A Day at the Ranch

Yesterday the rain finally moved in. It took its time and had us worried, although we did thoroughly enjoy the warm sunshine of last week. But the wet ground smelled so good as Greg hustled around and found blankets for everyone – except Daisy who refused to be caught in the pasture. Also, no blanket for Gigi who has a giant oozing sore in her shoulder (yuck).

Yesterday, we met the new boss at Hope Services. The fellas from Hope; Sean and Mike impressed him with their stall cleaning skills. The only brave soul to show up for a riding lesson in the rain was Lucas who loved getting a private lesson from Greg and a ride on the fantastic pony, Bob.

From the counseling center came a teen boy to “check us out.” He told his counselor that he liked horses and might like spending time at a ranch. When I showed him around, he wasn’t sure what to make of our little menagerie. But Tucker the hound dog insisted that the boy pet him, and eventually, he did. The boy told me that he had ridden a horse when he was six years old and he liked it. I hope he comes back. He seems like a gentle kid that needs some space to work through what his universe has sent his way to struggle through.
It looks like the rain will be with us for a few days. Maybe now I’ll be able to catch up on 100 emails, and phone calls, tax forms, letters and projects that have all been competing for my attention during the warm weather of last week.
If you are interested in helping out, email me at joell@squarepegfoundation.org We can use help with barn chores, fundraising, bookkeeping, teaching, grooming, community relations, special events and more.

Perfect, warm sunshine.

Another day of perfect and warm sunshine here on the coast. Two weeks ago, our toes froze on a one hour trail ride and this week we ride in shirtsleeves and bathe our hot and sweaty horses afterward. I have spent some panicked moments thinking about drought and global warming and what a mess we have created in the environment, that Alaska is warmer this week than Alabama. But then I realized that griping about or hoping for different weather has never changed how or when the rains come. That wiser people than myself have tried to wish the rains to appear and failed. So I decided to get on my horse, head to the woods and enjoy the fantastic weather. Even better, I got to ride with good friends.

As we stand as a nation on the brink of so much uncertainty, as our toes dangle over the edge of the gorge of change and we veer from abject pessimism back to blind optimism, I know that whatever happens, I will know that I have guided 100’s of children through the beautiful forest on horseback and that they have known the joy and freedom that the experience can provide. And for today, this will have to be enough.

Tomorrow we embrace change, invoke history and move boldly forward as one nation. No matter how scared you are, no matter how you voted, you must keep your eyes open and your mind clear and participate in the democracy that our nation was built on. Not just by holding new leadership accountable for promises made, but by being a part of the solution. These crisis’ that we face will take innovation and a new way of thinking to untangle. It means the Square Pegs of the world will be called upon to find the answers that can’t be found in the round holes.

Peace out.

A Poem for Today

This poem was written by our good friend Lisa Ortiz while sitting in an airport in April 2007. She had just met Hank and I’d like to think that he was the inspiration. It’s a poem that touches me very deeply. I hope you will like it.

The way the heart is wrapped in blankets
and the world fell; Eden’s long gone
the remnant a weedy lawn at our ankles,
a gown we’ve removed in tatters,
a dream we decide
until a horse appears
not far away in a field
not faded or rusted or ancient.
This horse was coddled in stalls, kept from the eyes of mortals
hidden really like a God,
something they say can’t exist
glitter and prance, muscled with silk
legs in waves, winged hooves, exalted bones,
prairie lightning eyes, and they call that
a star or a blaze.
Oh, reach in your pocket for sugar an apple, a handful of oats,
Open your palm
and all that you’ve held,
the way you’ve asked for forgiveness
turns out redemption is this:
an animal neck that arches
untamed breath on your wrist.

Welcome To Our World

I’m going to take you to a very special place.
Three miles up a wooded canyon sandwiched between the hills that define the western edge of Silicon Valley and the cold foggy winds of the Pacific Ocean lies a little horse ranch.

