Leadership – Cool to be Kind

A parent made an astute observation yesterday.  She said that it’s rare – very rare and instinctual for somebody to speak to people with disabilities in a way that is not demeaning and still appropriate.  

I struggle with learning to make space for others in conversation and not talk over a person who is naturally quiet.  I struggle with dead space and thoughtful pauses.  I talk a lot. 

I’ve tried to figure out how to incorporate “tone of voice” into our trainings. And it falls flat. I can feel that the message isn’t landing and I’ve seen really educated and well trained people in the field talking down to clients in a way that makes me squirm. 

So it’s my job to figure out how to teach it. 

I had the benefit and the honor of some early and profound mentors. They taught by example of how Dignity, Humor and Love are the keys to success in this field.

I went to a high school in the suburbs of Sacramento.  It was a public school, not too fancy, nothing special about it. Except for one thing.

“Gary’s Kids.”

Gary Hack was a special ed teacher. He pioneered what he called “Life Skills” for his kids who were mostly Downs Syndrome students. Gary was a young teacher – handsome, fit and funny. Not only did Gary connect with his students, he joked with them, he played with them, he adored them. Gary never talked down to his kids. And then he went further.

Gary created a culture at our suburban high school where all of the “cool kids” petitioned to work in his class.  The cool kids knew Gary’s students by name and they followed Gary’s lead and treated the students with care and dignity and good humor. And if they didn’t, Gary would fire any cool kid who thought they were “too cool” to treat his students well. Consequently, Gary’s students were by association, also cool kids.  They were protected, cared for and VALUED. 

Gary created a culture where it was cool to be caring. He made it fun because he adored his students and adored their innocence – he valued their strength – their sweetness and simplicity and showed us all how refreshing it is to be around people that are fundamentally sweet – and he made it COOL. 

Gary was a leader and he did his work magnificently. 

I am grateful for powerful mentors. 

I Googled his name this morning and found nothing.  Nothing of where he is now, of his work of any further achievements he made. I can tell you that he made an impression on me and on my brother. Mr. Hack, wherever you are – thank you.

A Letter From Our Founders

Like you, Darius and I have been overwrought with recent events. We honor the lives of the brutally murdered man George Floyd, for the injustice suffered by Christian Cooper and way, way too many more.

We grew up believing that we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world. Americans put a man on the moon, America protected democracy the world over, The USA maintained a Supreme Court that thoughtfully balanced the letter and the spirit of the law. 

We grew up starting a school day standing by the side of our desk with our hands over hearts reciting a pledge of allegiance to a flag that flew inside every classroom.

I pledge allegiance to the flag – of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God. With Liberty and Justice for all.”

Darius and I sat with our thoughts, we compared the reading we were doing and the reading we’d done. We honored great black writers like James Baldwin, Ta Na Hasi Coates, Cornell West and others and we thought about the seminal work of San Francisco’s own Reverend Cecil Williams. 

But what do we “do” about it all? 

We started Square Peg because we both have a keen sense of justice. The old saying “To whom much is given, much is required” rings very true for Darius and me. We are fortunate. We came from loving, educated, and safe homes. We are healthy – we are white. From the time we were children and saw some kids singled out as clumsy, dumb or simply different – we attached to the pain we felt witnessing someone being marginalized. So we created an emotional sanctuary – Square Peg. And it is good. But it isn’t enough. Our sanctuary can’t bring back murdered men like George Floyd or murdered children like Tamir Rice. 

But we can reach out to more disenfranchised populations. We can build more diversity in our Board. We can hire more young adults with neurological differences. We can work with County Mental Health services to become more accessible. These are just some ideas to help open up our space so that more people of color are able to access the joy and magic of our sanctuary. 

I’d like to share a story from last week.  One that could have turned out terribly.

A friend, a volunteer – someone we’ve known for over a decade sent me a text the other morning.  He was having a terrible time and asked if I would call his employer for him to let them know that he wasn’t able to come to work. This friend is a young black man. He’s also autistic. 

He started texting details of his morning and the extreme distress he was under because of some personal issues he was trying hard to resolve. Things escalated and he found himself in a giant emotional meltdown. He needed my help reaching out to his employer to let them know he coudn’t come to work.  Then he texted that he’d injured himself and that he thought he might die.

