Leadership – Calm is Contagious

The number one leadership factor is:” “Calm is Contagious” says former Navy SEAL commander Rourke Davis.

Imagine that?  Coming from a Navy SEAL – talking about leadership and he  sounds like a neo-buddhist hippy.

Calm is Contagious –  leadership advice.

Yesterday, a family came to the barn. The son is 18. He’s limited verbally and gifted physically. He loves riding horses, he loves waterskiing, swimming and snow skiing.

I was chatting with mom about their awesome ski trip while her son went with his favorite instructor grooming his horse. Mom and I were interrupted by her son yelling loudly and rushing toward us. His face was red and tears were running down both cheeks.

In hopes to help regulate her son, mom calmly showed him her phone with a visual schedule, she asked him to sit and we all did some simple breathing activities. After a few minutes, mom asked if he was ready to go back to his horse, he said yes and walked back to the horse.

A minute later, the same thing happened. He was seriously dis-regulated. His crying was real and he couldn’t tell us what was the matter. We asked him if he wanted to ride and he said he didn’t.  We told mom to go and get her helmet and that she could ride instead. This both excited and terrified mom but she’s as game as they come – autism moms are a tough bunch.

I took her son to the arena and we played his favorite music. He was fond of a country song, particularly of one phrase from the ditty where the singer crooned “I’ve got to pull myself together.”  He played it over and over and over.  Behaviors are communication folks.

The music played.

“I’ve got to pull myself

                  Pull myself

                  Pull myself

                  Pull myself together”   Over and over.

Mom was mounting the horse and like a lightning bolt, her son rushed at her, screaming, crying and reaching for her hair to pull.  I knew I couldn’t make it there before him so I shouted “incoming” to give the instructor, mom and the horse a heads up.

Mom was able to get off the horse and got her son to sit on the ground and told him clearly that rushing the horse and grabbing her hair was not acceptable – ever.

Disaster averted.

We decided to sit quietly with him as he skimmed through his music selection with the horse still close. We talked about life, weather and horses.  Mom brought the horse treats and we giggled at the horse’s lovely face.

We realized that the son was simply exhausted. The excitement of skiing, the drive home – it was a lot. He was not rested and therefore had no resilience available.  Mom also had been up late with him and she, like mothers have always done, put her weariness on hold and handled the day. The best thing we could do was to offer a safe and quiet space for both.

Mom sent us a photo 20 minutes after leaving – her son sound asleep in the back of the car. 

“Calm is contagious.”

Calm made the difference. Mom stayed safe, her son regulated. Calm is what turned a potential meltdown into a chance to find a space to rest. Calm kept the horse from reacting badly. Pedigree geeks in racing will note that the horse is a son of the mighty Fusiachi Pegasus, winner of the 2000 Kentucky Derby. He never wavered. Why?  Because Calm is Contagious.

Calm is valued and cultivated here – it’s how we help each other.

Watch the best horsemen in the world, no matter what the discipline and there’s  one uniting factor – Calm.

If we can help and support a tired autism family to cultivate calm – and find connection –  we have served our community.

There you have it – what’s good for Navy SEALs, world class horsemen, neo-buddhist hippies and us – is Calm and luckily, it’s contagious.

Now I’m going to try to take my own advice, put on some mud boots and deal with a broken water pipe in a muddy horse corral.

Peace out.

Prey Animals a blog post by Davis Finch


Blogger Davis Finch finds his voice and his truth in writing another thoughtful piece for the Square Peg website.


Horses are prey animals; they are constantly in fear of a predator that wants to eat them.  I have had bad anxiety all my life. Often I feel like a prey animal.  Like horses, I am big and could subdue most would be attackers but, also like horses, I still fear attack from a stronger force that I cannot subdue.  Horses fear of real predators such as mountain lions and coyotes has been an evolutionary necessity for them.  They also have irrational fears of harmless things such as floating plastic bags, tarps blowing in the wind, and poles on the ground.  

