Our Story (in 1,000 words)

Square Peg Ranch was started in  2004 by my husband and myself (Chris and Joell Dunlap) with the notion in mind to change the world “one horse, one child at a time.”  We have been doing just that, every day since then.

The ranch, located along hwy 92 in Half Moon Bay within the gates of Canyon Creek Equestrian Center  hosts 16 horses, two retired foxhounds, two pygmy goats, a few cats and a gaggle of kids of varying abilities, ages, learning and financial challenges.

The hardest part of my job is turning down horses for the program.  I see way too many “please take my horse or else” emails and just want to cry because I know that we can’t save them all.  I have to look at the fact that all of our students, volunteers and their families are learning that taking on the life of a pet means making a commitment for the rest of that pet’s life.  They learn this when they help wrap the injured legs of a retired racehorse or take our elderly horses out for a quiet walk.  Each horse at Square Peg Ranch has a story to tell and a lesson or two to teach us.

Take Hank, a gorgeous 16.1hh six-year-old thoroughbred gelding;  he raced at the track as a three-year-old several times.  Each time, he would race badly and then not be able to walk for a couple of days.  His trainer x-rayed his legs, took blood samples to see if he had a metabolic problem or infection and each time, things would come back negative.  He was given to Square Pegs in May of 2008 and was doing well adjusting to being a saddle horse when he began being dull and listless and laying down all day.  We also had a blood panel run to see what was the matter and, just like at the track, we found nothing.  So we put him in a large grassy paddock with another horse his age and watched his hair grow long and shaggy; he seemed to lose weight no matter what we fed him.  Just as I was getting really worried, a volunteer mentioned what a tall horse he was.  Hank (registered racing name; My Cheatin’ Heart) was not what I would call a tall horse by our standards.  Suddenly, it all became clear – Hank’s lethargy and appetite were due to his crazy growth spurt!  We measured him and compared the measurement to what we had taken when he arrived at the ranch.  The young gelding had grown almost three inches in 90 days!


It was clear from the start that Hank and our ranch manager, Greg Crosta had a special bond.  Greg, standing 6’2″ at age 22 knew that an adolescent growth spurt could be physically painful as well as daunting.  Greg adopted Hank in September 2008 and they both enjoy a rousing chukkar of polo on the weekends and casual gallops on the coastal trails during the week.

Most of the Square Peg horses are Thoroughbreds with a Dutch Warmblood, a Paint horse and a pony thrown in for variety.  Some have had splendid show or competition careers and some have come to the program over a bumpy path.  Each year, we find a forever home for one or two of our horses and are able to take in horses to take their place.

Compare Legacy, a giant Hannovarian gelding who was long listed in dressage for the 1986 Olympics (had he gone, he would have competed against Reiner Klimke and Ahlerich) to Stella, an older Thoroughbred mare who came to us after being found with 32 other horses starving in an orchard.  Stella and her friends were all suspected of being used in “horse tripping.”  In this “sport”  horses are run out of a chute and roped by their hind legs.  Stella’s legs healed as she gained weight, but we decided never to ride her deciding that she had paid her debt to humankind several times over.  Stella, after a year of TLC at the hands of the Square Peg volunteer community, now lives at Joe Shelton’s Thoroughbred Friends ranch in Winters, Ca. Legacy died peacefully at the age of 34.  Both made huge impressions on the kids at the ranch.  They taught lessons in generosity and forgiveness and kindness that can’t be learned in any classroom.

Square Peg Ranch is a place where kids come not only to learn how to ride at their own pace, but to learn to be a part of a community doing something important.  Most of the students volunteer, to the extent that they are able, but often their family’s do too.  From running the online auction, to the daily chores of stall mucking and cleaning, the work at the ranch is about as hands on as you can get.   But don’t take it from me.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a quote from the heart might be worth a few pictures.  Here it is, straight from the folks we serve.

“I feel like Square Peg has not only helped me grow as a rider, but grow as a person as well. At Square Peg, I have learned that everyone can fit, and how much it makes a difference.” Nicole, age 13

“There are lots of places where you can learn to ride a horse, but none that offer the love, support and just plain fun that this one offers. It is a magical place where kids can be kids and are celebrated for it.”  Cathy, parent

“Square Pegs has helped me become me. A haven. A place i feel i can just be myself. It means the world to me. I’m not sure words can really describe what the ranch means to me.” Farris, age 13

“For me, Square Peg is a place where the world stops and a horse listens

.”  Tomio, age 18

Of course, the ranch runs on program fees and donations.  And while feed and other costs have hit an all time high, donations are harder and harder to come across. If you can help us make a difference “one horse, one child at a time” please consider supporting our work with a donation.

photo by Merida Wilson
going to the arena, photo by merida wilson

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