I knew where he lived and I knew that I was at least 40 minutes away and I really needed to get him help. I had to call 911.

The dispatcher put me on the phone with the sheriff.  He needed details of where to find my friend who was in a rural area.  I tried as best I could to be calm and tell the officer that my friend is autistic – that he has a diagnosed neurological disorder that predisposes him to panic and that he might likely panic when he sees law enforcement.  The officer got agitated and said these words;

“Are you saying he’s going to be uncooperative with law enforcement?”

A terrible chill ran down my spine.

My friend is black, autistic, he has tattoos and wears black hoodies. Had I just unleashed holy hell on my panicked, terrified and possibly injured friend?

My only weapon was my ability to stay calm and my white professional womanhood.

“I’m telling you, he’s AUTISTIC, he’s in a panic and he may feel unsafe with law enforcement.”

The officer said nothing.

With all of the calm I could muster I said

“I know you deal with panic for a living.  I know your officers put their safety on the line. But I deal with autism for a living and I need you to acknowledge that you hear me – that he has a neurological condition.  His panic might look like he’s on drugs but he’s not – he’s terrified.”

I’ll skip to the end of the story, because it’s the only thing that matters. The officer who came on the scene acted MAGNIFICENTLY.  He took his sworn duty to serve and to protect and he helped my friend calm down, he helped find my friend mental health services, he sat with a young, black autistic man and showed him his humanity. 

What could have been a disaster, turned into real help. My friend could have been another statistic and instead told me that for the first time in his life – he felt protected by a police officer. 

I will never know the role I played in this story. I’d like to think this officer is naturally talented and diffused a situation with skills he learned in his training. But I also know I was fearful for my friend and felt it necessary to stress to the dispatcher his diagnosis and color, things that make him at risk for deadlier outcomes when officers are involved. 

I’d like to think this is the new wave of police officer training and de-escalation techniques. But that would let me off the hook, as a white American, of demanding change from what we see in cities across the United States. 

You see, in my America, if you want to Make America Great Again – you must embrace the last and most important line of that pledge we grew up reciting every day:

“With Liberty and Justice FOR ALL”

Let’s get American about that. 

Let’s demand accountability for beliefs and practices that strip fellow citizens of the founding principles of LIBERTY and JUSTICE FOR ALL. 

Speak Up.

Use your privilege to help others.

Don’t forget to Love.

And for goodness sake, wash your hands. 

Love Letter to an “Old Thoroughbred”

Today, we started to feed you “senior feed.” 

Irresponsible King aka Stan by Kingmambo

Keeping weight on has become difficult.  Your coat isn’t the first to shed out this spring and your eyes have taken on the slightest bit of a worried look.

The fire breathing dragon is still there – the curiosity that warms my heart is still there.  The willingness to attack a new challenge is there – but it’s hard for you now. 

I can let just about anyone ride you lately.  I see you when you think about being naughty but instead choose to forgive a heavy hand, an unbalanced seat. You look at me and we both register your good humor. I’m grateful for it. 

I need you to be friends with the new horse.  I need you to re-assure him that he’s safe here. And you do.  If somebody told me 10 years ago that you would be the horse I rely on to calm an old horse I would have laughed heartily.

Because 10 years ago, I wasn’t able to see your whole value.  I saw a brilliant, hot tempered horse.  I didn’t know about the sweetness, I didn’t know that the scary things would leave emotional scars on you. I didn’t know how much you would mean to me.

So eat well my friend.  Take good care of your timid neighbor and tomorrow, we will take a short ride to keep us both loose and limber and I will bask in the honor that you have given me – the lessons, the generosity, the heaping mounds of humility that you foisted on an unaware ego. 

Thank you my friend. 

Younger days for both Irresponsible King and for Joell

Thoughts in Pajamas

Armed with a public health degree, youth, health, optimism and the indomitable American spirit – a friend headed out to service with the Peace Corps. She boldly waded into the trenches of rural Africa – to bring services and knowledge and healing. 

 Reality sunk in soon. People were and would continue to die horribly from HIV-AIDS – a disease that’s managed fairly well in the first world. She became disheartened. She became weary of working in an top-heavy organization that felt like it had lost focus on actually touching human lives and communities. 