My anxiety has likely helped me by tempering my curiosity but can also result in persistent negative thoughts about confinement or death.  It is funny how I kept worrying about farfetched sources of harm but didn’t think to check where my dog was when I ran through the house in the middle of the night (I had a very bad fall).  Similarly, a horse could be freaking out about puddles and shadows but not colic and pasture accidents.

I guess we all have fears both rational and irrational.  Good horsemanship is earning the trust of a horse so he will follow you over his instinctual fears.  Maybe we humans can learn something from that?  Maybe if I can trust myself, I too can overcome my innate fears.  I know I have abnormally high anxiety, but perhaps those feelings of trust and fear are true for most people.  Perhaps, even though we can hunt and eat meat, humans are innately prey animals too.


“I Hear You” the Beauty of Salon

Last night, in the safety of our living room, 15 or so of us gathered for Salon.

Historically, Salons were called by fashionable women who would invite intellectuals to their house for a party to discuss heavy topics.  It was a way that women could participate in discussions of policy and philosophy in an informal setting with good food and drink.

Here at Square Peg, Darius and I started hosting Salon to bring people together to dive deeper into complicated subjects in a respectful setting that felt more like a warm gathering of friends than in a “town hall” type setting.

But something magic happened. Our youth commandeered our California take on a cocktail party. They found Salon as a safe and welcoming space to be seen and heard – to listen and formulate opinions and share deep thoughts and experiences.

My job changed from making sure that there was stylish food to offer to gently drawing out those who have not felt safe enough to have their thoughts heard in a group. Salon is now more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

Last night, we talked about community.  We spent a good amount of time defining what a community is – is it a space with a common interest as vague as a video game or as deep as blood ties. The answer, we decided, was yes to both. We talked about the community of being a sports team fan and how that community because it had a cause and a mission (to beat the other team) could bring out excitement, but also violence. We talked about whether of not a virtual community, gleaned via the internet was a real community and how the pain of a shared experience can bring out the best of us in the uncharted waters known as compassion and empathy.

We started to explore how a community, at some point, has to develop rules to keep things fair, especially when resources become or perceive to become more scarce and that naturally led us to wrap up the night as we all agreed that the next monthly Salon be on the nature of Policy and hence, Politics. We agreed that we would do the best we all could not to get pulled into a divisive discussion of current politics and instead, think about how different political systems evolved and how one system might work for one community and not for another.

Pretty brilliant stuff.

I am grateful for the trust and care that the members of our Square Peg community show to each other in this sweet group.

And I’m wicked grateful for the lovely community that we have all built.

If you are curious, I highly suggest developing a Salon group of your own.  Feel free to email me if you would like advice on how to do it.

Bread and Jam for Behaviors

I’m back from two days in San Diego having had the honor to present Movement Method to a group of therapists on one day and to a group of autism parents on the other. I was assisted by the brilliant and patient Vanda Richardson who applies these methods to her families daily.

We presented well – we were organized, funny, authentic. We got our audiences to laugh and to cry.

The therapists had great questions, asking for advice with a tricky client or for clarification on a particular point. Parents asked the harder questions:

      “When my child is melting down – what can I do?”

       “How can I stay sane and lean into my daughter’s obsession with her dolls?”

Despite some unexpected technology challenges, it went very well.

But our hostess, Jenny Palmiotto  began receiving texts even during the presentation.

      “But how do we DO Movement Method?” People were eager to know how             they could implement change right now.

It’s a frustration I’ve heard before.

And it’s fair.  If you signed up for a cooking class, you would expect to leave the room with some skills to take home about chopping or choosing a cut of meat, about what temperature to pre-heat the oven and how long to cook the roast.

I never want a parent to leave a session or a training feeling guilty or even more tired.  I want people to take away the information with a feeling of connectedness and a plan to incorporate some laughter and joy and understanding into their interactions with their child or with their clients.

I’ve watched parents take in the Horse Boy film and leave feeling defeated saying “Look, I can’t just go up a mountaintop and take my family to Mongolia.  I guess I’m just not as good a parent as they are.”

And it makes me feel terrible.

