San Francisco Cronicle article today about

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

Square Peg’s profile is located at

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.

shortest days


Every year, I struggle around the solstice. Maybe it’s because the Holiday spirit doesn’t seem to do much for me, maybe I’m just not a shopper or maybe I have trouble getting and receiving gifts. Nah, it’s just that I need the sunlight and I need the daylight hours in which to get everything done that I need to. Even in the long days of summer, I never seem to find enough time to ride as much as I’d like or to do as much as I’d like to get done, so losing 6 hours of daylight certainly cuts into that mix!

I know our ancestors created big holidays around the solstice as an opportunity to build community in those times where the nights are long and cold. It’s a time to come together an remind ourselves what makes us human. Strangely, I find myself wanting to be alone more in these times.

Yesterday, the cold rain was falling all day. I cancelled lessons and advised any volunteers that they should probably stay home and be warm and dry. So it was just me, 18 horses, nine barn cats and the goats, a boatload of chores – and the rain. Sometime in the late afternoon, I was up in the pasture digging trenches for the rain water to flow into the creek. My wrist and back were aching and the mud had seeped into my tall rubber boots. I was feeling sorry for myself, feeling under-staffed and overworked and generally having a big jolly pity party for myself. It’s easy for a girl to do while standing shin deep in mud while your office is spilling over with projects to finish, bills to pay and an email inbox with over 100 messages waiting to be dealt with.

Just as I was reaching the apex of my now full-blown self absorbed feel-sorry-for-myself-jubilee, Gigi, the princess Tb mare, made her way over to me. She just looked at me and invited me to pet her head with my muddy gloves. We stood together for a few minutes. She didn’t turn and demand that I scratch her withers, she didn’t sniff my pockets for treats. She just wanted to be close. Not for protection, or food, she forsook the company of the other horses in the pasture – just to be close to me. We simply hung out for awhile like the old friends that we are, in the rain and the mud. I told her what a fool I was and I thanked her for her own version of wisdom.

Some days – however short, turn out to be very good days.

Joell Dunlap

Executive Director
Square Peg Foundation
Mission: to turn “I wish” into “I can.”

“Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply,
to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed.”
-Storm Jameson

guest blogger – Sigourney Jellins

I careen down the twisting, narrow road until the red Square Peg Foundation barn appears on my left. I jump out of my truck to open the ranch gate. Inside, horses lounge in their paddocks pestering each other over the fence. Two pygmy goats scavenge for food. And Bridget, an incorrigible miniature horse, terrorizes all who dare to come within three feet of her by baring her teeth or raising a threatening hoof. As I park and make my way to the barn, I am welcomed by the familiar smells and sounds—fresh, sweet alfalfa hay, and horses happily chomping. Here at Square Peg Foundation, I have found a home, a place where I gladly volunteer, sharing my love and knowledge of horses.

The Square Peg Foundation teaches anyone how to ride and care for horses. Kids especially benefit from the experience of being around large animals, and farm animals like Bridget and the goats. I know this from my own experiences growing up as a “barn kid.” I spent long summer days developing my independence and sense of responsibility, with horses as my patient teachers. Now I help students learn the calming ritual of tacking up a horse—grooming, saddling, and bridling. The common thread of Square Peg’s students is a desire to learn more about horses and enjoy riding and being around them. With fourteen years of riding experience, I can assist riders that need extra help, by walking alongside their horse or leading them from another horse. Everyone has the desire to feel safe, and giving a new student that sense of security is empowering. At Square Peg, the main objectives are for riders to find power and strength within themselves, to feel confident and proud of what they learn in each lesson. When I began volunteering for Square Peg, I realized the value of this goal and was eager to contribute, but I did not anticipate the life changing effect it would have on me.