She worked hard and came home tired – and not just a little sad. 

She sought  spiritual practice to help her understand how she’d gone from fiercely determined, to exhausted. 

Slowly, she emerged from the fog and began another chapter of reaching out.  She flourished working with special needs kids.  She found joy in children’s antics – even the most wild ones. They delighted her and her delight was a gift to the children and to their families. 

But she wanted more – she wanted to extend her reach to whole communities so they would be healthier and happier.  Today she works in an inner city health clinic – ensuring poor immigrants access to health care.  Yet she wonders every day if it’s “enough.”

My uncle recently retired as a social worker.  He’d run group homes in the middle of nowhere – he’d worked for Child Protective Services in the poorest parts of our rich state. He maintained a dark sense of humor in order to survive the extreme poverty and hopelessness that he saw constantly.  I’ll never forget something he said one day;

“For some people, a bag of heroin and a 12 pack of beer is as good as it gets.”

We’re putting together a retreat program for teachers traumatized by the Northern California fires. The teachers and their students are struggling to rebuild a sense of home out of devastation.  In listening to the teachers’ stories  – I  heard  they don’t know how to give themselves permission for self care.  They spend their energy reacting to the needs of the students and at the end of the day, they feel defeated, small and ineffectual.  Teacher burn out is a real thing. 

Roger That 2016 Thoroughbred Gelding

Veterinarians experience critical levels of  depression.  How can this be? Working with animals, being often outside, days are varied, exciting and challenging. And yet, suicide rates for veterinarians are 2 to 3 times that of other professions. 

Compassion fatigue, it seems is a Very. Real. Thing.

So often in human services, we cripple ourselves with the notion that we are “not enough.”

There are meditations  to convince ourselves that we are indeed “enough.” But the effects are short lived or worse, insincere. There are medications we can take to ease the unease we feel at the end of a day when we feel as if we’ve not done it all.  Again, short-lived at best.

What’s the difference between those who burn out and those that don’t?  

Where does anyone draw the line between helping others and helping ourselves?

These are critical questions and I’d like your permission to posit….. something. 

When we make a conscious decision to keep our hearts open – recognize that this is an act of courage. When we forgive ourselves for closing our hearts – perhaps that is an even more profound act of courage.

The stoics tell us that “choice is the ultimate luxury.” So making a choice to remain open hearted – and seeing that as a luxury is something with tremendous value. 

The choice to forgive ourselves for not being “all that” might be the richest luxury we can know.

When our energy level is low – what recovery people know as HALT – Hungry – Angry – Lonely – Tired (perhaps this is the mantra for the quarantine) – self forgiveness is the perfect and perhaps the only real antidote for our feelings of despair.

In these days of quarantine – when we don’t have access to the distractions of our usual daily lives, we come face to face with ourselves – with a different version of ourselves – with a lazy, unproductive, unkempt, is-it-time-to-eat-again self. We can’t hide behind our chipper American “I’m so busy” self. 

Like you, I step over the home workout equipment on the way to the pantry for a snack. I flip channels, I digest way too much social media – the media I know is just feeding me more information to keep me here in my pyjamas endlessly scrolling. 

But I can take a deep breath, pet the dog and have the space to acknowledge that I have the choice to keep my heart open and the chance to forgive myself for those moments when I’m not my best self. 

Perhaps I will bake some cookies. 

Be safe. Be well – and wash your hands.

Mustangs – an essay by Davis Finch

Right now, I am wondering who I can trust in the government.

I do not trust Trump, which is not good since he is the president, but I do like his optimism and his desire to reopen economic activity quickly.

I mostly trust Governor Newsom, especially since I saw him speak in person twice, but am not confident that he has a plan to deal with the social and economic aspects of this crisis.

The medical experts are trustworthy when it come to the disease, but do not seem to understand politics and human nature. Just telling people to stay home is not a long-term solution!

Do I trust the people in my community?

How about the general populace?

I definitely trust my family, so at least there is that.

I believe most people are inherently good and have good intentions, but no one seems to know what to do and humans have a tendency to make poor decisions when panicked.

