“Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.” Gandhi

Early this week, I traveled to Texas to check in with our beloved HorseBoy tribe and to study under the wisdom and patience of international equitation masters Sofia Valenca and Goncalo Linhas. I enjoyed the connection of a community united by love and the quest for knowledge.

While flying home, I thought long and hard about where Square Peg is growing and why. My thoughts were jumbled and I needed to decide where to put my limited resources and energy.

I must start with how best to serve our staff.  Because clients will never be more satisfied than your staff.   Next big question is how can we serve all the families that want and need and deserve services?  How do I prioritize the projects that need the most attention to achieve what is needed for program growth, client needs, donor appreciation, public education, and general organizational health?  I looked these big questions over and over, and I got overwhelmed.

I took a bunch of deep breaths.  Then I took a hundred more. I went to the barn and snuggled the horses and watched them snuggle my staff. Each animal face was open and inviting – quirky and sweet.I took time to receive the affection they  freely offered. 

I decided to go to the heart of the matter. I wrote in my journal: What Makes Square Peg special? Lots of programs have fancy curriculums, beautiful buildings, impressive boards and sponsors.  They have goal sheets, charts and graphs and money to spend. And their families leave feeling flat, confused or unheard.

Next I wrote: “Why does anyone support Square Peg?” Truth is, this hybrid of horse rescue and serving autism families sounds pretty far-fetched. Yet it works. Why?

I walked circles around the house, petted the dogs and brewed more coffee. I sat down again.To my surprise my pen started moving seemingly on it’s own.  I wrote: people support us for our values of love, acceptance, laughter and compassionate treatment of the animals. “ I took another deep breath, put pen to paper again and found that I needed to write the exact same statement twice “people support us for our values of love, acceptance, laughter and compassionate treatment of the animals. “


It’s what makes a difference. At the end of the day – skills are skills – but values change the way we see ourselves and how we see the world.

Priorities started to line up effortlessly. Next,I answered the question of “Why Does Anyone Support Square Peg”  easily;

People will support square peg because of our values of dignity and inclusion and celebrating the child. Mindfully, we will change ABA, education and even how OTTB’s are perceived. The horses aren’t capable of lying and reflect our commitment to our values. When they feel safe, appreciated and loved they are perfect partners –  and all thrive and all are encouraged to live useful, joyful and engaged lives.”

Here’s to values – as reflected by our horses. 

Thank you Universe. Thank you horses.

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.


The Crusade for Empowerment

By Deborah Lynn Rod

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role Square Peg played in my life. Doesn’t the end of the year spur a wave of contemplation in all of us?

In 2012, I had the opportunity to work as an intern for Square Peg. I maintained this position for about two years. I admit that when I first came to Square Peg, I had little interest in working with the kids. I was all about the horses. Sure, I had some previous experience working with children at the Jewish Community Center summer camps and adults with disabilities at S.F. State University, but I never expected to get so deep in this crusade for empowerment.

At Square Peg, I flourished. My world became bigger. I found my niche. I couldn’t stop raving about Square Peg to all my friends, families, and anyone who had at least 30 minutes of listening to spare. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I was darn good at working with kids with autism. I’ve concluded that my skill in working with children with autism was cultivated less from an academic fascination with the neurobiology of the autistic brain; it was more because I like to roll around in dirt and horse shit as much as the next 6-year-old.IMG_2210

Square Peg provided a vessel for me to help others but Square Peg helped me too. I was diagnosed with ADHD/ADD at age ten (coincidentally, the same time I started riding horses). Since then, I was on five or six different medications for over ten years. I was explaining my medication history to someone when it hit me that I had been on powerful stimulants for 10 years; a decade of crucial emotional, physical, and mental development. I didn’t know who I was without the meds. Although, friends told me that I was more “fun” when I would choose to skip my meds, giving some insight into what the real Deborah was.

9467684831_c1efd51139_zBut fun it was not. It was a hellish withdrawal for me. I gained  30 pounds, stopped going to class (I was a straight -A student prior to this). I could hardly get out of bed. It was hard to talk to people because I couldn’t keep track of the words and ideas in my head long enough to form a coherent statement. It was all word vomit. My world was getting smaller. In the midst of my “breakdown,” I resigned from Square Peg with a cold and formal email.