Because it’s the opposite of what I was trying to convey – which means I may have failed.

Here’s the thing – parenting or therapy is not cooking.  Cooking has an outcome – delicious and nutritious food that will not make you sick.

Working with anyone with neurological struggles is clearly more complicated. The goal is to help a person become as fully realized as a human as possible.

Movement Method is misnamed. It’s not a Method – it’s a framework. It’s a lens to view behaviors, motivations and the brain science of what is happening.  It’s a lens to understand our own cultural upbringing and how we got to a place where we are applying techniques that don’t work – in fact, they create suffering.

Within this framework, we challenge and invite the therapist, teacher or parent to view a situation or a behavior or a goal through a different lens.

I’ll illustrate.

Let’s say the goal is to get a seven year old ME to eat different foods. I’d chosen for myself what I  call “the beige diet” I liked french fries, oatmeal, chicken nuggets and white bread.  We all know a growing body needs more protein, some greens perhaps.  It’s distressing and oh so common.

that’s me, the queen of the beige diet and showing that I’ve never been able to keep my shoes tied.

My mom was a product of 70’s television and made lots of gooey casseroles that started with cans of Campbell’s soup – the sight of the label makes me ill to this day.

You know how this story plays out. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me leave the table until I’d finished everything no matter how long it might take. It’s what they were told by the parenting experts. They were excellent parents and they were dedicated.  Ergo – mealtimes were hell for all of us.

They were told that I was the middle child trying to get attention by being  picky and now all the attention was on me. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I just wanted to leave the table and go and play outside – or be left alone in my room to read the books I loved.

I’ll play well with siblings, but I’m still not going to eat tuna casserole

Behavior – picky eater

Theory of function of the behavior – attention

Treatment: only offer non preferred foods with no other choices and eventually, survival instinct would kick in and I’d have to eat something at which point there would be much rejoicing and all of my attention getting needs would be met (in reality, I’d just wait until everyone was asleep at night and I’d get up and fix myself a bowl of breakfast cereal)

Stressful, time consuming, ineffective, punishing for the ENTIRE family with long-lasting negative results.

Now, let’s apply a Movement Method lens to the same situation.

What were my intrinsic interests? Outdoor play, reading.

How about we read “Bread and Jam for Frances” by Russell Hoban?  I loved Frances the Badger.  Like me, Frances was kind of dreamy and loved being outdoors. The descriptions of the food in the book are delightful.

By reading a book with me, with a character I could identify with and then just leaving it alone – we could have had a tender and sweet family experience and given me the opportunity to quite literally come to the table on my own INTRINSIC interest – and avoided the compulsory, compliance based approach we were raised with.

Take a moment to recognize that this kinder approach by acknowledging a 7 year old’s interests isn’t some soft-handed hippy work around to make the parents feel superior – it’s just WILDLY MORE EFFECTIVE and more humane for the whole family.

Remember the brain science!  If cortisol, the stress hormone is evolutionarily designed to narrow focus – then your child’s most obsessive interests are an illustration of a stressed mind. The obsessive focus is a symptom of the stress and not the source of the stress.

Only when we are truly seen and accepted for a narrow interest (Frances’ obsession with bread and jam) does it naturally begin to ameliorate.

Our hostess for the trainings Dr. Jenny Palmietto of Family Guidance and Therapy http://www.familyguidanceandtherapy.com 

Had something really beautiful to say. She talked about the “Otherness” of treatment.  Meaning, when you see your clients, students etc as “other” you lose the humanity and thus the effectiveness of treatment.  She illustrated that if it’s a treatment you wouldn’t do with your own children, you need to re-think it.

I would add that we need to further connect it and take a moment to tenderly reflect on our own behaviors as kids and how a compulsory, compliance-based treatment negatively affected us.

Understand that Movement Method is not a tool, it’s not a method, it’s a lens and a reference and an invitation to innovate.  The self compassion portion of MM is pivotal as we struggle to throw off the cultural norm of extrinsic rewards and compliance based systems – not for any other reason than because they do not work.