Thirteen acres of hilly land sprinkled with horses who needed a second chance. Some because of lameness or lack of talent, some maimed, old or skittish. There’s also a bunch of friendly barn cats, two snuggly hounds and you can always hear the incessent bleating of two obnoxious pygmy goats.

The smallish sanded riding arena lies closest to the canyon road, ringed with purple daisies that bloom year round in the coastal fog. Across the street is a mysterious, gnarled giant cypress tree in shades of blue, green and black. It’s it’s thick, sturdy boughs beg to be climbed and often there is a child in the crotch of it’s first branch, lounging and watching the rest of the ranch.

Behind the arena is a tomato red barn with paddocks that open on either side. It’s the hub of the action as it usually houses the most recent rescues as well as the horses who cannot, for various reasons, live in the pasture with other horses. It’s a noisy barn built recently out of aluminum pipe and tacked with thin wood. The horses bang the pipes and the metal feeders demanding a treat, or a pat or in arguing with each other. But in spite of it’s loudness, it’s bright and airy inside and the lack of seasonal weather near the coast means that simple shelter from the elements is more important that insulation.

Between the arena and the barn is an untended vegatable garden that is haphazzardly planted with carrots, herbs and struggling tomatoes. The kids and the goats, the gophers and the deer all take liberally from the garden. The lawn is peppered with bare spots from grazing horses and hoof prints. As well as soccer balls and hula hoops left out by the children. But surrounding the lawn is a layer of bright orange and yellow calendula flowers, fragrant lavender bushes and hardy purple salvias. In the winter, it’s crisscrossed with drainage ditches to channel the rain runoff from the hillsides.

The pasture is at the back of the property. It’s too hilly for the older horses, but a gang of young and hearty horses enjoy thier own steep and verdant world on the hill. During the day, they like to stand where they can see all of the activity at the barn. But after dark they head for the meadow that lies deep in the pasture. Sometimes at dusk, they thunder along the side and sometimes over the biggest hill, just for the excitement of it. It never ceases to stop my heart. The image of horses galloping not to or from anything or anyone, but just for the sheer joy of being built to run, is something that strikes hard at the soul of every American who ventures Westward.

The ranch has been described as “story book” “cute” and lovely. But mostly how it’s described by the people who visit is: Magic.
I think they might be right.

Guest Blogger: Genna Gliner

Patience is Key

Every weekend I see Jill* running to our tack room with a smile stretching from ear to ear, her riding helmet resting on her head, and her eyes brimming with anticipation. Her legs transition to a walk as she approaches us and she begins to rattle off all the tasks she wants to accomplish during her lesson; graze the horses, braid ribbons into their tails, play in the arena, and feed buckets full of treats.

Jill resembles our other students in her appearance and demeanor, but when I see Jill my eyes brighten and I cannot wait to get her horseback riding lesson started. Jill took extraordinary steps to become the child who runs to me every weekend. Jill’s excitement and ambition allows me to see the how the companionship of horse can increase a person’s confidence and sense of self.

Teaching Jill challenged me. When I first met Jill she did not run to us with a smile, instead, she hid behind her mom with a looks of either apathy or fear. Although Jill longed to come out and show us her personality, her shyness, due to her autism, left her incapable of connecting with the rest of the world. When the barn was full of people or the lesson became too exciting, Jill would shut down. If I gave her instructions she seemed to ignore the problem even more. If I told her to turn her thumbs up they would turn down, or if I told her to keep her horse on the rail I would find them in the center of the arena. I could not find a way to teach Jill without scaring her. She had trouble communicating what was wrong and I was lucky to get a feeble mumble from her attempting to explain her feelings. She was shy and indecisive, but my teaching style was to push. Whenever I was with Jill I tried to make the lessons fun and exciting with lots of turns and trot work, but I found she would sit atop the horse frozen and terrified. Our attitudes and personalities clashed.