Before I left Square Peg, I informed Joell of my decision to quit my meds. She gave me advice that I never forgot. Joell told me “Be kind to yourself.”

I thought, “yeah yeah, easy enough.” I was wrong. For a year, I struggled to find consistencies in my fundamental interests. What motivated me unmedicated? I found intrinsic motivation with my new Africana Studies major and Special Education minor. I credit Square Peg for introducing me to the practice of adaptive teaching and the healing power of community and the great outdoors. I had a lot to contribute to the discussions in all my classes based off things I learned at the ranch. Things were looking up for ol’ Deb Deb. The biggest game changer for me, however, was traveling.

This summer, I visited eight countries in two months. Everywhere I went, I struck up conversations with people about how they perceive autism in their respective countries and what services were available to people with autism. I met a high school teacher in Paris who was moved to tears by my drunken ramblings about the success stories at Square Peg and how hope is the fuel that drives us forward to keep effectively working with kids who are labeled as “problematic” or “difficult.”

Even though I was no longer at Square Peg, the foundation was still making my world bigger.

My quarter-life-crisis has come and gone just in time for 2016 to start. I plan on returning to Square Peg several times a week again and moving forward with the organization as much as possible. Square Peg opens doors to a world of adventure and love; a world I hope to expose as many families to as possible in my current and future endeavors with the autism community. I may have left Square Peg, but Square Peg never left me.

Deborah and Lauren April 2013 and the maiden voyage of the pond kayak

Dignity and Respect – the Antidote

2ottbsHold your loved ones close this chilly holiday and remember that the gift of Dignity costs you nothing and can mean the world.

I have a love-hate relationship with labels. Labels such as “special needs” or “autism spectrum disorder” can open doors, spark compassion, and create community. But they can also change how you view a person. Knowing how someone is labeled can provide a false sense that you know what makes him tick, know her strengths, understand his limitations. Labels have an insidious way of blinding you to the individual. And it doesn’t just affect people outside the family. In order to be effective advocates within the school system, parents have to spend a lot of time focused on their child’s diagnosis and areas of need within the educational environment. As a result, our vision can become clouded and we can lose sight of our child’s often considerable strengths.

Square Peg is the antidote. It is a place where over the years I have seen my child’s courage and competence blossom. Where I have hadEveEars the opportunity to see my child through the eyes of people who believe in him and value what he offers them. Where I have had the opportunity to examine my own assumptions and expectations and felt renewed clarity and optimism as a result.

I am immensely grateful to the folks at Square Peg, who don’t seem to be burdened by preconceived notions of what a person is capable of, for their treatment of everyone with dignity and respect, and for seeing the potential in each individual… and doing all that without fanfare or drama. And here’s the unique and very cool thing – this approach is in Square Peg’s DNA. It is not something they do, it is who they are.

We all sense this – the kids, the parents, the dogs, goats, and the horses – and because of it, wonderful things happen.

Your support keeps the wonderful things happening. Here’s how you can help.

Your support is what keeps these wonderful things happening -
Your support is what keeps these wonderful things happening –

On the Eve of Christmas Eve, Here’s a Story – About a Horse Called Eve.

On the Eve of Christmas Eve, we thought we’d share a story – about a horse called Eve.

by Kemma Peters

Kemma, Eve and Christian Bachinger of the Spanish Riding School
Kemma, Eve and Christian Bachinger of the Spanish Riding School

Last May, I was given the opportunity to help train a horse to maybe someday be a lesson horse. At the time it seemed all fun and games. I soon realized, this was going to become my life.

Eve is a little bay mare with a spunky attitude and a lot of fire. She is also smarter than I could ever imagine. She was, however, lazy and not even fit enough to trot a lap around the arena without falling on her face or stopping to pant.

Everyone has dreams. Sometimes those dreams even become reality. When I started riding her, it felt as though my life had found a purpose. She was my project. As I bribed this little brown mare with carrots and cookies, we became a team. Gradually, she began to respect me and trust me.

Perseverance and patience. That was all it took.

She taught me that I need to persevere. She showed me that, even though it may not always seem so, hard work does pay off. She has taught me patience better than any parent or teacher or friend ever could. And out of this patience, we have developed a trust. I trust this horse more than words can say.

