Good Dog (or not) – The Importance of Environment

Sitting here on a sun dappled morning looking out over green hills and children and horses playing in the arena – I take a deep breath of gratitude for where and when I live.

img_4383-5At my feet is our 13 year old hound mix Tucker.  He’s as devoted a dog as I’ve ever known in my life. He’s a quiet dog, and like I said, loyal to a fault. He’s sweet with the kids and loves to run and play.  He’s safe with the horses and never bothers the cats.  He’s also extremely anxious when left alone, a food hoarder, he buries things and he kills chickens.

My husband and I laugh about what a good dog he is – we adore him.


We know that if Tucker lived in the suburbs and was confined to the less than 110 acres he lives in now, if his family worked normal hours and left him alone for 40+ hours per week, he would be unmanageable.  He would dig, chew, steal and bury food.  He’d destroy furniture.  He’d bark and almost certainly be aggressive to strangers. He’d be passed on to other families or medicated heavily or worse.

We use ex racehorses in our program.  People worry that they are too fragile, too prone to be over-reactive, too tall, too fast.  We remind them that racehorses are raised around humans from the first day of their life.  They are constantly handled, managed, attended to by people..  Humans are a vital part of their survival plan and their tribe.  No other horse in my experience is more keen to please humans than a properly handled ex racehorse.  There are exceptions of course.

But, like the dog, we’ve managed the horses’ exercise schedule, diet and living situation to match their needs.  We’ve planned our training exercises to bring out the best results and we are constantly re-evaluating our approaches as a team. As a result, we get co-operative, kind and responsive horses.  If these same horses were locked in a box stall and ridden 3 to 4x per week for 40 minutes at a time, they would be anxious, fearful and some might become aggressive.

The key factor here isn’t that Square Peg has some magical lock on animal training. The key factor is Environment.

So what’s important for our most vulnerable students?

Homo sapiens are designed to move.  We can outlast any species on the planet for long distance running. Our big brains need nourishment, sunshine and engagement. Our minds process information and emotions that are complex and dynamic through a mix of physicality and rest.

Why then do we demand that children and anyone trying to learn to digest information while being denied physical movement, sunshine and proper supports? Why are pervasive and maladaptive behaviors blamed on the child and not on the environment we’ve forced him to learn in? Why aren’t we looking at sleep and sleep quality before discussing a curriculum for a student?

A parent noticed the other day that the horse her son normally rides was much more receptive to being groomed.  Truth is, he’d been turned out for the last few days with some of the other geldings.  His movement, sensory and social needs had been met and Viola! His behaviors improved.  Shocking!!

If what we are looking to do in the field of autism education is to find effective and cost efficient therapies to help clients navigate a disrupted sensory system – why aren’t we making damn sure that the sensory, social and physical inputs are being satisfied first?

Kudos to all the autism parents who spend every weekend hiking with their kids, taking them to the ocean, the train station, replacing the trampoline for the second time this year.  When you need us, we have miles of coastal hills to climb, a score of kind animals to touch and press into and move with, a pond to paddle on, sand to roll in, water to splash, silly stories to listen to and laugh about.

When your IEP rolls around – question the environment your child is subjected to.  Is it restrictive or does it allow his curiosity to blossom? Is the human environment about being heard or is it about listening? And most importantly – is there laughter in the space?

Hero Worship

Two of my heroes Uluckydevil and ExtraFifty
Two of my heroes Uluckydevil and ExtraFifty

Our favorite stories are  the ones where someone was thought  useless, used up, not worthy and somehow, through trials, they proved themselves heroic.

King Arthur, the smallish adopted son, was called Wart – rose to be King.

Luke Skywalker, born poor on a desert planet leads the Resistance.

These are the heroes we adore.

IMG_3345A friend asked me why I do what I do.  What makes me want to get up seven days a week and put in the hours and the effort required?  I had to think about it.

I love horses and I love riding and I’ve been able to ride in some fantastic situations including:

  • Busting out of the starting gate on a horse keen on winning.
  • Galloping over the Sierra desert jumping tumbleweeds alongside 20 couple of hounds on a scent.
  • Racing pell mell toward goal on a grass field chasing a polo ball.
  • Sitting a rhythmic and perfect pirouette.
  • Arching over an oxer on our way to another solid fence.
  • Climbing aboard a quivering horse on his first backing.

