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Yesterday was the biggest media opportunity of my 25+ year career in the horse industry. Two kind souls flew up from Los Angeles to film and to understand Square Peg Ranch through the lens of the America’s Best Racing doing a promotion with Autism Speaks. Today is world Autism Awareness day and I woke early this morning thinking with pride wonder about the day. There was also the never ending self-flagellating thoughts of “things I should have said.”
So many things to process from yesterday. Things like:
Parents told their stories while their kids illustrated them with laughter, wonder and simple joy. The camera caught the exhaustion of a family with a child having an autism “rough day.”
The crew treated everyone with kindness and patience – with humor and respect.
The horses were beautiful and well behaved – except for some adorable silliness.
The staff, the volunteers, the families all laughed and played and revealed their most authentic and awesome selves.
The barn looked great – our hard work showed.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day.
I know enough not to expect anything. What the editors will do with the footage is filed under the giant category labeled “not mine.”
But I’d be lying if I didn’t fantasize about “what if?”
What if this footage inspires people in all sorts of ways? Hopefully to donate, but maybe more importantly, to have discussions over dinner tables – to patch up family rifts – to show compassion to a neighbor you might more fully understand, or at least be curious about. Maybe someone smiles at that mom in the school parking lot.You know, the one with the bizarre kid that nobody plays with. I’d like to think those smiles might make a difference for her.
When the interviewer asked me what I understood about autism, I mumbled something about “autism is a spectrum and everyone is different – blah blah blah.” What I should have said is this:
“Autism is best described in the literal sense; autism literally means ‘locked within the self.’ Autistic people want what everyone wants. They want love and safety. They, like you, need community and dignity. Talk to any autistic adult and they will tell you two things – that loneliness and anxiety are the biggest hurdles.”
On Autism Awareness day, I should have been talking about dignity. Because it’s as vital as the air we breathe and too many people are taking up that vital air debating vaccinations, different therapies, cures, bickering and snarking.
Why aren’t we talking about Dignity?
Kindness, awareness and even compassion all too often morph into something that smells an awful lot like pity. Pity makes anyone feel “less than” and nobody wants your pity. Treatments and therapies can only go so far if we don’t begin with an understanding of the simple need for human dignity. Otherwise, it becomes just another exercise in making the person being treated feeling alone and more isolated.
Being Autism Aware is a start. I’m grateful for that start. But today, I challenge you to step past “awareness” and even over the bridge of kindness and into the beauty of human dignity.
Awareness means acknowledging that mom in the school parking lot. Kindness means asking if she wants to join your mom’s group for coffee some morning. But dignity means making an effort to find out what her child loves and bringing his strengths and intelligence into his peer group. Giving him an opportunity to share what he loves and giving it your genuine attention and curiosity is the truest gift. Listening is an act of love – especially when you don’t have the time. Developing an interest in what a person is passionate about is the key to unlocking autism – the missing puzzle piece if you will.
What I’ve learned in all these years -what I saw come to light in front of the camera yesterday is what my friend Rupert Isaacson told me years ago and I wasn’t brave enough to hear it – is that in giving that gift of dignity – all of your dreams – and I do mean all – will be realized. An added bonus; you will meet people that will rock your world.
This isn’t isolated to autism of course – it’s the same for anyone whose dignity is at risk because of depression, addiction, mental illness or other social stigma. Listen, lean in – give a sh*#.
I spend my days on the stunning California coast with beautiful horses, laughing children, sleeping dogs, goats that endlessly entertain. I’m surrounded by a loving family and friends. This is the life I’ve dreamed of since I could remember dreaming and it’s all possible because we spend our days in service delivering the simple and necessary gift of dignity.
What I saw yesterday at the ranch and what I dare to dream the camera and editors will reveal on national TV is that it’s laughter and caring that connects us. It’s in listening to and treating each other with dignity that makes our dreams come true.
Sermon over – I’m going to go and play with horses.
(all photos are the fantastic work of Robyn Peters)
But what if that child can’t sleep, melts down in classrooms and grocery stores and is told time and again that he “can’t.”
We’re going to level with you – J’s interest in the horses had begun to wane. He’s six and big for his age. He’s going through a phase where his frustration tolerance is at an all time low and he’s been acting out violently despite the loving attention from his parents and aids. They’ve worked with the behaviorists, the specialists, the teachers – the whole banana. He’s always loved the rhythm and hard pressure of cantering on the longe line on our ever ready pony Rickie but lately, he’s been grabbing the tack with all his might and throwing himself off the pony. We knew we needed a plan to keep him safe and keep him engaged. But what we really wanted to do was to draw out the unique joy and creativity of this beautiful child. We wanted his wonderful parents to hear good news about what he could do, about how clever and creative he is.
