A Journey, Together

Joell & Darius

In the holiday season of 2003 Joell and I started a journey together.

DandJ2011From our second or third date in 2001, we were hardly apart, but for our various jobs. Joell was teaching riding and doing sales for equestrian products. I was doing tech sales and failing at my new consulting business.

We both wanted more out of life. We wanted to make a difference; something with meaning.

I found plenty of meaning in my work in tech, where our products were used by brilliant people doing extraordinary things. I’m fascinated by technology, and the big hook for me is giving people tools that enable important work that changes lives and society. I had that meaning in work, especially at Sage/Stride and Silicon Graphics, and I wanted more.

On Christmas Day 2003, Joell and I decided we would both commit full-time to build this thing we created called Square Peg Foundation. Friends thought we were crazy, though several provided invaluable counsel and support. We were energized and headed down this new path, together.

In the early years, I managed the office and went out to help with the barn a couple days a week. For both of us it was commonly a seven day week. J1024x768-09507

We knew what we didn’t want to be – a program where families came for 60 minutes, rode the horses and left. We wanted to build a true community – where the shared work of caring for the horses who needed a second chance was empowering for everyone.  We wanted to give struggling families the confidence and the support to do extraordinary things.

We learned every day about the running of a non profit, but there were so many things we didn’t know. We knew we were committed to being fiscally transparent and true to our mission. We pressed on and kept learning.

standing upEvery evening,  Joell would bring home stories from the barn. Our long conversations connected me to the Square Peg work, to the families and the horses.  As we dreamed, we were making a significant difference. Parents raved about how their kids grew in confidence and how the experience was carrying over into their lives outside the ranch.

But a few years in, we almost lost everything. Some early donors and the last bit of our personal savings pulled Square Pegs through. I had to find paying work and Joell had to run both the office and the programs and teach the lessons and care for the animals.

This time was hard for me. Mostly I worked alone isolated in our little house in the woods. For Joell it was a sanctuary, but for me started to feel like a prison.

At the end of the day, Joell would bring home those barn stories. We talked about the new kid’s first break-through on horseback, saying new words and stringing together phrases. I listened to her heartbreaking stories of parents who time and again would tearfully told her that this was the one place where they could take their child and not worry that he would be judged and rejected. We discussed the meaning of self. We saw the difference that modeling compassion and cultivating joy could make. The keystone was the importance of how kids see themselves, how they see the world, and how they see themselves in the world.

I was Joell’s sounding-board and trusted support, and she brought to me the heart of the work, and together we refinedRCP_8810-5 our principles of Square Pegs, our practices, and the way we communicated what we do and who we are.

Those difficult years were a crucible for us. We came out of it clear about what Square Pegs is, and what it is not. Rather than our troubles driving Joell and I apart, our relationship deepened.

Ten crazy years later, we moved to our current location. Joell developed her dream team, and now that we live here at the ranch I’m involved again in the daily programs, meeting with parents and donors and planning new projects, and loving it.

StuartNafey-square peg-8954Today I see myself differently from 15 years ago, or even five. My work is more focused and I understand more clearly my own motivations and contributions. I’ve regained my curiosity. I’m diving deep into technical topics, running my own servers and learning Python and Swift. I am working with great clients, and on writing projects that I love — I’m writing a book, and already thinking hard about the next one.  I read voraciously, and I’m thinking deeply about meaning, compassion and learning and how they connect through Square Pegs and technology and business. I’m learning to surf and I’m healthier than I have been in years.

All this is a direct result of this complex and trying journey of building Square Peg Foundation together. More than ever, I have a clarity about myself. How I see myself in the world has grown, developed and I see exciting and endless possibilities on my path.

What we’d dreamed on Christmas day 2003 that Square Peg Ranch does for the kids, it has done for me.


