diversity is the new cool we will know we are successful.

Together we will make change for these families and for the millions of families like them, we offer a ray of hope.

Our mission statement holds as true today as on the day we wrote it over 15 years ago:  Square Peg’s Mission is to turn “I wish” into “I can.”




Syndicated from the Square Peg Foundation website. Joell Dunlap is the founder of Square Peg, and a Registered Behavioral Technician. She has taught hundreds of students to ride. She has worked professionally in many facets of the equestrian industry including racing, marketing, special events, and breaking and training of young horses. Since she started working with developmentally challenged children, Joell has been developing a unique teaching method which resonates. Her philosophy of “Inspire, Guide, Challenge” and her sensitive style of instruction have helped hundreds of students to achieve important goals.   


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