I have spent much of my life learning how to ride and competing in three-day eventing, and hunter-jumpers. Always the fearless and determined rider, I would gallop my horse through the sprinklers in the arena bareback, jumping any obstacle in my path. However, in the cutthroat and costly world of the “A Circuit” I never found a barn where I felt at home. Although the barns where I rode or kept my horse provided excellent instruction, most trainers were concerned with how much money their clients were willing to spend on their next horse. Discouraged by the unethical side of competitive riding, I came to realize that what I truly enjoyed about horses was hanging out at the barn, taking care of them. Finding Square Peg, I discovered a group of people who loved simply being around horses as much as I do. I now have the privilege of helping others discover the activity that brings me so much joy. I have finally found my niche, a little red barn in the hills, a place where “Everyone fits”.

Let’s start a movement!


“Let’s Start a Movement”

Starting Square Pegs has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with some really famous people. Anne Firth Murray, Jane Goodall, Sir Elton John (seriously, he kissed me on both cheeks!) and more. But there is one couple that I have had the unlikely opportunity to sit across the table from and glean from them whatever knowledge they might be willing to share, is a series of casual meetings with Gerry and Lilo Leeds.

Here’s a quick excerpt from a bio written for their latest book “Wonderful Marriage”

They are both refugees from Nazi Germany. They arrived in the U.S. with virtually no money, but eventually became successful business entrepreneurs, and continued more recently as social entrepreneurs, with a primary focus on improving the education of children in poor communities. In 1971, they launched the now highly successful publishing company, CMP Media, Inc., which became a leading publisher of business newspapers, magazines and Internet services for the high-tech industries-electronics, communication and computers. They established a set of principles for the company that became a guide for all their future business and management activities. The company became known for its excellent socially responsible policies, its great products, its great services and, especially, for its pioneering on-site infant and child day care center established by Lilo Leeds. Fortune and Working Mother magazine repeatedly cited CMP as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Yeah, pretty cool. After 56 years of marriage, they are still working together and still focused on the same goals that they set out to prove when they launched CMP: To improve the education of children in poor communities. And they do it with a focused, no nonsense, multi-tiered approach that works. Go ahead, Google it.

So here I am, at the Stanford Park Hotel on the eve of my 40th birthday. Lilo meets us down in the restaurant and she’s supposed to call and wake up Gerry to join us. Problem is, he’s turned off the phone. Lilo peers over her glasses, blinks and gracefully excuses herself from the table to go and wake Gerry herself. They re-appear soon, hand in hand. They are both kind to the waiter but also very clear about what they will eat and how it should be prepared. Even the waitstaff is soon charmed by the quiet elderly couple. Gerry looks a bit tired at first but as soon as the discussion turns to education or to his successful marriage, he’s wide awake.

Gerry’s voice is soft and I have to lean in close to catch every word. Lilo chimes in between bites of her dinner, she’s got to keep her sugar level up to manage her diabetes. I don’t want to miss a single syllable from either of them and so I’ve hardly touched my food (very rare for me). Gerry talks about how the schools in the poor communities are failing the students and perpetuating the poverty. He tells us how their organization at it’s core believes that students are human beings with assets, talents and feelings who must be treated with respect, dignity and care. That developing, hiring and supporting talented teachers lies at the center of improved student learning. Believing that parents are a valuable source of information about their children’s strengths, talents and aspirations and they are consulted as partners in their children’s education.

Wow! It seems so simple! So clear. And yet, our goverment can only come up with changing testing standards and holding teachers accountable to them without support for the teachers and dwindling resources and outdated programs. Not by re-thinking how schools see the students as our nation’s assets rather than potential liabilities?

Gerry Leeds looked me straight in the eye and said “We aren’t taking on a project, we’re starting a movement.”

Now THAT is something to get excited about. Seriously. rachelface

To which I say, let’s get this party started!

Are you in?

A student’s perspective

My name is Max Freiberger. I am in 8th grade. I’m here to share with my you what it’s like to be a kid with disabilities. I am one of those kids, because I have Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, and other health problems. I want to let you know how they affect my life.

Tourette’s Syndrome is a very frustrating disease. It makes you twitch and tic and twist and kick and move uncontrollably when you don’t want to. It tires you out. It makes you ache from the inside out. It frustrates you. It makes you feel out of control. It makes you feel powerless. And it can lead to acting without thinking.