One day I realized Jill was not bound to become a Grand Prix show Jumper or even an old school cowgirl; her only desire was to interact with the horses. When I found my connection to Jill, our shared love for the well being of the animals, I was able to teach Jill on a different level. We spent the majority f the lesson grooming the horses until they sparkled from muzzle to rump. I saw the same sparkle in Jill’s eyes as she admired the results of her tender and nurturing brushing. During the lesson we worked on the comfort of the horse instead of focusing on the correct posting diagonal or canter lead. We chatted about the how the horses ear movements reflect their temper: ears back meant angry, ears forward meant happy, and ears opening toward the rider means you have their attention. As Jill began responding to the horses her riding skills developed right before my eyes. She is able to trot and steer her horse independently, plus she can ride the trot with no hands.

Jill opened my eyes to a world not fill with anger an ambition, but one that is serene and beautiful. Jill’s simplicity fueled my connection to the minds of the horses instead of their ability to carry me around on their backs. Jill’s strength and perseverance came from the horses that were always patient and willing, and Jill has inspired me to look to them for my own strength. The horses always look to me with love and kindness even when I doubt my importance. I am inspired to look to the horses for motivation and confidence..

* Name Changed

What do you call that horse?

Atherton eyed the carrot with a disgusted look.  Implying that I could leave the carrot in her feed bin, she might eat it later.  Her servant beamed and lovingly stroked the mare’s immaculate coat.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Atherton” came the proud reply.
“What do you call her?”
The servant blinked as she tried to figure out why I’d asked the same question again and answered
Atherton is the exception and not the rule.

Because most of us give our horse a barn name.  Something we call him in lieu of his registered or given name.  I mean, you can’t just waltz into the barn and call out “Hello Dox Ruby Red Design” or croon “Easy there Admiral Winston ZX. ” Can you?

I’ve learned that the barn name can tell you a lot about a horse and his owner. 

For instance, cowboys are practical and thrifty.  There is a “Red” at every ranch, as well as a “Grey Dog,” a “Blackie” and the inevitable “Spot.”  The one exception to this rule is the horse named “That-Big-Good-Lookin’-Horse-I-Got.”  This horse packs around this huge moniker no matter what his registered name is.  The cowboy can be heard telling tales of his favorite mount:  “So I’m in the box on That-Big-Good-Lookin’-Horse-I-Got, and the steer…….”  Or “I had to go out and gather cattle with Jim, so I load up That-Big-Good-Lookin’-Horse-I-Got…………….”  Or “hey Jeff, get your mangy butt off That-Big-Good-Lookin’-Horse-I-Got……….”  When you ask the cowboy the actual name of this horse, he’ll scratch his head and say “I dunno, but my wife calls him Meat-head.”

Pony names are great.  You know what you’re up against just by the barn name.  For instance; Gus is a packer, and Button is as cute as one. Otis and Bart will buck you off.  Ernie is terribly mischievous and Tess could probably terrorize a snake.

Endurance horses are cool.  There’s always a Star, a Flash, a Magic and a Zephyr. These horses invariably earned their name and are easy to identify.

The Eventing crowd are more reflective than descriptive. They  dub their horses according to the aspirations they have for their mounts.  There’s always a King, a Champ, a Victor and a Princess. Well then there’s Crash, whose name just stuck.

In the dressage barn, things get loftier.  By naming your horse a foreign name, he automatically becomes more elegant.  Joe is Johannes, Henry is now Henri, and Jack becomes Jacques.  There’s Bella, Beau, Enrique and the flaming chestnut in the corner stall is (of course), Fabio.

The hunter/jumpers of the world are the Jet-Set.  They tend to name their horses for places they have been or want to go.  There’s Indio, Culpeper, Cairo and Montana.  You might find Prauge, Perth, Peoria.  and Martinique (sometimes referred to as Martin, sometimes known as Eek!)  Woe to the poor creature who gets dubbed Winnemucca.