Trouble In Academia a post from Davis Finch

IMG_3965My name is Davis Finch and I have been involved with Square Peg since October 2011. I am 24-years-old and am on the higher end of the autism spectrum. I started out just taking riding lessons, but in the past six months have become a lot more involved in the organization. This is my first blog post on this website.

This past summer I had a disastrous experience with the admissions and disabled students departments at San Francisco State University. I had received a conditional acceptance letter as a transfer student in December 2012 and, after meeting the conditions as I understood them to be (confusion about the specific requirements caused me to fill out the application incorrectly), I was denied admission in late June, two months before I was supposed to start classes. At first I believed it was some sort of mistake and that everything would be cleared up quickly and rationally, but, alas, I was wrong. It started with some impersonal bureaucratic letters and emails that I found very disrespectful and ended with me storming off the campus after a
last-ditch meeting vowing never to have anything to do with the institution, ever again! What upset me greatly about the way I was treated was their lack of compassion, ignorance about autism, and attempts to pin all the blame on me while holding the deeply flawed system they work for in high regard. As a result of this, I have left academia and do not intend to return anytime soon.

As I thought this over, I realized that the core problems I had were not so much with SF State, but with the CSU system as a whole. After taking a semester off from education following high school, I started at College of Marin in January 2008. I spent the next five years (ten semesters) learning the system, navigating around roadblocks, and eventually earning my AA in political science in December 2012. Overall, it was a good experience. Some of the keys to my success were a level of autonomy that allowed me to take as many classes as I could handle (usually 2) and work out reasonable agreements with teachers when problems arose, a disabled students department that (usually) helped me when I needed them and had adequate influence in the school to get things done, an academic culture that did not shame me for being there for several years, a clear rubric explaining AA requirements, and an efficient electronic system for enrolling in classes.

I was hoping SF State, although much bigger, would be similar in those regards. Maybe it would have been once I got settled in, but I never got the chance because of two major flaws in the system that I found insurmountable. The first one, which was the reason my admission was rescinded, is SF State and all other CSU’s (I think the UC’s do it too, but I’m not sure) discard hard-earned units from community colleges that are not compatible with their seemingly arbitrary course requirements. For me, this meant that even though I should have had more than enough units to transfer, I was found to be half-a-unit short and thus denied admission. Even if I had been admitted, the lost units would have meant at least an
extra semester at the university, which would have ruined my goal of upgrading my degree to a BA in four years. The second major flaw in the system is the disabled students department doesn’t give you any serious help unless you are enrolled as a student, which is a major problem if admission is what you need help with. This meant that although I was allowed an appeal, I had no help from the disabled students office and had no recourse when the established processes used for resolving unit shortfalls were inappropriate for my situation. These two policies combined to make appealing the denial of admission a humiliating and ultimately pointless action and made me feel discriminated against, disrespected, and unwanted.

Experiences like the one I had with SFSU prove just how special and needed organizations like Square Peg are. The generally non-hierarchical, flexible, and compassionate atmosphere at the ranch is a refreshing exception from the condescending, bureaucratic, and often downright discriminatory conditions that are all too common in our society. In military and law enforcement, it is probably necessary, but why do social services, the legal system, academia, and the corporate world have to be so hostile to people with disabilities and people who are just different? That is something we as a society must change, and organizations like Square Peg are our best hope.

Question: “If I donate to Square Peg, where does the money go?”Answer – here


So rescuing horses, running a barn, teaching lessons and fundraising are all time-consuming and hard work. But wearing these hats also has some perks. Last night was one of those amazing perks.

We were invited by a dear friend to attend the Celebrity Speaker Series at DeAnza College. The speaker for the evening was Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones to Schools. He co-founder and Executive Director of nonprofit Central Asia Institute www.ikat.org

Greg is not a polished speaker. He’s gone on record time and again to make it clear that he’s not comfortable drawing attention to himself. But his intelligence and his sincerity come through so clearly and you find yourself loving him even more for his nervous tone and fidgeting.