Okay, so I’m a thrill junkie.

But nothing compares to what I do every day.

I get to play witness to the ultimate hero story – the story of unfolding potential.  I orchestrate the growthimg_4383-5 and opportunities not just for slaugter-bound horses but for  humans society wrote off as unworthy to explore their potential.  I witness our families as they realize they are worthy of friendship. I facilitate the lending of the power and grace of an 1,100 lb. animal capable of running a two minute mile.  I am present as people show themselves and their loved ones that they can learn, create, lead and be celebrated for their efforts.

Despite 30 years of daily effort as a rider, I’m not headed for the Olympics, I’m not up for an Eclipse Award for most winning jockey and I won’t be chosen for the US Women’s Polo team. But I’m riding with people I adore on horses I helped to bring to a calm understanding of quiet cues.  That’s a rush I get every day.

What’s more, I get to mentor my talented staff as they make miracles happen for our families and for the horses they love.

Heroism is about growth and facing limitations and blossoming through them.  I get to be in the presence of heroes daily. I get to watch our families snatch dignity from the jaws of a society that thought they were “less than.”

And that, is what makes me tick.


Team Quirky

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In a rare moment of reflection that is so vital to getting where we are going, I’m thinking  back on Square Peg’s busiest summer yet.

We lost our darling Gigi.  Not a surprise with her illness, but a change.  Square Peg has never existed without that temperamental white mare who humbled me over and over and still delivered for anyone who truly needed her.  As a friend said “not all strong women are human.” I miss her.

IMG_4383 3I’m reflecting on our kids.  I was chatting with one boy yesterday after his ride.  He was telling me about his dog and about the intelligence difference between dogs and rats and how rats have an extremely good survival instinct.  The only thing significant about this exchange is that his summer school believed this boy was either non verbal or selectively mute.  Proof that the right environment and a commitment to dignity (plus dogs, goats and amazing horses) draws out natural communication. I’m so grateful for the trust that our families extend to us here at the ranch.

I remember a sunny Saturday afternoon this summer – the staff had taken a gaggle of kids up to the pond and I sat in the arena with their parents.  They were quiet and pensive.  One mom started to open up “he got kicked out of school again.”

“Tell me what happened this time.” I met her pained eyes sincerely and in the background, we could hear the kids squealing with laughter 200 yards away.  She started to tell me the story and then another mother started to laugh.  The pained mom was taken aback – it really wasn’t funny she thought.  She didn’t know if she needed to consider something drastic like a special boarding school. Then the third mom chimed in “I remember the first time my boy got kicked out of school.”  And we all laughed.  And we all shared our stories.  And all the pain and isolation started to melt away and we realized that none of us were alone and that our kids were all just doing the best they could in a confusing world with some really arbitrary rules.  And we laughed some more until our bellies hurt.  And it was good.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I can’t say enough about our staff.  Growing from just me and a couple of part time help to the thriving pack of smiling, joking, hard working and caring pack of seven we are today is a dream come true.  Our staff’s dedication and energy are a constant source of joy for many – me included.

Volunteers are an essential part of what we do.  For caring teens to put aside their busy lives to muck stalls, play with kids, walk sick horses and make Square Peg a haven for families and animals that deserve a second chance is nothing short of magic.  I’m so grateful and tremendously proud of all of your heroic efforts.  You don’t just show up – you bring your “A game” time and again.

Our landowners are rockstars. They trusted us to come into their family property with our herd of animals and boisterous humans.  We are a tribe that can be a little hard to take….. With thoughtfulness and care, they have learned to appreciate our unconventional way of doing things.  They didn’t have to welcome us into their beautiful and wild family space and I am deeply grateful that they have.

Our supporters responded to our call to help grow the program with trust and generosity that takes my breath away.  From the Thoroughbred industry I served for so long to come back to Square Peg with appreciation and support is validation that amazes me. From the $10 donations that come through the internet across the country after the airing of Garvin Thomas’ NBC segment – to the matching grant opportunity from one of our original supporters – the family that wrote a check on the spot after a one hour visit because “your horses are all happy and that tells us what we need to know.” I’m humbled to the soles of my dusty boots.