Right now it seems we are all panicked. The only other time I saw people this panicked was right after 9/11, but the danger is far more real this time.

Humans are not the only animals that are dangerous when panicked. It is the scared dog that bites; the scared cat that scratches; the scared horse that spooks, bolts, kicks, rears, strikes… you get the picture. Only though gaining their trust do horses become the (mostly) pleasant, empathetic creatures we know and love.

Humans are really not all that different. When mustangs are caught in the wild; gelded, branded, and shoved into a trailer; and then shipped to a new farm somewhere, they are terrified. It takes years of careful handling to get them even marginally trusting of humans.

Right now we are all mustangs. We are terrified, panicked, living in a new reality we did not expect nor agree to be put into. We are in need of loving, gentle reassurance—from six-feet away, that is—to make us feel secure in this scary new world.

Davis Finch is an adult with autism. He has been a valuable resource for Square Peg for many years. Davis lives on the California Coastside with his family and his dog Posey

An Open Letter During the COVID-19 Crisis March 28, 2020

Dear Square Peg supporters,

When all of this started – Michael and I reached out to our Board of Directors and asked for a emergency vote – that we would continue to pay our employees for as long as possible throughout this crisis.

The board approved and we immediately looked to our budget to see how we would make this happen. So far, so good.  We are watching closely for the county and the Federal assistance programs to help us make good on our commitment to our employees. 

In the meantime, even our employees who are quarantined at home have been given projects to research and think about to help strengthen our services to our families. 

We have begun reaching out to our families via phone, email and social media to check on them and help them feel connected.  While it feels trite and unsatisfying, we are heartened by the resilience of our families and they love getting photos and movies of the animals and the ranch. 

We went as far as to ask our participants to help us produce 2 minute or less video features of the animals at Square Peg and what has been produced so far shows how beloved the animals really are – and how beloved they are.  We even received some national press for the efforts:

We are taking this time to advance the training for all of the horses, to re-think structures and programs, to deepen our understandings of current research in neuroscience, treatment and safety protocols. We are doing deep thinking about long term plans, best practices and how to leverage donor and grant funds for maximum efficiency. We are looking to new partnerships and strengthening existing ones. 

While there is so much still unknown, while we are worried about the health of all of our loved ones and our communities – we are excited to see a global effort to protect one another and to forgo so many things that we have all taken for granted for so long in order to protect each other. 

Sometime soon, the arenas will be filled with the laughter we know as #TeamQuirky and we will enjoy congregating face to face and we will know how precious and vital that is like never, ever before. 

Be safe, be well – and wash your hands. 

Love,

Square Peg

Giving Tuesday – Founder’s Story

Founder’s Story 

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.”

This coming Tuesday is Giving Tuesday – it’s a chance to contribute to organizations that are making a difference in their communities.

Square Peg has been issued a challenge – if we can raise $75,000 by December 31, 2019 – we will be awarded an additional $75,000 matching grant. That means that your contribution will be doubled. It’s the leverage we need to continue to create jobs, recreation opportunities, community and safety for those we serve.

We promise to make you proud to be a supporter.

You can donate here

Joell Dunlap, November 30, 2019

From a Hit – to a Kiss A Transformation Story

The following is a college essay by Tessa Biggs

Yesterday’s first session was with J, an eight-year-old non-verbal boy. I helped him onto the horse and he smacked on the head – hard. 

Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo.

I work at Square Peg, an equine based program for people with autism and related neuropsychological challenges.  Things are different here. Acceptance is central to the ideology of Square Peg, and the key to preserving the dignity of the individual. My job is to understand that J was communicating sensory overload in the only way people listen to someone with few words.

I started here as a 13-year-old volunteer caring for Square Peg’s horses. They’re injured and re-purposed racehorses. They are also “square pegs.”  

Over the years I progressed to working with kids. We sang, hiked, and kayaked, and rode. We caught garter snakes, and slid down manure piles. 

Now, as a Square Peg instructor, I model acceptance, play, and joy. My job is to follow the interest of the child.  It could mean running around the corral pretending we are horses, it might mean staging an epic light saber battle on horseback. Acceptance and delight are the order of the day – all days. It is the groundwork for self-determination.