But what to do?
We received a text from his mom in the morning that read: “ps. no sleep again. So doomed.”
We had 90 minutes to figure it out and in that time we also had chores, tasks and a ranch to run. What to do? This beautiful child was slipping. He was frustrated, angry and constantly in time-outs for aggressive behavior. How could we flip it around? How could we engineer an experience that didn’t set him up for another frustrating failure?
We thought about going back to back riding. He’s bigger now, but we could keep him safer if he’s up with me. But how do we make that new and exciting? We’d been working on his love and engagement with the pony and that was still working. But if we can’t keep him safe….
What about a trail ride? No, he’s fascinated with hide-and-go-seek and there’s a lot of poison oak on the trail right now and that would be a nightmare for this sensory sensitive guy and his sleep deprived family.
We were stumped. Our gaggle of teens were dreaming of the jumping session we’d promised them after J’s session and as much as we tried to get their ideas – they were thinking about which horses they might ride and if they should go and set up a jumping course.
That’s it! J needed to feel empowered – listened to and in control. He needed to feel the joy of a moving, wonderful horse that would take him through transitions into a place of wonder and joy. He needed to show us that he was creative and smart and fun.
“Girls, go set up some jumps – make them colorful and single fences. Then go and tack up your jumping horses and then put on fun costumes like colorful polo wraps for the horses and tutu’s and super hero capes for yourselves. Be tacked up and warmed up by the time J gets here and tack up Beetle for back-riding while you are at it and put on Beetle the craziest saddle pad you can find.”
You can imagine how easy it was to motivate a half dozen teen girls on this path.
When J arrived, we picked him up at the parking lot with Beetle and told him we had the very best surprise in the arena he could imagine and that Beetle and I would take him there. The car ride had him dis-regulated and he wasn’t quite ready to swallow our plan. He walked a few circles around the manure pile, took off his shirt and was going for his shoes when he heard the sounds of the girls in the arena laughing and giggling. That’s what got his attention. “Let’s go see the girls – you are going to LOVE this!”
He was in – but not completely. We had some selling to do. “J, the girls are all waiting for you. You are going to be their teacher today. The’ve been waiting for you all afternoon. They could hardly eat lunch they’ve been so excited.” He spun around to look at me. He wasn’t quite buying it and he had things he wanted to do.
“You get to pick which girl and then you tell them which jump to take. And then you pick another girl and tell her which jump to jump. You are their teacher today. Pick a girl – they are all ready.”
“Pick me! Pick me!” The girls all cried.
J was hooked.
In minutes he was snapping his fingers and telling the girls “listen up! Rachel, you go to the blue jump.”
“Which one – there’s a dark blue and a light blue?”
“Dark blue AND THEN light blue!” He was in ecstasy.
We spent the next hour marching around the ring on horseback, making up encouraging songs to bring the girls safely over the jumps (“go Kemma, go Kemma, go Kemma – good girl!!!) creating courses and describing them to the girls, giving them encouragement when things went wrong and more. His mom stood at the fence and watched it all with a giant smile on her face. At no point did she have to warn him, admonish him, correct him, direct him. She got to bask in the sound of his laughter and watch him be playful, creative and kind.
That’s just how HorseBoy Method™ rolls. Right? Flipping around the old “top down” dynamic. Fostering movement and curiosity and joy. Here’s the kicker; everyone won – teens, parents, horses. The girls are still talking about it – still high on how much fun they had. Their moms sent notes as well.
It shouldn’t be special – it shouldn’t be news. But we are going to keep on re-defining normal and laughing and playing our way to wholeness.
May you fall madly in love this year.
In love with someone who unhinges your tired trajectory
In love with a spouse of several years who might be aching for lightning.
In love with demanding children and crazy relatives.
In love with the particular pedigree of genius insanity that has perhaps claimed you in spite of your reluctance.
And certainly in love with an animal, a cloud, a redwood, the wild.
These at least once a day.
May you fall in love with this fragile jewel of a world,
With hard work, real learning, just causes, petitioning and prayers.
May you fall in love with wonder itself, with the grand mystery, with all that feeds you in order that you may live.
And with the responsibility that it confers.
May you fall in love with heartbreak and seeing how it’s stitched into everything.