I have to say something about our horses.  Each day, they teach us something important.  They teach us allRCP_5974-L about patience, about the value of innocence and a quiet ego.  They teach us about generosity and the debilitating power of fear.  They teach us about being and remaining present, about the beauty of play and how to revel in the power of a body in motion.

I was talking with a parent last night who was kindly thanking us for the space we have created for her son to grow and explore. I thought about all of the amazing advisors Darius and I have cultivated over these years and the decisions we made based on their sage examples.  Decisions to create a culture and defend it fiercely. Decisions to focus on not just running a barn, but on starting a movement towards a better future and consciously deciding what we would cultivate.

Onward to Fall – a season of change and harvest.   

Thank you to our entire community – families who have come and gone, volunteers, supporters, staff and to our pack of animals who teach us everyday.  Team Quirky for the win!

Does It Work?

Ironically, I was asked by an autism dad – a really thoughtful and kind autism dad “Does it work? 12794357_935374089865613_4462670610467627604_nCan you prove it?”
It’s a fair question – especially as a non-profit soliciting for donations and support. People have limited resources and they want to support programs with proof of real results.

I talked about measuring what matters as opposed to measuring what is easy and how complicated that all is. I cited studies about oxytocin and anecdotal evidence from families about improved sleep, reductions of maladaptive behaviors and the like.

But does it work?
Tell me some success stories.

These are the things people want to know and somehow, it irked me.

But it’s not fair that I’m annoyed. It’s my responsibility to help supporters and the community feel engaged in what is happening.

I sat with this pique. I stewed on why this logical question makes me cranky. Then I sat at the picnic table – the one that overlooks the arena – the one with goat poop on it because the darn goat loves to stand on it – the one with at least two dogs lying either under it or close by. And I listened to a parent tell me about her son learning to waterski and her fears about him aging out of services. I watched the kids in the arena playing with the horses who deserve a second chance.

Does it work?

Does anyone ask the baseball coach for the local all-stars “does baseball work?” Does anyone 13329388_987466971322991_5141538356751924874_oask the Boy Scout leader “does it work?”
Does recreation work? Does play work?
Work. Work. Work.

A good portion of our lives is spent working – doing – earning for our families and for our advancement. If we are lucky we will take joy in our work. But recreation DOES work – by making our lives enjoyable – by letting us take pleasure in the movement of our physical bodies – by connecting us with others with similar interests – making friends, trying out new skills – of course it works!

I think what angers me is this notion that what we are trying to accomplish is to make someone “less autistic.”

Yes, we want to create skills to help an autistic person navigate a neuro-typical world and alleviate the more stressful factors of having a heightened anxiety response.
Of course we read eagerly about families that achieve breakthroughs in communication and behaviors through connecting in common interest. We live for those stories.

13895306_10210487787140421_391327338345973798_n     Focusing on an outcome for something designed to bring joy to someone denigrates our intention. The focus morphs to an intention to change someone – someone who might be perfect already.

Going to an art museum works because we see beauty and wonder and we get to see the world through the eyes of someone else. Kicking a ball back and forth with each other works because we focus part of our brain on the physicality and revel in each others prowess or lack of same. We’re actually learning math and physics at the same time, but that’s another story. Primarily, it’s FUN! Taking a walk on the riverfront with friends works because we see and engage both socially and with the water flowing past us. Bouncing on a trampoline works because it makes us giggle while a host of delicious chemicals rush through our brain and our proprioception systems re-boot. Recreation doesn’t just work – it’s essential to our well being.

Attaching an agenda to recreation because of a disability denigrates the freedom and the joy we all deserve as fellow humans.

I pose the question – why is it perfectly acceptable to recognize the value of recreation for non disabled people but for a disabled person, we want first to know if it “works?”

12391409_900149876721368_7239190754960469054_n    I asked an autistic friend her opinion on recreation and what she told me made a lot of sense. She said that it’s only recreation if you feel SAFE doing it. It’s valuable if YOU choose the level of risk – not others. Otherwise, it’s either terrifying or belittling.

This then makes the critical case for supported recreation for vulnerable populations. It’s Square Peg’s job to provide the supports so that each person feels safe enough to recreate. And that my friend – works.