For the families, learning that there is one place where their child isn’t just tolerated, he’s celebrated creates a context for relaxation, a glimmer of hope, and a chance to connect with other families. Finally, they don’t feel  isolated. 

Children find peace in the physical connection pressing their cheek against a warm, kind horse twenty times their size. Those who struggle to speak have breakthrough moments of  communication.

As for J – gradually, the rocking of the horse and the stillness of the trees and the absence of blame soothed his cortisol-soaked brain. Fifteen minutes later with his face tilted up to the sunshine, he smiled at me. He started the ride by hitting my hand – at the end he kissed it.

Tuesday, December 3 is Giving Tuesday. Square Peg has received the largest single year grant opportunity. ALL donations committed by December 31, 2019 will be matched up to $75,000. Please help us make best use of this matching grant. Your support means the world to us and to the families and the animals we serve.

Donate here

Horse Boy Method Training at Cadence Farm, Sonoma on Jan 5th & 6th, 2020

For  years Rupert and Rowan shared the saddle together on a horse named Betsy. The story of  Rowan opening  to the outside world through Betsy is told in the bestselling book and award winning film “The Horse Boy“.

With Rowan’s success,  Rupert started working with other children on the spectrum to see if what  worked with Rowan and Betsy would  work for them. While no method can ever be right for 100% of people  Rupert found a sufficiently high percentage of children benefited-sometimes  in astonishing ways.
The framework of techniques targets different  challenges.  Horse Boy™ and Movement Method are now being used worldwide. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity!

Who should attend this clinic?

Important note: This workshop is hands on and intense.  We cannot have you bring your child to the workshop.  It is our organizational ethic that when a child is here – especially one that needs some support – we focus all our energy on the child.  This workshop is to give you tools to help support those you love and care about – so this is our chance to focus on you. 

Training Overview 

• Introduction to Autism
• What our methods are and why they are different
• Necessary Equipment
• Sensory session with horses
• Collection – what it is and why it matters

• Intro to Back-riding training
• How to create the right environment for Horse Boy Method
• How to cope with children unwilling or afraid to ride
• Long-lines (working with young adults too large to back-ride)
• Rule based games / Perspective taking
• Academics on horseback: how to use the dressage arena and round pen for math, biology, geography and more!
• How to work with the entire family
• Basic trick work. Learning the aids, and demo of how tricks are used for communication

When: Sunday, January 5th and Monday, January 6th, 2020 from 10am to 3pm

Where: Cadence Farm, Meadowlark Lane, Sonoma, CA. (Just off Hwy 121)

Cost$675 for Riders and $340 for Non-Riders

Space is limited! Please email rebecca@everyonefits.org to reserve your spot. If you need housing accommodations for Sunday night please inquire.

Participants in the July 2019 Horse Boy Training.

What’s Up With Racing?

We are publishing this to address a question that has been posed to us over and over recently in light of the media stories of horses dying on California racetracks. 

Even one dead horse is too many for us horse lovers – but here are some things you may not know about horse racing in California.

#1. Racing in the US is a gambling sport. The rules of racing laws protect the gambler – that is to say – laws of racing are intended to present information to the gamblers who place bets on racing.  The money for purses is raised as a portion of the gambling. The Governor appoints a horse racing board – volunteers who oversee racing operations.   

#2 Racing in the US is parimutuel gambling.  That means bettors bet against each other and not against the house (like a casino) and not against a handicapping system (as it is in England and Ireland).

  Say there are 10 horses in a race and 10 bettors each bet $10 – the parimutuel pool is now $100.  The state of California takes out a percentage right off the top – as does the track – including a portion that goes directly to a racing purse account – the rest of the money is in a betting pool and the proceeds are paid out of that pool to the betting public.  

Why is this important?  It means that the racetrack’s job is to keep racing fair. Keeping the faith of the gamblers is the life’s blood of the business.  So – drug testing is stringent and regulators work  to stay up to date on testing methods and funding programs and systems to manage any person trying to “cheat.”  In every parimutuel California race, at least two horses and up to five horses will be drug tested immediately after the race. 

What’s all this talk about racing surfaces? 