If you are one of the few people in America that have yet to read Three Cups of Tea, just do it. Even if you have no interest in education, in the complicated social structure and landscape of Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you don’t care at all about why it’s important to empower communities and to focus on educating girls in order to create lasting change, it’s still a great adventure story.

But the title of this blog post is “Inspired” so let me cut to the chase and tell you what got my creative juices flowing on this cold and drizzly November day:

First, Greg’s organization is not about rolling into a community and building a school. The communities must MATCH the funds donated with land grants, labor and resources. That means that the community is EMPOWERED to educate their children. What an idea! As opposed to marching into a town and telling them what democracy is going to do for them. It’s simple human nature to value what you have put some equity into.

Morning Traffic At Square Peg Ranch

Maybe it’s a giant leap to take, but I feel the same way about our move to our new facility and why we just don’t hire a stall cleaner. When the families of students help us to build and fix and organize and paint and develop our barns and when the kids themselves help us to clean and feed the horses, they become invested in the health of the animals and in the health of the organization. The lessons we teach when we all rush around digging trenches before a rainstorm are more lasting when the students and their families are doing real and doing necessary work as a community.

There were a ton of quotable moments in his talk. One stood out in particular

“We need to live in hope. We cannot live in fear. Fighting terrorism is based on fear, promoting peace is based in hope. And the real enemy we face is ignorance.”

Okay, so maybe in America, the term “hope” has been kicked around a bit. But think of the hope that Mr. Mortenson speaks of when he talks about “promoting peace, one heart and mind at a time.” Now that’s a recipe for change!

Turning "I wish" into "I can."

Again, the giant leap of the work we do at Square Pegs. The clear reality is that our organization cannot house all of the injured racehorses and unwanted saddle horses that come banging on our door. But if we can teach the next generation to value each life as sacred, to teach them to care and take responsibility and to acknowledge that each of us has aspects that make us different, but that is what makes us special. Maybe then we are creating lasting change.

Education is power. Ignorance is the real enemy we face. Thank you Greg Mortenson; I am truly inspired.

Reprint – Lost Girls

Lost Girls

first published by joell on November 5, 2007

This is a story about my school-age friend we’ll call “Randi.”

I’ve thought a lot about Randi in the 30+ years since we were best friends. I’ve wondered what motivated her, about what drove her to do the things she did and I’ve wondered why we were friends. Probably, she was the only girl in my class with horses at her house and that certainly made a  difference for me. Horses are what connected us. This week I met with some really brilliant people using horses to make a difference in the lives of

can horses make a difference in a person’s life?

battered women and I asked myself a lot of questions about what real change is all about.  I wondered, what did Randi need?

Maybe Randi  lashed out because her parents were  hard on her and maybe it was because the nuns blamed her (usually correctly) for any misbehavior. Nonetheless, Randi beat the heck out of me regularly. She pulled my hair, punched me in the shoulder, she knuckled me in the thigh to give me a charley-horse. Her favorite trick was to grab my wrist during the quiet part of mass and start pulling. When I pulled back she’d let go and caused my skinny elbow to hit the wood pews – BANG! I was mortified and she laughed out loud – every time.

Randi was literally, a red-headed stepchild. She was big and clumsy and had zits. Her body matured too soon. She had “female issues” before the rest of us knew what they were. She was loud and spoke her mind to the nuns at school, to the boys in the class and to me.

I adored her. I followed her everywhere. I stayed at her house. I found some way to get the nuns to let us sit together – the bad girl with the studious one. I was small, skinny, boyish and awkward. I never spoke my mind and I almost always did what I was told.

I was Randi’s constant companion for three years. From age 9 to about 11 we were inseparable. Other girls would ask me why I put up with her being so mean to me and I didn’t know how to answer. Finally, about age 11 I’d had enough and started to hang around another crowd. She befriended the new girl in school who was even smaller and sweeter than I was and we drifted apart.