I don’t know why all this happens. I try hard to think about what I’m doing so that I won’t harm someone or myself. It’s hard for me and I don’t always succeed. But I try.

I do it by talking to myself. I remind myself to be quiet. I remind myself that the punishment or consequences of getting angry is worse than the reward of being angry at the moment. But, sometimes nothing works. Not even the dozens and dozens of medication I have tried over the years.

Let me come back to what it’s like to live with these kinds of problems. I don’t have a lot of friends. I’m not sure why.

I used to have a lot of friends at school until about 4th grade when my Tourettes got really bad. I feel very isolated because I had to change schools. I used to go to a Jewish school in San Francisco. I went there until my Tourettes got so bad that I needed an aid to go to class with me. They don’t have aids and my parents could not afford one, so I had to go to a public school where I could have an aid. But, they put me in a special education class. I am not learning anything because I am so much more advanced than the rest of the class that I actually don’t learn anything new. The teacher can’t teach two different curriculums at once.

The only thing I have learned at this school is ASL, American Sign Language. Now I know a little over 600 words. The reason I learned Sign Language was so I could volunteer as a Teacher’s Aid and help with the kids in the autistic classroom. In this class, there are kids with Autism, Down syndrome and Mental Retardation. All but one of the kids has trouble talking because their brains won’t let them even though they understand. So I’m helping them learn Sign Language. Autistic kids have a communication disorder, an obsession with themselves and a short attention span.

Most of these kids cannot phonic read, which means that they cannot sound words out, they can only memorize what words look like. They are not able to read any books yet unless they memorize each word in that book. It is really hard for them. The kids with autism often take in everything you say and they don’t forget. They just can’t communicate it and are probably a lot smarter than we are.

One of the kids has Asperger syndrome. He is able to read closer to his age-level. A kid with Asperger syndrome is a lot like an autistic kid but with a more mild case of autism. I love helping in this class. The teachers seem be understanding of what it is like for me. And it is fun to help the kids. I have a lot of patience with the kids just like people try and have with me.

What I think people need to understand about children with special needs is that you shouldn’t try to understand. You just can’t. There is no way you can put yourself in our shoes. You can try to understand but really there is no way to comprehend what it is like to live your life as a child with special needs.

You just have to understand that no matter what we do that we are not bad kids.

We just need more help and patience. And remember that we learn differently. An example is that one day while helping with one of the kids the special education teachers could not figure out a way to teach him to count. So they asked me for any ideas and I suggested using different types of toys as symbols. For example, watermelons mean one, triangles mean two, bananas three and banana plus watermelon means four. This approach worked. Imagine that!

I learn a lot from other special needs kids. I go to an awesome horseback riding ranch called Square Peg in Half Moon Bay. This is a non-profit foundation to teach all kids with and without special needs to care for and ride horses. The people at Square Peg rescue racehorses that would be slaughtered otherwise. Square Peg spends time retraining them as riding horses for children with special needs. I have gone to Square Peg Ranch since I was five. I used to only ride but now I am a student teacher and volunteer and I help other special needs kids. This is a place where we can be ourselves and have fun and be accepted. I wish there were more places like this in my world. If anyone is interested in learning more or volunteering or helping in any way about Square Peg, talk to me.

In closing, I hope that all of you remember that we are just kids who might need some patience, a little extra help and allowed to be a little different.

But, most of all what I am trying to say is you just need to love us anyway.

Ending Horse Slaughter

If you are in the horse rescue business and are debating about whether or not slaughter is necessary to control the horse overpopulation. You need to know about Nathan Winograd

Nathan is a Stanford Law grad that is putting an end to kill shelters for cats and dogs one county at a time.

It’s really important to understand that when he started his work at the San Francisco SPCA, shelter management from all over the country flew in to challenge the status quo. These people were the professionals that were running the shelters that insisted that the only way to control the pet population problems was through killing the unwanted pets. The shelters themselves couldn’t conceive of a world with no kill shelters!