The surface of a parimutuel racing track is maintained by a team of engineers, equipment operators and horsemen. The track is groomed to maintain a consistent footing before every race and usually at least twice (sometimes three times) in the morning during workouts.  Efforts are made to address any track inconsistencies immediately.  If you show your horse – you  have experienced good and not-so-good and downright bad footing at different events. Opinions can vary greatly about the same surface. 

Why do racing people compete 2 year olds? 

Not every breeder does. Some refuse to compete horses until at least their 3 year old year.  As with cutting futurities, young jumper classes and the like – some breeders are eager to prove a new stallion and can’t wait to show the performance horse world what their horses are capable of. Some people simply look at the finances – waiting another year to compete a horse could cost another $10,000 or more.  There is talk now that performance horse people – racing – jumping -polo – dressage – cutting and more are “competing to breed” and not “breeding to compete.”  It’s a question that anyone who breeds performance animals should ask themselves. 

What happens to ex racehorses after they can no longer compete?

Here’s where you get to be proud to be a Californian. California led the way in racing in developing legislation that took a percentage of each owner’s earnings from their horses and contributes it – unless the owner specifically signs a statement that they choose to opt out of the program – to a fund for placing retired horses who have raced in California. The fund is aptly called CARMA. Other states were quick to follow suit and soon after, the racing industry of North America led the way in forming the Thoroughbred AfterCare Alliance which not only distributes funds raised from breeders, sales companies, owners and special events now even racing fans at certain tracks can use the  betting machines to contribute to the TAA –  to qualified Aftercare providers. The TAA instituted an extremely rigorous process to identify best practices and a Gold Standard of care for facilities that are re-purposing or giving sanctuary to Off Track Thoroughbreds.  

Does racing have work to do?  

Absolutely.  

A thoroughbred is bred and trained to give the racing public everything he’s got and that comports tremendous responsibility. Because racing is a gambling sport – horse deaths on parimutuel tracks are public information. Necropsy reports on race horse deaths have furthered the science for all performance and pet horses – informing veterinarians, farriers, feed companies of how to build better systems, products, and practices to keep our equine friends healthy. 

Holding all who make a living and get pleasure from participating in equine sports accountable for the animals in our care is a moral responsibility that we share. 

I’ve had the honor of knowing some brilliant horsemen in my 30 years in this business. Veterinarians, trainers, policy makers, breeders and fans.  From cowboys to Grand Prix riders and everything in-between and many of the most brilliant, the most committed and the most dedicated – have been in the racing industry.  And of course, I’ve met some bad apples –  people who see not only the animals in their charge but also employees are commodities to be exploited. 

So where do we go from here?

Changes come when the public demands accountability.  But real change comes when we use this outrage to look at our own selves and hold ourselves accountable to the animals we love and DO something about it. Some things you can do right now are:

  • Donate to a TAA Accredited charity that actively funds care for ex racing horses and pensioned broodmares. Yes – like Square Peg Foundation
  • Adopt an ex racehorse and commit to his/her care for the rest of their lives – not just for how long you can ride them. 
  • Offer to volunteer at a local equine sanctuary.  Even if you can’t or won’t clean stalls, you can help with fundraising events, answer the phone or emails, design the website. 
  • Make a retirement plan for your own horse(s) including funds and care instructions for your horse in the event of your death or disability.
  • Get informed and stay curious about the facts.  Remember that news sources are commercial ventures and sensational information is what sells. Talk to your veterinarian, call the California Horse Racing Board and check your news and information sources for reliability. 
  • If you see abuse at your barn – calmly address it in a way that helps make real and lasting change.
  • Read up on drug and treatment strategies so that you can make intelligent, informed decisions about animals in your care. And understand that these studies are evolving and drugs and treatments that we thought were effective and safe may turn out to be otherwise.  

This morning, our vet and I euthanized Cayambe a 15 year old thoroughbred who raced 67 times and made $581,000 for his connections. His gallant heart raced for fans all over this country and in each race, he gave everything he had. Being there for our equine friends in their time of need is hard and necessary and it’s the price we pay for the honor of being around a being that is willing to give us everything they’ve got. 

Thank you Cayambe.

Cayambe aka Kyle January 14, 2004 to September 19, 2019