But racing takes the cake.  With scores of horses coming in and out bearing official titles like “Classy Son By A Lot” or “Zam Zam’s Martini” the rule is that the name must be a single syllable title that somehow describes the horse. Naturally, Frog is the 2-year-old filly that tries to jump out from underneath you at the quarter mile mark and Grunt is the beautiful mare with an attitude she doesn’t keep hidden. Bob is the lanky black colt that’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and Ike is the trusty gelding you can count (and bet) on. Needless to say, Pat is the horse whom you just can’t tell or remember whether he is a she or vice versa.

When choosing a barn name for your steed, remember the wise words of my dear friend to her students:
“Don’t ever call your horse something you don’t want him to be.”
This includes Dork, Bucky, Snort or Squirrel.  Bear in mind of course that the lady bestowing this advice was mounted on a horse we lovingly called “Land Mine.”


San Francisco Cronicle article today about GreatNonProfits.org

Today’s SF Chronicle ran an article about GreatNonProfits.org.  If you haven’t visited the site, you might want to treat yourself.

Square Peg’s profile is located at  http://www.greatnonprofits.org/reviews/square-peg-foundation

It’s so refreshing to see technology innovate to bring attention the the causes you care about and not just the ones that can afford to get your attention.  Another reason I love the internet….

Looking Back on Lad – a love story

Looking back on Lad’s 30 years of life, I realize that he acquired more friends and touched more lives with joy than a lot people.

At 17.2hh and 29 years old he looked his age. His lower lip hung loosely and he would drool. His fat belly hung so that down his huge withers and backbone stuck out as if he was emaciated. His perfect crescent moon star now something of a long crooked lightening bolt. Advanced arthritis meant that we couldn’t keep him in a stall, so he would live out in pasture. But his eyes alwasys held that wise, gentle gleam.

He lived out his last years in a pasture with some 5 or 6 weanlings on Joe Shelton’s rescue ranch. He was quick to reprimand a bold foal and even quicker to let the shy ones bask in the security of his huge frame.

At 25 he taught novice riders to jump and was still up for a good gallop on the trails when the opportunity presented itself. However, arthritis and size was a double-whammy. We turned him out for good after he got down in a stall late one night and couldn’t get up. Some friends owned a lay-up farm and I trailered him to their place for what I thought was the last time. Laddy limped out of the trailer; his one eye swollen almost shut from thrashing in the stall. His shaggy coat and enlarged ankles left no trace of the handsome show horse of days past. The owner of the farm patted Lad’s long neck and asked what the old horse’s name was. I managed to choke the word “Lad” as I handed him the lead rope. Suddenly the man’s eyes lit up and said “Not Lite Lee Lad?” Astounded, I nodded yes.

“Honey!” the man yelled as he handed me back the rope and went running to find his wife. “You’ll never guess who’s here! It’s Big Lad!” The wife appeared from the house, recognized her old friend and came running to him. It was obvious she know him as she immediately started scratching his favorite spot behind his left ear.

It turned out that this couple had taken care of Lad 20+ years and 1,000 miles ago during his race career in Arizona. Lad was nervous, difficult and probably previously abused. Billy, his one time exercise rider and now retirement manager told us stories of how Lad used to pace a stall all night and rage around the track no matter what part of him hurt. He said that Lad never ran a good race until the trainer built an outdoor pen for him so that he could watch the racetrack day and night. When Lad came off the track from his morning gallop, reared, wheeled and tried to jump back onto the track, that meant that it was time for Lad to race. He was indeed a hard horse to forget. He had found a home that would love him like I did.