Take a deep breath, turn on some music, smile and begin by forgiving yourself. Imagine a delightful interaction. Innovate. Explore and don’t forget to laugh.

Let’s turn this post into a discussion.  List a struggle YOU had, the more sensory based, the better and how shifting the lens to how a therapist, teacher or parent could have worked with your intrinsic interests to help you overcome.

Ready? Go!

You Really Got Me Now

I came across a newsletter for an agency that provides behavioral services to families.

I read and watched it all – despite the fact that I was sick to my stomach.

Videos of “success stories” showing a child sitting on the floor stimming and then the therapist taking the toy away and the child melting down – and then – flash forward some manner of months later – the child seemingly happily interacting with the therapist in an engaged and cheerful fashion.  Stories of hope from parents who were able to go out do dinner because their child who would not tolerate a caregiver is now happy with the respite worker and mom and dad can go and have dinner together.

It’s basically good – an alleviation of the more distressing tenets of  autism – the repetitive and disassociated behaviors that define the condition.


If we can’t start by accepting that BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION and that a disrupted sensory system must be respected before we can repeatedly ask someone to change a behavior or to want to communicate with someone –

Then it’s just another exercise in standing on the shoulders of the people we claim to be serving.

This morning while feeding the horses the Kinks “You Really Got Me Now” played over and over in my head.  A total “ear worm.”  What was my psyche telling me? The angry guitar line matched my mood as I stomped through the mud feeding horses, or maybe  the line “you got me so I don’t know what I’m doin’ “ was in my mindset.

I came inside, took of my boots and brewed a cup of coffee and brought the song up on YouTube

I started to rock and nod my head to the song loops in the wonderful pre-punk psychedelic phenomena that is The Kinks.

Why is it ok and sexy and wonderful to be so distracted by love and by music to rock and spin and be so fascinated with someone that you feel the way the Kinks feel in the song?

Why can we attach to this song and not to the stimming rocking child in the classroom? Why can’t we understand that this child is experiencing his world in a very real way?  Why do insist on  make him stop his behaviors rather than to respect that what he is feeling is real?

If it’s okay to be driven to distraction by love – why is it so different to understand that this child might be driven to the same level of distraction by the sound of the refrigerator motor,  by the color of the sky, by the thought of his favorite toy or by the burning stomach ache he’s developing and like the Kinks,

“……You got me so I can’t sleep at night.”

“…….You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I don’t know much.  But I know that if we don’t focus on respecting our kids and recognizing that a sensory avalanche comes in many different colors and flavors and not all of them are bad – and that creating resilience means building trust and that trust only comes from LISTENING and from genuine care.

I know that this dad – Jason Hague is closer to the truth

For now, I’m going to listen to some psychedelic music and rock out.

Happy New Year –

Creating a Culture is Easier Than You Think

Tag is underrated.  There is no clear winner or loser and it plays in an endless loop. It’s a hallmark of Horse Boy and Movement Method work.

Many years ago, we added a feature to tag we call “New Rule.”

“New Rule” means that when you are tagged and you are “it” you have the chance to make a rule that everyone must follow.

Why is this important?

Because you put a disempowered child in power.

Naturally, he will abuse it.  Why wouldn’t he? It’s his chance to be powerful.  His new rule usually involves something humiliating for everyone else. You MUST follow that rule – with joy and silliness. Yes, I said silliness.  When we react with silliness we model resilience.

Soon, you or your staff is tagged and you will make a new rule. You make a kind one – or a generous one, – or you concede your chance and let the disempowered child  suggest another rule.  Maybe you manufacture a rule where everyone does something ridiculous together. You can give choices too. Each turn is played with laughter and tickles, falling on the ground and more laughter.

Naturally, one child will not get tagged. She’s too shy or too slow, and you bring her into the game (you model inclusiveness). One child is terrified of the energy and your next rule says that everyone must whisper and run in slow motion (you model sensitivity). Within minutes, you have created a culture where power is wielded with kindness ease and real inclusivity. Nuanced social skills are being modeled and natural reinforcement of kind behavior blooms without the taint of artificiality. If your child continues to be a tyrant in his rules – you follow them to the letter (you relieve the grip of shame and anger and very soon, he learns to make and have friends).