There were times when I wanted to give up, where it felt all hope was lost and I was getting nowhere. Then, we would have a perfect ride and I would remember why I cared so much from the beginning. Sometimes, the frustration would make me angry, or even upset sometimes, but I kept going because I knew there was some reason I adored her so much.

We will never go to the Olympics, or the Grand Prix, or Rolex, or any other big name show there is. But I’m okay with that. It would be beyond incredible, but it just won’t happen. All she needs to do is carry a child and help them to enjoy themselves and life. She will be great at that.

And I know someday, another little girl or boy will love her as much as me.

Kemma has taught Eve jambette (among other things)
Kemma has taught Eve jambette (among other things)


One Big Horsey Family

IMG_5096 by Laurel Mitton

When eighth grade ended, I was not looking forward to summer. All my friends  lived at least an hour’s drive away and I had no way of talking to them. I was prepared for a dreary summer rereading the same books over and over. My summer, in short, might as well not exist.

Then my mom told me about Square Peg. I’ve lived with and on horses since before I was born but out of our MiraSmileoriginal herd of seven, we had only one retired Quarter Horse left. A barn with 20 horses sounded like heaven. Even so, I was still nervous. I hadn’t ever worked in a real barn and I didn’t know how to handle thoroughbreds. I didn’t know what would happen next.

As we drove up the driveway, I saw a line of seven or eight horses poking their heads over the fence of their stalls. A friendly girl met me in the shed row and introduced herself as Tessa. She showed me around and her bubbly personality made me feel at home immediately. Soon Rachel gave me some chores and Tessa helped teach me the routine. A few weeks later Rachel told me to go tack up Bert for my first lesson.

Since then I’ve been riding once a week and coming as many as three times a week to what I consider my second home. By the time my mom picks me up I’m covered in horse dirt, but I couldn’t be any happier to have found such a wonderful community of not just co-volunteers but friends. Everyone at Square Peg, from instructors to riders, treats not only me but each other as family. One big horsey family.

At Square Peg I’ve learned everything from how to balance six rollies, four feed tubs, and three girls on one golf cart to how to wrap polos to how to play Red Rover on horseback to how a good trot can make anyone’s day. I’m grateful to Square Peg for giving me enough confidence in my riding to jump bareback, a happy refuge from everyday stress, and, most importantly, a community of friends I hope will never disappear.


Extraordinary Gifts and Challenges

RCP_8780by Davis Finch

Early this year, Joell and Darius decided to adopt a hound from Rocket Dog Rescue.  One Thursday in February, Rocket Dog founder Pali Boucher brought over a couple of hounds to see if one would work, but none of them had the temperament necessary to live in an environment filled with horses, goats, cats and humans that is Square Peg Ranch.  A few weeks later, she returned with a young female bloodhound named Patti that was underweight and skittish but had potential.

The first time I met her Joell had just caught her as she had a habit of running off into the hills and she was leashed and frightened but notPattiFace aggressive.  The first few weeks she lived at the ranch, she would not let me near her; she would cower and walk away whenever I got close.  While skittish with everybody, she seemed especially fearful around men; even more so large men like me.  I was determined to change that.  So one day when I was in Joell’s house I got down on the floor next to her.  She came over, checked me out, and for once she let me pet her!  As I had hoped, going down to her level made me seem less threatening and thus got her to open up.

PattiLickSince that day, Patti has been much friendlier towards me.  If I surprise her or she’s upset about something, she still may back away, but that happens increasingly rarely.  It is far more common for her to enthusiastically greet me if I’m outside, or jump up on the sofa beside me if I’m in the house.  She has even become friendlier to children and other men such as my dad.  It has been amazing watching this fearful animal transform into a confident and friendly dog and I like to think I played a role in it.

I am grateful to Pali Boucher and Rocket Dog Rescue for saving Patti from a high-kill shelter in Los Angeles andPattiRachel entrusting her to Square Peg.  I am also grateful to Patti herself for giving me the chance to prove I will not harm her.  Finally, I am grateful to Square Peg for helping creatures in need; be it fearful dogs, unwanted racehorses, or humans with extraordinary gifts and challenges.PattiOverTheShoulder

Not a “Normal Job”

by Rebecca Knopf

I wouldn’t have what you call a ‘typical’ post-graduate job. I say to people that I am a riding instructor and then explain the kind of program Square Peg is, but I can never really do it justice by only using words.