Go TeamQuirky!


War Horses

Enrique Diaz of RED Polo

In the circus that is my life, I found myself at my California dinner table sipping wine and eating chocolate with two world class horsemen – one from the famed halls of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the other an Argentine polo player who has played green fields from the sands of Brunei, to the vast stretches of Patagonia, over the cool fields of England…..

We talked of travel, and landscapes and weather. Mostly we talked of horses. It dawned on me as I watched these gentle men, both with hair streaked with gray, calluses on their hands and sun creases on their handsome faces that both had been brought up preserving the critical art of training a horse for war.

Both Classical Dressage and polo are dignified exhibitions of mounted soldiers practicing to defend their communities or attack others in the search for resources.

Christian Bachinger performs Croupade

Christian is a specialist in the Airs Above The Ground – the ancient jumps and kicks that could kill a foot soldier and strike fear in entire regiments. Enrique’s beloved polo is a classic game of defending territory as a regiment and scoring wins.  There’s tell of stories that the game was developed using the heads of enemies.

As we know, mounted war is a thing mostly of the past nowadays.  High powered guns, tanks and now drones have replaced the awesome swift fierceness of a mounted military.

Both men are master teachers.  This is extremely rare – to be able to teach both horses and humans.  But I watched both tell stories of riders who blame the horse or are eager to replace the horse to get to their goals more quickly.  I sit and breathe in their wisdom as they pound the table, leaning in to express that it takes years to train, not months or a seminar or a new bit. Despite the fact that their disciplines are vastly different, the breeds they prefer don’t match at all – they are of one mind that patience and a quiet mind are what train a horse.

The Spanish Riding School prances to delight crowds with their famed white stallions while polo is played in wealthy neighborhoods as spectators sip champagne and critique other attendees’ fashion choices.

If you saw either of these men ride and train horses – you would understand that it is an art. What then, is the future of these arts?

I’d like to believe that the ancient art of teaching a horse to carry us to war is now helpful in healing our souls.

13615464_10153723006021272_1901374914223567535_nBy training a horse in soft collection – in understanding and the horse using his body to effortlessly carry us in harmony and in bravery – the horse connects us our selves through our dis-regulated senses. As this giant prey animal lends us his grace and beauty we rediscover our self worth and we take that generosity back out to our technology laden world. These masters show us through our horses that patience, clarity, humility and the ability to be fully present are the tools we need most.

The matron in me wants to keep them at my table – to feed them well and make them safe from having to teach people who will wear them out in their quests for an easy fix or needing to look a tormented horse in the eye and do what they can to help. That’s not possible of course and I sent them both off with a hug to their next teaching gigs – hopefully imbued with renewed spirits in finding soulmates in their relentless pursuit of equestrian art mastery.

As for me?  I’m relishing every memory of connecting these Masters at my table and more importantly in the arena where they both served Square Peg horses and staff with wisdom and love.

Lucky – lucky me.

The character of the human, too, will find its expression in the training and performance of the horse.
13710655_10154585508439384_2108863592017984778_oThe level-headed one becomes a master, the inspired one an artist, the correct one a controller, the violent one a subduer, the crafty one a conman. The faint-hearted one makes compromises, the timid one capitulates, the hot-tempered one becomes unfair, the malicious one a torturer, the melancholy one a trifler. The hasty one becomes frustrated, the impatient one becomes unhappy, the fool becomes complacent, the snob becomes a more or less happy boaster on his horse. The prudent one remains a student forever, even if he is a master; the sage, however, …?

The sage in the saddle is rarely encountered. He is recognizable by his extreme modesty, because13769521_10154382314884252_1963877412730085050_n he knows that no-one can solve all the riddles the horse presents to us – life is too short.”

(Udo Bürger, 1959)

The Antidote to Bad News

What if I told you that every one of us has the knowledge, the training, the skills and the opportunity to relieve the world’s most crippling affliction?

This terrible condition is 100% treatable and reversible.  It won’t require insurance coverage, legislation, staff meetings, specialists or any equipment.

You think I’m lying or exaggerating.

James&ChocolateMy argument isn’t supported with charts and graphs.  I don’t have an advanced degree… anything. There’s no reason to listen to me.


What if I’m right?