May you fall in love with the natural order of things and with tears, tenderness and humility.
May this be a magnificent year for you. May you fall deep, madly, hopelessly, inextinguishably in love.
Poetess: Rachelle Lamb
This is a wonderful gift. Longtime volunteer and now all around ranch hand Hunter Flynn has an artist’s eye. He’s been thinking for months about putting together a video of how he sees the ranch and how the horses and the families interact.
We are so touched by his beautiful gift.
Music by the innovative and all around awesome Wheeland Brothers.
The Revolution of Kindness Continues – be a part of the Revolution
The horse is the main tool we use to connect Square Peg students to a world they are often shut out from. Autism literally means “Locked within the self.” Horses, environment, movement and humor are the keys we use to help connect autism and other special needs families so they can share love and joy together. It’s not unicorns and crystal balls – it’s neuroscience.
Please join us by sponsoring one of these glorious animals. Each Square Peg Horse has a story to tell and something special to offer our families. Each one has a personality that draws out joy and connection and empowerment from the kids in our program. Everyone deserves a place where they feel Safe, Accepted and Competent. Our horses do that every single day. Hunter Flynn tells the story in film.
A gift of horse sponsorship is a gift to Square Peg Ranch, to the families we serve, to a loved one AND it’s tax deductible.
Here’s a chance to meet them and to give a unique gift that can never be bought in stores.Square Peg is a 501(c)3 your gift is tax deductible as allowable by law. EIN 20-1253820
Autism Awakeness aka: Finn
Even though El Camino Real (Gr II) winner Autism Awareness and our Finn are not blood related, they are connected deeply. If you don’t know the story of the racehorse Autism Awareness, grab a tissue and read it. Autism Awakeness was owned and donated by our friends the Taboada Family who race horses with names that spread autism understanding to the horse racing world. According to Johnny Taboada, “Finn” is the fastest horse he ever owned. But racing luck was not with him and his career was started and stopped with minor injuries and a trailer accident. He’s been at Square Peg ranch for a few months and this gentle giant wants some quiet stall and pasture time before he begins training as a Square Peg school horse April of 2015. As you can see from the picture, this giant horse is extremely kind and steady and we look forward to many years together.
Sponsors will receive a framed photo of their animal with their story. Annual sponsors will also have a stall plaque with their name installed on the horses’ stall door.
This year, it became clear to us that true success isn’t measured in numbers, but by the sound of a child laughing or reading aloud, or by the smiles on their faces after a ride around the place where Everyone Fits.
We are so grateful for our current 2015 horse sponsors – you are our angels!
The Peters Family is sponsoring Eve
The Bielagus Family is once again sponsoring Bert!
We are so grateful for the continuing support of Geri Forrester and her sponsorship of Cee’s For Clever (Cecil) Momotombo (Henry) Snickerdoodle (Django) and Forbidden Stitch! You are an angel Geri!
This is the season of gratitude and we want to thank you for your support and to show you just how much it means. We want you to be proud to be part of the little ranch that turns “I wish” into “I can.”
“I am the father of a six year old autistic boy. His mother and I make every effort to help him have the most rich life possible. Like any child, a parent wants to provide opportunity in sports and social activity. However due to some of the challenges with working with autistics far too many avenues available to neuro-typical children are completely closed to him.
My son loves physical activity. He gets immense joy from water activities and moving his body…Beauty is too simple a word to explain what it is like as a parent to see your child being given the opportunity to participate in a world that he is often shut off from.
The environment Square Pegs creates is safe, fun, and loving. It is awe inspiring in every sense. This organization is full of compassion and understanding and giving. I have rarely encountered such acceptance of the range of human condition as this group shows.”
Our weekly lesson program, which serves more than 30 students per week, inspired student breakthroughs in speech ability, social acuity and cognitive behaviors. One of our daily goals is to do everything we can to have special needs parents hear the sounds of their children’s laughter and to know that they are supported and included and accepted. It’s the single most important thing we do.
This year, our beautiful and serene camping facility saw an increase in summer campout participants by five times over last year’s number. Families left camp with a reduction in the isolation often felt by parents of children with special needs, because their family found an environment where Everyone Fits!