I remember when we were 13 and everybody knew that Randi was into all kinds of trouble. Everybody knew  Randi’s parents were strict and there were all kinds of terrible consequences to her actions. Her house was right across the street from the school. When the nuns called home we winced to see her  mom’s angry face as she strode across the street, over the playground and up to where Randi was waiting in Sr. Dorothea’s cold office.

IMG_1830I can’t remember if Randi and I went to the same high school. I think we did. We had grown completely apart by then. I didn’t think about her, except fleetingly for a long time. I would see her parents around and when I would ask her mother would just roll her eyes and say “you know Randi”  and leave it at that.

Probably five years after high school, I got a letter, sent to my parents’ house from Randi. She wrote  from the women’s penitentiary. She was doing time for passing bad checks. She was passing bad checks to fund her heroin addiction. Her letter was humble and sweet and her handwriting still looked like I remembered it in grade school. I was shaken and shocked. We were girls in a white, California suburb in Catholic School. I wasn’t supposed to know anyone in prison!

Three weeks after getting the letter, I made arrangements to go and visit . She made no attempt to hide the tracks on her arms and I couldn’t help but stare at them. She didn’t make any excuses about what she had made with her life nor did she seem surprised. She was resigned and tired (at 23). We chatted, we giggled. We talked about our shared passion for horses. We had nothing else in common. We hugged, I left and drove silently the two hours home.

I never heard from her again. No letters, no more invites to visit her in prison. She’s not the kind of old acquaintance that you can Google and find out what Alumni Association she’s part of or what PTA’s she might be running. You can’t expect to find her on Facebook. She’s not on LinkedIN.IMG_4681

I, like most at the battered end of an abusive relationship, remember Randi as generous, funny and bold. I remember how badly I felt about the way her parents treated her compared to her younger brother and sister. I remember thinking that the nuns blamed her for everything until she just didn’t care anymore.

I don’t remember Randi being good at anything. She wasn’t a good student or a good athlete or talented at sewing or art. She was good at shocking people and that’s how she drew the attention she must have needed. Randi’s way of having some control over her life was to shock people into paying attention. That was how she got her feeling of accomplishment.

What could have helped? What kind of adult mentor would have helped flesh out Randi’s talents and given her something to be proud of? Who made Randi feel special? Who loved her?

Would Square Pegs have been able to help ? Or would her behaviors frustrated the instructors, her weight make us unlikely to put her on a horse? I’d like to think that we could have given her a space to be helpful, to reward her generosity and her outspokenness.

Summer Camp '13 - I will never forget.
Summer Camp ’13 – I will never forget.

It’s important to note that, even by today’s standards, Randi wouldn’t have qualified for any special classes except some counseling – maybe. She didn’t have a learning disability, she wasn’t poor, wouldn’t have been considered at risk until after her second arrest. Nobody would write us a grant to help the Randi’s of the world. But she had a heart that was unloved and unappreciated. And society got what it had coming from her.

Today, Square Pegs is loving our way toward changing the way people see themselves.

This one’s for you Randi, where ever you are.

Powerful Choices

Yesterday, we got news that Mary Hobbs, friend and volunteer extraordinaire, had lost her 12 year battle with cancer. Her husband told me that he had designated Square Pegs as the charity of choice for loved ones to donate to in lieu of flowers. Not cancer research, not the Sierra Club, who Mary had volunteered for for years, but our little horse ranch and school in the canyon. I felt so unworthy and I missed my dear friend Mary.  I felt so much pain for her husband who had lost his valiant life partner. I felt weak and not in control of things.

I canceled lessons, shut off my computer and saddled up for a solitary ride in the woods. I wanted to run to feel powerful again. My little horse tired towards the top of the giant hill and I dismounted and started hiking. We panted up the mountain, side by side and I was lost in thought. I remembered the few times that Mary was feeling well enough just to blow off office work and go for a ride. We would talk about her wonderful family and her travels. She had backpacked all over the world, ridden her horse bareback all over Montara Mountain and had recently taken up painting.