Earlier this month, our group posted articles saying the game of tag is being outlawed on school campus’.  It’s a reactionary approach. It’s a lost opportunity to model kindness and peaceful exchange of power and a chance to move and express ourselves in a way that is healthy for our bodies, for our senses and for our sense of self. However, it seems this is still allowed.

Yesterday, a child with a history of violence was brought into the game. The child with no school placement because of his acting out, a child diagnosed with social skills so low his family couldn’t eat in restaurants for years was inviting others into the game, making rules that were sweet and funny, recognized a child who wasn’t participating because she didn’t understand the game (a very complex social cue) and made special rules for her. When he stumped us with Pokemon trivia, he gently whispered clues to us. I can’t imagine a more successful day. He got a ton of exercise and sensory input with all the running and tagging and he was able to regulate in his transitions smoothly for the rest of the playdate.

By modeling a culture of delight, movement and sweetness – we got all we bargained for – and more.

Tag as education, swinging in hammocks and singing or isolation boxes – sounds like a no brainer to me.

Understanding and Being Understood – a Journey

Que paso? What happened?

Lo que pasa? What happens?

Que pasando? What is happening?

Que pasa?  What’s up?

About five months ago I downloaded Duolingo, a free app on to my phone to learn Spanish.

Duolingo works like a video game and the learning curve, even for a non gamer like myself, was smooth.

The language learning however, is not smooth for me.

Despite the fact that Duolingo has great science of learning behind it – despite knowing I can breeze through a lesson in five minutes – despite the fact that I live in California and have been traveling to Mexico regularly – this learning comes hard.

Really hard.  I’ve not missed a day of practicing. I regularly exceed my daily goals for Duolingo lessons, oftentimes by a factor of three or four times the daily goal – I’m struggling.

Yesterday, our shoer, the world’s nicest person and a native Spanish speaker drove on to the farm.  My plan was that I was going to greet him in Spanish and use my Spanish skills for every exchange possible.  After five months of serious study I was ready.

I opened my mouth to say “Buenos dias Jose. Feliz Navidad!”

What came out was nothing.

I started to sweat, my heart was racing.

I tried again.

Nothing. Nada

Jose looked up and greeted me warmly – in English and we chatted away in my native language.

I thought about how well he spoke my language and how, after months of study, I couldn’t  do an elementary greeting in his. I could of course – but panic got in the way.

The obvious reason I’m studying Spanish  is that most humans speak more than one language and I’m ashamed that I never acquired this skill. Living in California, Spanish is accessible, help is plentiful and there are lots of opportunities to listen and develop skills. I can help more autism families if I’m fluent in the second most spoken language in the state. Being a professional horse person, Spanish skills can be handy.

But the real reason I’ve taken on this task: Compassion.


Learning a complex and nuanced skill. One that does not come easily to me. Knowing that I’ll have to work harder than the average person and knowing that I will fail often and publicly – knowing that I will sound unsure, possibly stupid and that I will have difficulty making myself understood.  I will stumble. Some days, I feel like I’m really understanding the lesson and other days – it’s all gibberish.

Knowing that it may cause me to panic and want to run away from a conversation – knowing that I won’t be able to lead a conversation for a long time – if ever….  This connects me to our students.

Autism is primarily an anxiety disorder.  When we are anxious, our ability to communicate decreases or even evaporates – we can’t express ourselves – we can’t be heard. Words jumble and what comes out is not what we’d planned. We get frustrated, even angry.  Angry at ourselves, at the Universe.

This morning, I had an imaginary conversation in Spanish with a friend.  Words flowed from me easily, I found the verbs I needed in my memory and the articles felt natural. I wonder if some of our less verbal students have these imaginary conversations? Exchanges where they are heard and understood. Where the crippling grip of anxiety is released and they can say what they think to those they need to understand.

I will keep trying. Seguire intentando.