“ Having a “safety net”, a place where ’A’ can go and be himself, has been critical in his development. I honestly don’t know that he could be the incredible boy that he is without the help of Square Pegs…Speaking as a mom of a kid on the spectrum–I can only say that this is a very very tough job. It’s also very lonely. There is no other place for the families. We don’t need support groups to hear others problems. We just need an hour or two, [a few days] in a beautiful place to take a deep breath, relax and recharge. Without this–I am not sure I would ever have the energy to go on. I owe much to Square Peg and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
In 2014 so far we have taken in ten thoroughbreds from the race track and adopted six to forever homes. We helped these athletes become happy and healthy, and transitioned them from racehorse to performance horse or companion. We love getting stories of our horses playing polo in Hawaii and one will head to upstate New York to enjoy forest trail rides, local polo and even some jumping.
A major accomplishment is being accredited by the TAA–Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. We succeeded in the evaluation for approval, passing a rigorous property inspection for safety and care, and meticulous examination of the organization’s procedures and financials with flying colors. After hundreds of hours of hard work on the behalf of staff and volunteers, we are officially recognized for our excellence in providing appropriate rehabilitation, thorough training, and thoughtful rehoming of former race horses. We are one of only 40 facilities in the United States to hold this honor.
World Champion SF Giants Third Base Coach (now retired) Tim Flannery played a sold out benefit for Square Peg in November at the beautiful Mezza Luna Restaurant. Tim’s #LoveHarder Project is the real deal and his music and his band were jaw-dropping! If you get a chance to see Tim Flannery and his band the Lunatic Fringe – you will not be disappointed!
As the much needed rain pelts the ranch, we are taking a little breather, a much needed rest for staff and horses and making the time to thank you, the folks who support the ranch. We are so thankful for your contributions.
We admit it. We are guilty. Guilty as all get-out of the sin of pride. Yesterday, we got the letter establishing us among only 28 other Thoroughbred Aftercare organizations in the nation as officially accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance! It was the most rigorous and thorough process we have ever attempted. Our finances, our adoption policies, record keeping, feed and farrier and veterinary protocols, our fundraising practices, our lease, our relationship with the local and national media were all combed through carefully by leaders in the Thoroughbred industry. A physical inspection of our horses was done by a D.V.M. and a surprise inspection by the Executive Director of the organization all culminated in Approval!
We couldn’t have done this without our staff, board and volunteers. When I got the letter yesterday, I found myself weeping openly. It meant so much to be acknowledged for excellence in dedication and care for these splendid animals. It felt wonderful to be counted among the very best in the nation in an industry I have loved and served for most of my life. It means having a legitimized voice in the racing world showing and telling these animals aren’t just capable of second careers as performance animals but to illustrate how they serve our Square Peg families with generosity, with valor and with compassion. We love thoroughbreds, and today, the thoroughbred industry loved us back. Yup, our step is a little lighter today, our chests are puffed out a bit. We are proud!
Now the SF Giants are in their third World Series in just five years! Giants 3rd base coach Tim Flannery is playing a benefit for Square Peg Ranch next month! Just a few tickets left – click here to get them – come celebrate with us and GO GIANTS!!!
Join our revolution of kindness. Giant Steps Foundation has issued a $15,000 challenge grant through the end of September, 2014. Every dollar you contribute will be matched by our friends at Giant Steps up to $15,000. Please donate today.
One subject comes up time and again when professionals reach out to help us solve fundraising problems. “The problem with Square Peg is that it’s just not scaleable.”
Yup. It’s true. 100% true. So, how can we have the impact that our donors deserve? Are you ready? Here it is: Square Peg is so much more important than scaleable- it’s inspirational. Can we show you how?
Here’s Seven Bridges. He’s five years old and last year, he suffered a race career ending injury. His owner/breeder is a thoughtful man and the folks at CARMA took him in and re-habilitated him for almost a year. Then they paid for him to come all the way up from San Diego to live at Square Peg. This is his first time under saddle at the ranch. He’s kind, intelligent and sweet. He’s going to be able to teach kids about second chances, about kindness and generosity. He’s an example of responsible owners and breeders looking to place their horses safely after their race career is over. He’s an inspiration.
Here’s a montage of the smiles that our pony Rickie evokes. It’s fall and most of our kids are going back to school. Parents are suffering through brutal IEP’s. Kids are doing their best to try to fit in and learn the ropes of a classroom that is a cacophony of flickering fluorescent lights, confusing tasks, and mind scrambling social rules. At the ranch, they get to be the king, the princess, the warrior. Ricky takes them places where they can explore, sing, squeal or just rest. Rickie is not scaleable – she’s a treasure.