I felt a lot of guilt about canceling lessons for the day. We certainly couldn’t afford it. But I knew that neither Greg nor I could attend to our horses and students completely with the grief of losing Mary so close in our minds. Then I thought about the joy that riding and being with horses can bring to our lives.

I’ve lost three friends/students/volunteers in the last two years and I can remember vividly the last time each I took each of them riding. Each time was a happy memory. I thought about how my ride up the mountain made me feel powerful and free and connected and I have to believe that they felt the same way.

My friend Dave reminded me today that we have a choice to have a wonderful memory make us remember the happiness or to grieve the loss and make us sad. He reminded me that the power of choice is ours alone.

Mary knew that she would ultimately lose her battle with cancer. But she volunteered, she painted, she worked as an usher at the ballet so that she could attend as many performances as she wanted to. She lived bravely and humbly and well.  Today, I choose to celebrate that and to actively do my part to help people feel powerful and free and connected, beginning with me. I have Mary to thank for the lesson. Another gift from a dear friend.

Guest Blogger – Casey Martinez

Riding horses is my passion. Horses provide a feeling of freedom and power that is rare in the modern world. I have been riding since I was five years old, and I take pride in my devotion and love for the horses. Every week I drive to Half Moon Bay to volunteer at the Square Peg Foundation, help with cleaning and lessons, and spend time riding. I believe there is only one thing better than working with horses; helping others experience horses. I am fortunate enough to share this feeling with a young girl every week. Rebecca suffers from cerebral palsy, making her unable to walk without help. Horses allow her to be a normal kid. I pony Rebecca every week; I ride alongside her, controlling her horse with the lead rope.

This experience not only allows me to help Rebecca but it helps me become a better person. Ponying has taught me patience. I must deal with the different personalities of the horses, as well as Rebecca’s fears. I introduce her to unfamiliar things slowly to keep her feeling safe. Rebecca has also taught me to be appreciative. She has shown me things that I take for granted, from my legs to my sense of humor. Rebecca has taught me to love another person, despite disabilities or handicaps, and to use that love to help overcome difficulties.

Ponying Rebecca has presented me with feelings of accomplishment and pride. I give her the chance to take control of movement, a simple act that she struggles with every day. My experience with horses and my calm, approachable behavior creates a comfortable learning environment where she can get the help she needs. While my job may seem simple, it is really much more. I have learned to be a companion and a friend. My cheerful personality and sense of humor creates a place where Rebecca can feel accepted and safe. I believe it is important to make her feel loved, and I take every chance to make her laugh. Nothing makes me happier than to know that I am providing her with a moment of support and pure happiness that everyone deserves.

Rebecca has given me the chance to share my love for horses and to help her become a part of this lifestyle. I help her fit in to a world where it is difficult to be different. By helping her, I allow her cheerful and optimistic view on life to teach me qualities that will help me succeed. I have learned patience, appreciation, and love. Rebecca’s undying charm and determination have left their mark on me. I recognize the power that I have and my potential to help others.

You can see Casey and her friend Rebecca riding and lauging together here:

Join Us – Square Peg Needs Your Help

I have a confession to make.  Many of you have seen photos of me teaching the kids vaulting tricks, including standing on a moving horse.  My confession; I’ve taught hundreds of kids to do it, but I haven’t done it.  Ever.  Because I was always too scared as a kid to let go and I never trusted the horse or the person holding the longe rope to take care of me.  Every time a student trusts me and the horse enough to try, I’m left breathless.

You see, at Square Pegs, it’s not about what we can teach you.  It’s about believing you can do the impossible and then actually doing it.  We believe that nobody has ever taught a student anything.  Learning comes from within the student.  As a teacher, that’s a really humbling thought.