Nathan knew there was a better way and so he went to the volunteers. He went to the the people who weren’t getting paid, just the people who loved the animals and didn’t want to see them die. He turned a 100% kill shelter to a 4% kill shelter in less than 3 years. Then he went to suburban New York and did it again in less than a year. He’s done it in Reno, NV and lots of other areas. And he did it without the support of the industry. You could argue that he did it in spite of the industry. He did it with the support of the volunteers.

He’s making it uncool to have un-spayed and un-neutered pets. He changed the status quo. He changed the way we think about animal population control.

Wake up horsepeople! We can do this, but the first thing we have to do is stop listening to the experts that say it can’t be done (like the Vets!) and the USDA. We are better than this.

Read up on Nathan’s work. We don’t have to re-create the wheel here. The trail has already been blazed.

Finally, the HSUS has developed guidelines for horse rescue operations. And guess what? The first item on the list is that the facility refrain from any breeding! Let’s start there.

As Joe Shelton says; Hug your horses.

Photo caption: Irresponsible King, slaughter-bound April 2007. Square Peg Hay-burner and resident comedian ever since.


The Square Peg Holiday Post

Happy Holidays reader. This story is a gift. Given to you this crazy season.

I can’t think of anything more precious or more timely.


The Star Thrower

by Loren Eiseley

One day, a man was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a young person reaching down to the sand, picking up something and very gently throwing it back into the sea. As he got closer, he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”

The young person paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish into the sea.”

“Why are you throwing starfish into the sea?” he asked.

“The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”

“But, don’t you realize that there are miles of beach here and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young person listened politely. Then knelt down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said…

“Made a difference to this one.”

Have a Happy Holiday

with love from a rather soggy, but otherwise happy, Square Peg Crew

What’s the Deal with Dressage?

What’s the deal with this “Dressage” thing? Maybe you were able to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Dressage Competition on television or maybe you watched the travelling Lipizzan show as a kid. Your impression was that while beautiful, these “trick” horses had been taught their lovely skipping, prancing and dance movements in a manner akin to circus animals.

Or maybe you have watched a dressage aficionado at your barn struggle for the perfect transition or the correct symmetry of a 20-meter circle.

Either way, you may have decided that this sport is not for you, or your horse.

The truth is that you are wrong on both counts.

Dressage is a French word that simply means, training. The show tests, from Training level through Grand Prix are all designed to bring a horse and rider to harmony through progressive levels of balance, suppleness, precision and difficulty of movements.

Riders and horses are penalized for tenseness, resistance, and lack of willingness or rhythm. The ideal dressage horse will be light, powerful and relaxed. He will exude an aura that he is happy to do his job and that the rider is also having a good go.

Gadgets and training aids are not allowed in the show ring. Lower level horses are required to perform in a simple snaffle. No leveraged, port or alloy metal bits are allowed. It should also be noted that riders are penalized for vocalizing during a test. The intention is to have horses that are relying on the subtle and clear cues from a mild bit, leg and seat aids, not from learned voice cues, or artificial training aids.

A classical progression of training creates a horse that is responsive, limber and balanced. This makes for better jumping, reining, polo, trail riding and just about any other athletic endeavor you can do with your horse.

There are six goals when it comes to training a horse in dressage.

The elements of the Training Scale are (in order from bottom to top):

* Rhythm

* Suppleness

* Contact

* Impulsion

* Straightness

* Collection

Each goal is contingent on the establishment of the proceeding. Thus, to try and establish Suppleness before defining Rhythm would be like asking a 1st grader read before teaching him the alphabet.

Both you and your horse will find certain phases easier than others. This may depend on his breed, or either of your confirmation, temperament, physical limitations or prior training. Parts II, III and IV of this series will examine the specific Elements of Dressage in more detail and how they can help you and your horse achieve a better understanding of each other.

An interest in dressage does not mean that you have to go out and buy an expensive saddle, hire a new trainer and think about wearing a silk hat and a coat with tails in your next show. The basic elements of dressage can be built into your current training program with little or no change in tack or attire. However, the new level of communication between you and your horse may incline you to transform into a “Dressage Queen (or King).”

The Great Master Xenophon said it best:

“If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then, one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden.”