One of my mentors – Dominique Barbier told me (in reference to horse training) “you can teach a monkey 100 words and think that you are a great monkey trainer – but you haven’t even tried to learn to speak monkey. So what does that make you?”  My intention for 2018 is to learn to understand the languages of others. 


An Open Letter to the Staff of Square Peg Ranch

Yesterday just before dinner I got a text from a little boy. He was excited to tell me that one of the kids in his school, a child who doesn’t speak at all at school,  said “hi” to him. The school thinks the child is non-verbal. This boy knew that the silent child spoke because he knows that they both  attend weekly sessions at the ranch. He’d heard that this child  has rich conversations with his favorite people and animals at the ranch.

This is not insignificant. It’s important. It’s also important to recognize that both children know the significance of the effort.

Dr. Temple Grandin told us years ago that the power of the barn and the horses when she was a teen had less to do with the horses and more to do with the fact that it was “the first place she made friends.“

Like I said, we are on to something. Something very special. By adhering to our core values of acceptance, kindness,  creating and fiercely protecting community, follow the child and cultivating curiosity – miraculous things happen regularly around here.

I ask you, the core providers at SquarePegs Ranch, to take a moment and appreciate the value and the real difference you make in the lives of our families. Some days are easier than others. As we grow and expand, let us never forget these values and let us support each other in the hard days so we continue to lead by example.

We are breaking new ground here. I am so proud of you.

What if “love is the answer?”

#TeamQuirky for the win.

In gratitude and respect,

What used to be boring Saturdays……

This essay, written by Aaron Foley was submitted to the TCA Youth Essay Contest.

Thoroughbred Charities of America Youth Essay Contest

SquarePeg Foundation-A perfect Sanctuary for Horses & Humans

“…….the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole isn’t that the hammering is hard work – it’s that you’re destroying the peg.”  (Paul Collins)

Dear Thoroughbred Charities of America Board Members,

My name is Aaron and I am 10 years old. I am writing to tell you about the most amazing place on earth. “Squarepeg” in Half Moon Bay, California. Like many other kids with learning and coping disabilities, I was really struggling to find true “happiness” in my life.  I had always connected with animals, as they are non-judgmental and always forgiving; horses, cows and dogs being my favorites. We cannot have an animal in our place, so my mom found out about Squarepeg through my therapist at school. We did some research and loved the fact that its tagline was “Team Quirky” and its mission was to connect people and animals who don’t quite fit in. Its “home” to retired horses and we go to the Square Peg because the horses need us. We went to check it out and it truly is everything you would imagine a dream world would be is there a Horse-land (minus the unicorns according to my little sister).

What used to be boring Saturdays are now fun family day trips where we all go and enjoy the peaceful environment that is filled with the most gentle retired horses and caring humans. They humans have learned well from their animal friends and are extra understanding, patient, and kind. My parents used to hover around me nervously and now they see how good I am with the horses and how gentle they are with me, they go visit their favorite horses and I am free to be me!

My favorite horse is Ace, I like him the best, he is a total ham (a little like myself). He tries to eat me whenever I sit next to him, he really loves it when I bring him treats. When we arrive at Squarepeg, I immediately run to visit Ace, then sometimes I ride Ace around the arena.  Did I already mention how much Ace likes to eat a lot of food? he is super friendly and my pet horse.

I have been going to the Squarepeg for 3 years now and it always makes me excited to visit. As we drive there, I feel the excitement building in my tummy and I cannot wait to arrive. I feel welcome and accepted by the horses and the staff.

I know they do not care that I cannot hold a pencil or ride a bike. But, I can ride a horse and how cool is that! Sometimes at school when I am feeling down, I think about Squarepeg and our next visit and it helps me to cope that day. 

I would like to invite you to visit Squarepeg as I think you need to see it for yourselves to believe how fantastic it is. I would be so excited to win this competition for Squarepeg so they can do even more for kids and horses that don’t fit into the right “hole”. By the way, I read this essay to Ace and he tried to eat me in appreciation.