I could write on and on about all the compassion that we show for the animals here and how that inspires the students.  I could tell you how we all work at the same important, dirty and difficult tasks that it takes to run a ranch with 20+ horses.  The real truth is that the concept of EveryOne Fits is all about the way the animals see us and how that changes us.

Because the horses and other animals don’t care about the label on your shoes, or that you talk with a funny accent, walk with a limp or that you repeat yourself when you are excited.  The barn dog doesn’t care that you spent last night in a homeless shelter, but she does know that you are feeling fearful. The crazy goats will make you smile even if you flunked your spelling test yesterday.

The animals teach us a few absolutes too; that compassion always conquers fear or that some days were just meant for letting the sun shine on your face and for breathing clean air.

I don’t need to tell you that our world is changing faster than ever before.  That our children will inherit a vastly different planet.  The time has come to take a harsh look at how we teach and how our children are taught and what they are learning and what they aren’t.  Rote memory and overfilled classrooms will never teach them to accept themselves and to appreciate their own curiosity.

These animals will.

Our animals are rescues, throwaways, retirees.  Our students deal with autism, homelessness, drug addiction, loneliness and normal teenage angst.  Here’s a quick idea of what Square Peg Horses have taught them:

Seeing the world set out full of disappointment and failure
A blinded truth
I was once blind
But was given a gift
To see through the eyes of a horse

A strength grows over all that is dark
Able to comprehend a person and see only what should be seen
Courageous and triumphant over the world’s complications
Believing I can do anything
Now that I’ve seen through the eyes of a believer
My life saving gift from a little grey horse.

from Through the Eyes of a Believer by Natalia Feliz

If someone needs a helping hand, the
animals will be there.
If someone feels restricted and isolated,
an animal will encourage them

written by Amy Bell

A horse’s friendship is like a dream
Brushing his hair
Feeling comfortable
Next to me
Riding on his back
Is like floating in the sky
Why do horses have to die?
Will they go to heaven
Just like us?

submitted anonomously by a Square Peg student

So, with the efforts of the horse, the staff, some fantastic volunteers, we strive to inspire people:

to own their education

to own their experience

and ultimately to own their actions.

Because this makes us better people.

Because this is what it means to  turn “I wish” into “I can.”

I humbly ask you to join us in this work by your support as we change our world one horse, one student at a time.

Click here to make a donation.

Thank you.

For the first time in seven years, I’ve decided to take a break from teaching

Six days a week, in all four seasons I’ve been in the arena teaching.  And I have loved (almost) every minute of it.  I felt like I had to teach in order to be fulfilled.

So when I came home from four days in Mexico, I was worried in that I didn’t have the urge, the need, the compulsion to teach.  I spent a few days in fear that I had reached burnout.  I rationalized that I had not taken more than a few days off in the last few years.  I told myself that I would get over this feeling.  I lost a lot of sleep and then struggled to get to the barn.  I reasoned that it was seasonal and that it’s hard to motivate yourself to teach in the cold and the mud.

But then it dawned on me.  For once,  I have teachers that I can trust with my students. I have never felt before like I could put my students in anyone else’s hands.  Maybe it’s narcissistic, most likely I’m a complete control freak. Don’t panic, I will still be in and around the arena. I’m not retiring. But I know that my role as Executive Director is to create sustainability for Square Pegs and that means doing the work that keeps the program running.

The main thing is that I am growing because I have finally found excellent people who understand and value what Square Pegs is all about.  I’m honestly finding joy in watching Greg and Sigourney blossom as mentors and teachers. I  love helping Terri and the student teachers like Farris and Max.  I’m learning from them how to value the students and to gracefully give people the space to learn.  I am so very excited to watch these talented young teachers share their love of horses with their students. They make me very proud to know them.

Goodness, did I just write “their students?”  I must be growing.  Square Pegs, is growing.

2009 is going to be a very exciting year.

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.