My first time to the ranch I got lost. I drove halfway to the landfill, realized my mistake, and had to re-read the directions Rachel emailed me earlier in the week. When I finally did get there I walked up the hill and entered a hectic Saturday morning. The program was being filmed for  America’s Best Horseracing network. So I decided to stay out of the way; I picked up a manure fork and got to work, chatting with the teenage volunteers while mucking stalls and meeting the horses.

I realized this place is different and very special. The kids are valued; their thoughts, comments, and needs are heard, considered and responded to. The horses have their own colorful and vibrant personalities because they’re given the physical and emotional space to bloom and flourish. And parents comfortably trade stories, support, and laughter together without a competitive comparisons of their kids. It is unlike any barn I have ever experienced.

There has not been a “typical week” since… And I started 5 months ago.


The schedule and the routine are always in constant flux, but the feeling I had the first day is still the same. I am in awe of the scenic beauty I am surrounded by, as well as the joy that emanates from each person when they jump out of their car and walk, run, or wheel into the barn aisle offering goodies, giggles, and pats to each horse they pass.

Square Peg is more than just a ranch, it’s a paradise– a haven–a comfort and also often a challenge.

It’s a place that Joell, Rachel, Beany, Tucker, Patty, Carter, Panzur, Ace, Roxie, Curtis, Gigi, the nosey coyote, scampering rabbits, and that one hawk, have breathed acceptance, character, life, love and soul into. So when people ask me what I do now that I have graduated college, I just say, “I get to work at this amazing barn and we rescue off-the-track racehorses and serve kids on the spectrum.” People nod and exclaim what a wonderful thing it is that we do. While I don’t disagree, I think that in reality the families and kids I have the opportunity to serve, along with the horses I am able to work with, are cultivating me and shaping me into a more honest, caring and joyful person. Everyone I have met here has added such value to my life and I could not be more grateful. Square Peg is not just a barn, it is…. more.

RCP_4473-XLRCP_8954America’s Best Racing featured Square Peg’s Gigi (this was the filming that was going on for Becca’s first day of work)


The Meaning of Grace

Yesterday, Beany was sick and Rachel and I divided up her teaching commitments. I taught C – a barely verbal young man whom I hadn’t worked with before. We tacked up Panzur and brought him to the arena.  At the mounting block C looked down at the horse and he hesitated.  I moved to help him but something made me stop. It’s my job to figure out what his hesitation was. Was he scared?  Was he unsure of me? He didn’t seem anxious. I watched. 

Turns out, he wasn’t scared at all. C let the air touch his face, he took the opportunity to bask in that moment just before you get on the horse – that moment before you engage in something exciting and somewhat unsure.  I could see him process and feel that moment – something I’ve never done. 

In that instant, I learned.

I learned that I’d been cheating myself and my students and even my horses of this possibility of reflection, of the few seconds tobutterfly center oneself and settle into the space and into the moment. It’s like saying “grace” before a meal – just giving thanks and being present. After 47 years on this planet, a young man showed me what giving grace means.  

C got on when he was ready and off we went. He blissed out. He felt every move of Panzur’s body. He giggled, he trilled, he hopped up and down.  He closed his eyes and slung his head and burst out with happy noises. I know in my heart that giving him the time to prepare himself was a key to his joyful state.

 I started to engage and to teach and again I stopped.  I told his mom – I’m just going to keep this horse going and let C enjoy the ride. She and I shrugged our shoulders and smiled from ear to ear.  His rapture continued and it affected the horse, Rachel, who was working another horse in the arena,  his mom and me. I found myself thinking about that pony ride I was on as a little kid where my heart felt like it was going to burst with joy because I was on a horse riding in a park.

Afterward C and I exchanged words and he allowed the dogs to mill around him without panic.  I told him that we might have rain over the weekend (his next scheduled ride) but that the Holiday break was coming up so we would arrange something for him to ride.  I know he understood me – if not my words, my intention that he would be at the ranch riding again soon. I’m grateful to C for reminding me how much I love riding. I’m grateful to his mom for her trust in me explore how far we could go with it. I’m grateful to our kind horses who make it all possible. I’m grateful I can make a difference. I’m grateful for a moment of Grace.

Christian Bachinger of the Spanish Riding School greets Square Peg’s “Stan”