At 20 Lad began his career as a lesson horse. I ran a riding program through a Montessori school in Sacramento, California. We had a couple of acres fenced in the front of the school with big oak shade trees and a small riding area. I always kept Lad plus the two lesson ponies, Bert and Ernie in pasture year-round and gave lessons for as long as the weather would let us. In the 100+ degree summer, the kids would ride around the pasture while I turned on the sprinklers. The kids and the horses loved it and Lad could always be counted on the carefully place the kids in the direct route of the water spray. He was spoiled with carrots and apples from the school kitchen and developed a taste for graham crackers. The children, age 5 to 12 were always enchanted to go from riding the ponies to enjoying the view from a 17.2hh Thoroughbred. He was my “Equalizer” who always knew how to instill confidence and when to issue attitude adjustments. You could count on Laddy to walk gingerly with the scared kids or to be found lounging peacefully under a shade tree while a particularly bratty child tried to kick him into a trot. He received more Christmas cards from students than I did. I keep them in a box with his ribbons and photos.

At 15 we performed our first dressage test. He kicked, bucked and whinnied throughout the entire test. The judge called us to her after our final salute and wanted to know how old the tall and slim promising prospect was. She assumed that he was a 4-year-old warmblood. “He’s 15 this year, Ma’am” I replied. She scowled. We placed 3rd.

At 10 Laddy was packing a very inexperienced me around jumper courses. There are times when I had no idea which fence to take next, but he always got me there. I didn’t know what a “spot” was; I just pointed and took ahold of his thick mane. He was honest and bold. He forgave me all my mistakes and taught me when to be a passenger and when to be a pilot. He was famous for dragging me along for a victory lap around the arena after a particularly good round. He taught me to live for the moment.

Along the years, I have many, many fond stories of Lad. Like the time I tried to use him as a pony at the racetrack. Somewhere around the quarter pole, Lad would transform from steady pony to racehorse. He would incite the horse he was leading into an all out horse race with me somewhere in the middle. He was always letting himself out of his stall at the track in the wee hours of the morning and roaming the grounds just out of the reach of the security guards.

Or the time he got tired of packing around a scared student and so he decided to trot back to me in the middle of the arena. Unfortunately, there were two jumps between him and me, which he cleared neatly. When I looked up and saw what was coming I called out to the student “Hey, I thought you said you never jumped!”

“I CAN’T!” she wailed.

“Ya can now!” was my reply.

She went on to be a fairly accomplished rider.

Laddy has an empathy that drew people in distress. He was the horse you told your troubles to. He nursed me through sick children, a divorce and career changes. He patiently stood as a dozen or so girls cried tears of teenaged angst on his strong shoulders. He has always had a soft spot for baby anything and treated chicks, kittens, foals and toddlers with a tenderness that belied his immense size. My dad always said that if he were human he would be Uncle Remus; a rich storyteller who taught moral lessons in life through gentle, colorful stories.

Laddy died many winters ago on Joe Shelton’s rescue ranch. He laid down in his stall and just couldn’t get up. The I’d like to think the vet cried as she mercifully ended his long and wonderful life.

He will always be one of my truest friends. Lad at 25

Let’s Talk

We are going to pepper this blog with stories of horses, the kids they touch, about the nature of real learning and reflections about what education is and isn’t. You will meet people who have graced the ranch with their presence and left us all wiser and richer. We are going to publish the artwork and poems and essays that come from the hearts of the students and volunteers of the ranch.


Square Pegs is not just a rescue ranch or adaptive riding program. Ultimately, it’s a movement that helps us all understand who we are through learning from the animals and the land and each other.

Let’s talk about what’s on our mind.

Let’s talk about :

  • what it feels like to be a Square Peg in a Round Hole


  • or about animals and people who need a second chance


  • or about education – what’s working and what’s not.
  • what do YOU think about competitive horse sports? Do you love or hate racing? How about polo?


Let’s chat about why it’s important to let kids take responsibility for large animals, or to have the space and quiet time to get to know them.

How about a discussion of why diagnosis of Autism and Childhood Diabetes is skyrocketing?

What do you think about using OTTB’s as school horses?


Square Pegs is committed to having these conversations and having them out loud so that we can all learn from each other. We want to learn to be more compassionate, more effective and more informed. And we can’t do it without you.

Join the discussion. Send us your thoughts, share the blog with folks that have something to say. Remember Everyone Fits. Just don’t be mean.