This us Pickle – we laugh and say he’s the best therapy dog we’ve ever had. He’s the best mouser we’ve ever known and he’s FIV+. Each day he goes without symptoms is a gift.
Let’s not forrget the surfers from the Half Moon Bay Surf Club. Every year, Square Peg gives them the chance to share their surfing skills with kids who struggle. Every year these uber cool teens come bounding to the beach eager to play and attend to and accept the kids we bring to them. Want to be inspired? Take a look at how these kids aren’t afraid to go wherever our Square Peg kids take them. You don’t need to fear for the future when you see these kids in action.
We’re going to leave scaleability to the hamburger franchises and computer companies. Here, at a little ranch by the sea, we are looking to our animals and our families to inspire us to continue to change the world – one horse and one child at a time.
Giant Steps Foundation has issued a $15,000 challenge grant through the end of September, 2014. Every dollar you contribute will be matched by our friends at Giant Steps up to $15,000. Please donate.
For the third year in a row, Square Peg teamed up with the Half Moon Bay Surf Club to bring Bay Area autism families to the beach for a two days of surfing, fun and respite – free of charge.
This isn’t about curing or treating autism. It’s about love and laughter and friendship and caring for the family as a whole. Siblings of the autistic children join in on the fun as well. The whales, however, that might have been magic. In my 20 years of living on the Coastside, I’ve never witnessed humpbacks in so close to the beach. I’m not prone to mysticism, but there was clearly something special happening.
“Catch a Wave and You’re Sitting on Top of the World”
Imagine your child’s perfect day – away from sensory triggers, in nature, with caring and silly friends. He’s celebrated for his running in circles and singing to himself. He’s encouraged to explore and run and shout by capable and caring teens. Then whales and dolphins come and visit. You, the autism parent pour yourself another cup of tea and join the other parents on the beach squealing with pleasure or resting on the warm sand.
I have been meaning to write all week to say what an incredible morning that was. I know J never really got in the water, at least not past his waist, but getting in a wetsuit was huge and being in the ocean with such incredible, caring, young people was truly a gift.
“The day was magical and of course the things that no one could plan, the whales breeching, the dolphins and sea lions and all the birds, the perfect weather conditions were a awesome. But as a parent, who has been to many events, the things that you did plan, the wetsuits, the boards, the sand toys, all the food and the absolutely amazing team of adults and teens was beyond inspirational and touching. There were numerous time during and after that tears came to my eyes when thinking about the generous spirit you all brought to the day. I could not have asked for more and yet I wanted more. I wanted to stay forever and plan to bring J back down for riding if you can accommodate us.”
Dina Tarah, MFT
How it all happened
This day, with the exception of the whales, dolphins, pelicans and sea lions making a most welcomed guest appearance, is the brainchild of Rupert Isaacson, founder of the Horse Boy Method™. The Method uses nature, humor, movement and horses to celebrate joy, wonder and communication between autistic children and their families. Isaacson has trained therapeutic riding centers all over the globe in the Method and works extensively with Half Moon Bay’s Square Peg Ranch in setting up a Flagship Center for HorseBoy work at the 10 year old non-profit. When Isaacson visited in the early spring of 2012 he was sitting in Peet’s Coffee with me, Square Peg’s Director and co-Founder.
“You know Joell, all these kids are so drawn to the water and the movement of the ocean is similar to the movement of the horse. Because its so big and rhythmic and powerful. I’ve always dreamed that what we are doing with horses, we can do with surfing. Do you know any surfers?”
I already had my phone out placing a call to Maverick’s Executive Director and Half Moon Bay Surf Club Head Coach Rocky Raynor. Within minutes Rocky joined us at the coffee shop. As he walked in I tried to hug him and introduce him to Rupert, but Rocky was busy dialing his phone. “Talk to this guy.” He hands the phone to Rupert, gives me a hug and says “This is going to be great!”
That phone call as it turns out was to former Coastside resident and teacher Jack Viorel of Wilmington North Carolina. Jack’s Indo Jax Surf Charities has conducted adaptive surfing for kids with struggles such as sight and hearing impairment, homeless orphans and, as it turns out, autism.
Jack made plans to travel with his crew to Half Moon Bay and taught the local kids his secrets of how to keep the guest surfers safe and give them the thrilling rides that surfers call “the stoke.”
Since that first day, we’ve conducted a total of seven special surf days at Roosevelt Beach in Half Moon Bay for autism families. We’ve racked up thousands of hours of volunteer time and service and served over 50 families. Sitting on top of the World indeed!