“Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It's that you're destroying the peg.”
– Paul Collins, author of Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey into the Lost History of Autism
In the town of Half Moon, Calif., sits a ranch that, on the surface, looks more or less like your typical riding stable. Most days the barn and grounds are buzzing with activity, from horses being brought in, turned out, groomed and worked to students taking lessons and chores being done. But look a bit closer and you soon realize that rather than being a stable like any other, it's truly a place like no other.
Started in 2004 by Joell Dunlap and her husband, Darius, the Square Peg Foundation is a riding program thoughtfully designed for those who might not fit into a traditional stable's lesson program. Considered a therapeutic riding program, it differs from most others in that rather than serving those with physical handicaps, Square Peg focuses on those with autism or other neurodivergences and their families.
“We try to engage the whole family. We provide a safe space for the family,” said Joell Dunlap. “Sometimes it's hard for families with an autistic child to go out to a restaurant or to the movies, but here they can all come together and learn to work around horses and ride together.”
Having worked for much of her career as a traditional riding instructor who often rode, taught on and rehomed Thoroughbreds, Dunlap says it was a true “ah-ha” moment about 15 years ago that served as the catalyst for the creation of Square Peg.
“There aren't a whole lot of moments in your life when you hear the ground shake underneath you and everything truly shifts, but there was one little girl that changed everything for me,” she said. “A mom called me, saying she had an autistic daughter and had heard that I had a good way of working with kids who were shy or might not learn in the traditional way. She was a beautiful little girl – thick blond hair and loads of freckles – the only noticeable difference was that she seemed very shy. I asked her mom how she wanted me to treat her and she said, ‘like any other kid.'”
Dunlap began teaching her in lessons, treating her as any other kid in her program would be treated, and on one fateful day the routine of the barn was off. A storm was coming and the staff decided to feed the horses early. Wanting to eat dinner with the others, the horse the little girl was riding kept stopping at the gate every time they came around the arena, and Dunlap would tell her to use her left rein to steer him away and kick to keep him moving.
Again and again they would come around the ring, and time after time the horse would stop.
“Use your left rein!” Dunlap yelled. “LEFT REIN – don't let him do that!”
Time and time again, the pair stopped at the gate. Frustrated, Dunlap marched across the arena to her, grabbed her hand and asked her, almost rhetorically, why she wasn't steering the horse away from the gate.
“The little girl leaned over, putting her face very close to mine, looked me in the eye and quietly said, “I'm trying,” said Dunlap. “I went home and had a good think. It wasn't her not trying, it was me not doing my job and realizing that she was trying. The same way a good horseman brings out the best in his horses by recognizing not only when they do what is asked of them, but when they are trying their best, I was failing to recognize that she was trying.”
With the help of friends, Dunlap soon created the foundation for what would become Square Peg, a non-profit aimed at pairing children and their families who need a non-traditional approach with horses who are down on their luck and need a bit of a different approach as well.
With a stable comprised of mostly Thoroughbreds, most of the horses at Square Peg are those that may not have found a safe home otherwise.
“We often take on the horses with issues that would have a hard time finding a safe home otherwise,” she said. We have two horses missing one eye, another that's maybe 14.3 hands on her tippy-toes. Every horseman knows what it's like to worry about the horses that aren't 16.3 hands, dark bay, sound with lots of chrome. It's the ones with a funky shoulder or that will need special shoeing for the rest of their lives that they worry about. What do you do with those horses? At Square Peg, we provide a home for them and caring for them becomes a kid's and their family's purpose.”
One might ask how they convert a former racehorse into a horse that kids, often those prone to outbursts or unexpected behaviors, and their families can work with and ride? The answer lies in the fundamentals of most modern riding disciplines – classic dressage.
“Dressage is key and it has moved us forward from getting horses from the track to being fully integrated into the program like nothing else,” she said. “Classical dressage comes from war training tradition. If the horse was soft in the jaw and supple through his body, he was easier to train.”
The Square Peg horses benefit from the help of Dominique Barbier and Sofia Valenca, from France and Portugal respectively, to put a foundation of training on their horses. Not surprising, both trainers had little experience working with off-track Thoroughbreds, but it didn't take long for them to see the value in the breed.
“Both Valenca and Dominique have been very impressed by the trainability of the Thoroughbreds for classical dressage,” said Dunlap. “Since adapting and being mentored by these classical masters, our OTTBs have learned more quickly and more thoroughly in the past four years than I have ever seen an OTTB learn.”
How does the relaxation and suppleness translate into helping autistic children and their families?
“In a nutshell, our horses have to be able to handle outbursts from our families. Running around, flapping of hands and bodies, throwing things from their backs,” said Dunlap. “The theory is that there are two ways to train a war horse. You can use force and make the horse fear you, or you can be gentle and clear and the horse will love you and take you into battle or directly to the bull because he trusts you implicitly.”
Through their interactions with the horses, families often find their children soon begin showing positive changes in other aspects of their lives as well, engaging more at home or in the classroom or having fewer or less severe outbursts.
“The thing about Thoroughbreds is that they're so into people and so ready to please. It's so fun to see these horses go from where they were to what they become and what they can do for these kids and their families,” she said. “But they're Thoroughbreds and they're sensitive, which offers feedback – a cause and effect lesson. We use a sensitive horse and have them work with sensitive people. We take the square pegs.”
The Paulick Report visited the Square Peg Foundation during a Breeders' Cup or Bust fundraising trip several years ago. Watch here:
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and is the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and three off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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