The Healing Horses of Square Peg

Friends on horseback at Square Peg. (Square Peg Foundation/Robyn Peters Photography )

What does it feel like to not fit in somewhere?  It is an uncomfortable situation to be a square peg in a world that is expecting circles and conformity. It’s an awkward feeling that is sometimes overwhelming.  Imagine a child who is locked inside their thoughts and feelings meeting a horse for the first time. As the gentle horse looks at the child with their luminous soft eyes, there is an innate nonverbal connection. People who have witnessed this magical moment often comment that it was as if the horse knew exactly what the child needed. Horses throughout time have provided a means to healing. How is a horse chosen for this mission? What if both the child and the horse are square pegs in a circular world? 

Joell Dunlap is blessed with beautiful sky blue eyes and an amazing outlook at life. As a horsewoman she gained a reputation for being extremely patient with horses. Her passion has always been repurposing Thoroughbreds. “I love them and I love changing people’s expectations of them and helping people understand that these are some very sweet horses. They have been around humans from the minute they are born.” She has been involved in riding programs since she was 17 years old. She looked into therapeutic riding and saw kids who didn’t fit into a traditional riding program. She thought, “What if we took horses that were square pegs and teamed them up with people who knew what it was like not to fit in? Let them help each other and see what kind of magic would happen.”

The Square Peg Foundation is located on a 110-acre ranch in Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco. It is an ideal location that Dunlap describes as “delightful for families and appropriate for the horses. We are nestled in this canyon and you would never know we are here. It’s very quiet and peaceful.” The horses have a lot of space based on their needs when they arrive from the racetrack. “There are lots of turn outs and lots of ocean air. It’s good for all of us.”  

Exploring the feeling of motion on horseback. (Square Peg Foundation/Robyn Peters Photography )

Living a life with purpose, goals and a drive to make life a better place for both horses and kids, Dunlap started the Square Peg Foundation in 2004. “We set out to observe the square pegs.  We worked with inner city outreach and homeless shelters. What kept finding us over and over was autism.” Autism spectrum disorder refers to a wide range of conditions for a person or a child that can include challenges with speech, non-verbal behavior, repetitive behaviors, and social skills. She explained, “Autism is highly individual. You can have hyper-verbal and non-verbal people. You can have people that move into sensory experiences and handle pressure and people who can’t stand pressure. It’s kind of like horses.”

Exactly! When a horse arrives at the ranch, Dunlap and a team of horse experts take the time to figure out what the horse needs. Is it social and wants to be around people? “Some of them can’t stand not being in work.” They coordinate closely with an amazing all-star team that includes a veterinarian, acupuncturist, farrier and classical horsemen such as a rider from the Spanish Riding School.  They spend time training the horses in a classical way including work from the ground and in hand developing back strength. “Thoroughbreds are such quick studies. It gives them something to think about. Some horses take time, especially if they have injuries in their knees and ankles.” They do love their food and carrots. Dunlap joyfully admits that most of the horses are pretty chunky. 

Her voice softened as she remembered Gigi, who was the horse that was with her when she started the program. “I received her from Art Sherman off the track. I had planned to turn her out for 45 days because she had a swollen tendon and maybe put her with a polo trainer. She was compact and very quick.” Dunlap paused in thought as memories of Gigi seemed to flood her train of thought. “She was a head case! There was no way she was going to do well in the polo program so I was basically stuck with her. Of all the horses in my life, she taught me more about how to think differently and then try to figure out what the horse is telling you when they have a behavior.” Gigi passed away last March at 30 years old and is fondly remembered by all who loved her. “She raised generations of kids. She was never an easy horse but her gentleness would turn out when people needed it and her spiciness would come out when people needed it.” She was “particular about when (and how) she is ridden” and she was the “best teacher at lightness and clear communication.” 

Communication is extremely important between rider and horse. Dunlap explains that the best way to “categorize autism is to take the word apart. Auto is locked within the self. It means the primary issue is the feeling of isolation. Horses are so friendly and they engage everyone with a kind of openness and honesty. Whenever we have a kid running up and down the shed row with a bag full of carrots and you know they jump up and down and say, ‘Look Mommy, he likes me!’ It’s beautiful. Horses have a tremendous honesty. They have been around people and they see people as part of their tribe in a really engaging way. Even when we get a horse who has shut down due to long term chronic pain, once you get them to deal with that, they tend to unfold in a really genuine way. Our kids sense that genuineness and appreciate it.” 

Each horse has had an impact. One can see it in the ABR video features of Square Peg’s Thoroughbreds. Davis Finch narrates the strengths and history of each horse. There is a horse named Finn who raced under the name Autism Awakeness and won two races. “He is one of the nicest horses you will ever meet.” He is a “huge teddy bear and has a growing fan club of teenage girls and doting volunteers.”  Owen (Colonel Clark) is the baby of the ranch at 4 years old and is a curious and lovable horse. Stan raced as “Irresponsible King” (sired by Kingmambo) on the Northern California circuit and is the performer of the barn. He can do a great Spanish Walk, count, stand on a pedestal and bow. Sam (Red Power) is a magnificent horse who competed in endurance rides after leaving the race track. Finn smiles broadly and says that Sam is a useful lesson horse and gives him extra pats. There is Henry, who many folks on the Northern California racing circuit remember as Momotombo. Extremely striking with a fabulous blaze and a freckle, he was bred by California breeder Geri Forrester. He gives kisses and nods his head in agreement with everything you say. Ace (Seven Bridges) is referred to as a tall lanky dude who raced on the Southern California circuit and came to Square Peg through CARMA’s racehorse retirement program.  

Kyle (Cayambe) is a massive flashy horse who arrived last summer. He had 67 starts and won more than $500,000. It’s going to take time to rehabilitate him. He initially raced on the California, Kentucky and New York circuits. Unfortunately he worked his way through the claiming ranks and was discovered living in a goat pen in West Virginia. His breeder found him and shipped him to Kentucky to rest. Dunlap says that he is sweet, kind and gorgeous but that he only knows racing. “It will take a while to help him mentally to think about other things than racing.” The kids absolutely love him!! 

“Shy but sweet” Curtis raced as “Extra Fifty” and Finch calls him the lovable freak of the barn. This playful son of Afleet Alex lost his eye in a pasture accident before coming to Square Peg. He is known for his energy and quirkiness. The beautiful and flashy grey gelding Cecil (Cee’s for Clever) has talent as a dressage horse. Out of Cee’s Tizzy, Cecil was trained by Art and Steve Sherman and earned more than $100,000 on the California racing circuit in 11 starts.

There is a common theme among the Square Peg horses. They are loved and they are happy. Through them, the students learn more than riding. They learn the responsibility that goes along with horses such as tacking, grooming, feeding and cleaning the barn. They are given opportunities to relax and play with the horses. At first a large animal might be scary, but the Square Peg horses have found a way to show acceptance through their gentleness and kind demeanor.

As a horse leans forward and turns its soft eye towards a child, there is something endearing when the child instinctively stretches to touch the horse. It is a quiet triumph when a rider gets on a horse for the first time and takes a lesson. The Thoroughbred that once heard the “Call to the Post” and came charging out the gate striving down the stretch to victory now walks softly. They have a precious cargo on their back and know how important it is to be calm and docile. Instead of a crowd holding their bets in their hands, the horse is now the focus of a child’s expression of joy and delight. One parent said “What Square Peg has done for my daughter Sarah and her sister Rachel is beyond words! Sarah’s face lights up at the thought of working with the horses. The time with the horses is magical.”

A horse kiss. (Square Peg Foundation/Robyn Peters Photography )

Under the watchful eye of Joell Dunlap and her team, the horses find their way from the track to a new careers. Can they help with healing? Can they save a child or a life?  Dunlap’s voice grows husky as she struggles with the emotion of a powerful story about the impact of a single horse. She had a good race filly called Pearl from New Zealand who didn’t thrive. She had a severe allergy to alfalfa. Once they figured out her issues, she bloomed into a beautiful gray with star burst dapples. There was a kid who was a star athlete with a nice family who hung around the barn with the filly. They were inseparable. He fell in love with her and she needed a lot of care. The family split up and he had a difficult time making it to the barn.  Dunlap gave him the horse because she knew how much Pearl meant to him. Years later the young man showed back up at the barn. He shared with Dunlap that when he was 14 years old, he quit school.  “Every day when I woke up, all I could think of was killing myself. The only reason I didn’t was because of Pearl. I really thought I would die when we were moving away and then you made Pearl mine.” The young man received a diagnosis of autism later in life. Dunlap says, “I didn’t know he was autistic. I didn’t know he was suicidal but the horse did.” Pearl had such a powerful connection with him that he chose to live.

There are gentle turns available at every corner. Dunlap shared one letter she received from a family.    “As parents, we no longer feel alone, scared or isolated. When we go to Square Peg, we feel such incredibly loving and accepting support. We don’t have an autistic son at Square Peg. We have a smart, charming, sweet, imaginative son. Square Peg builds onto the positive qualities in our son and helps support his challenges. The outside world we were living in saw a severely mentally ill child. Healing for him did not happen in a hospital but at a very special horse ranch. It is not an overstatement to say that Square Peg saved our son’s life and dramatically improved the quality of our family’s life.”

Square Peg’s logo is a circle with the word “Square” inside it.  It makes you think.  So many times in life we have all been square pegs in a word dominated by the quest to be a circle and fit in. The horses of Square Peg had many challenges to overcome and they are the lucky ones who have found a new lease on life. The healing power of horses comes from their amazing ability to forgive, accept and move onwards. When treated with kindness and understanding, they open their hearts and fill an arena or a barn with enough love to make a difference. Just ask the kids and parents at Square Peg. It’s a place of endless possibilities no matter what their challenges are in life. Dunlap understood this and through Square Peg has found a way to smooth out the edges. Life is much easier with a Thoroughbred taking you to into the winner’s circle of life. 

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