In 2004, we started a non profit coupling outsider kids with failed and injured ex racehorses.  The plan was that in taking care of each other – both would receive benefits.

It worked.  We served homeless kids, trafficked kids, tough kids, shy kids, gay kids.  There was connection to be sure.

But it was autism families, that kept finding us.

I told parents we weren’t  therapists and each time, the parents exhaled and smiled. They had therapists. What they needed was one of two things:

A break from the everyday circus of treatment, advice and tantrums.Pickle

The possibility of a miracle.

So I started to study.  Obsessively. I fan-girled Dr. Temple Grandin each time she did a talk. I read her books, the books by John Elder Robinson and more.  I subscribed to tons of blogs by parents and scientists. All the while we did the work as scores of families made their way to Square Peg Ranch.

In 2009, I hit a wall.  I was exhausted. Each week, I worked 70 hours for no pay.  There was just enough money to cover the feed and one person to help.  Managing volunteers, turning down horses needing homes, dealing with leases and landlords and looking up to see waves of autism families desperate for miracles or at least a break took it’s toll.   

I was trying to make a “real difference.”  As a teen, I dreamed of traveling the world, picking up the starving babies off the streets and feeding them.  Instead, I was teaching HORSEBACK RIDING – an outdated, dangerous useless activity often associated with the white, landed gentry. 

How was that going to change the world? baybies

With 120,000 American horses going to slaughter plants every year, we could take in less than a dozen. 

Was putting an autistic person on a horse even safe? 

These are the things that ran through my head during sleepless nights.

Two things happened.

1. My board treasurer – a wise autism mom, sent me to southern California to do a training with an autism dad who made a documentary film and wrote a book about how his son connected to him and his world through horses. I didn’t want to go. I had it pegged as new age inspiration porn. I didn’t have the time or patience for it. But I really needed a break and a trip to Southern California meant connecting with a dear friend – so I went.

Once there, I learned WHY what we were doing was working.  I learned why play and following FullSizeRender 172the interest of the autistic person was important and WHY setting up an environment where both the horses and the families felt calm was more important than traditional therapeutic riding exercises.  I asked him what I should do when parents interrupt the session or talk over the top of the instructor. The father who adored his autistic son answered me not as a clinician or as a horseman but as a parent of an autistic child.  He made it crystal clear that serving the FAMILY and trusting the FAMILY about how best to serve an autistic student was the KEY to what we were doing. I needed to turn my thinking upside down. The long drive home gave me a chance to ponder this and realize how rare and vital it was.

2. As I continued to beat myself up about what my role in life would be – I started studying the people I most admired. I wanted to understand the motivation and the skills of the people who were making real social change. Early in my research I found a quote from a true hero serving the poorest of the poor. It changed my  perspective. It changed my life.

The greatest poverty is not hunger.  The greatest poverty is loneliness and a feeling of not being useful.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Gigi pastureLoneliness. It’s in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, even our families.  We can pick up the phone, reach out a hand, smile with eye contact, or forgive someone in our lives right now.

Check in, send a card, introduce yourself, knock on the door, extend an invitation.  Force yourself to listen to understand, not listen to respond.

Feeling lonely yourself?  Think of someone more shut-in than you are and visit.  You won’t have to think long. I promise.

The other day at the ranch, an autism mom acted to save her child from injury (not on a horse).  She responded bravely and selflessly. She was injured in her heroic act and we attended to her injury while attending to her son. Her child was triggered by the event and started screaming.  His high pitched screaming pained the mother deeply as it brought up every insecurity that her son would not be able to make friends and exist in a world where she wasn’t constantly supporting him.  You could see on her face that felt she needed to “pull it together” and ignore her injury to attend to her child.  She started to panic that we might make her go to the emergency room which would send her autistic son into total sensory overload and more screaming.  She felt completely alone and isolated.

With the help of a snack and a drink, he calmed down.  We attended to her injuries, drove her son home and then took her to the hospital.  Luckily, her injuries were not severe.  In their time of need, we were able to support her as a community – to attend to her son’s important and essential emotional needs and to let her know that she was connected, needed and not alone.

So here it is – your antidote to all the bad news in the world. News that the world’s greatest whatisloveapoverty is 100% treatable.  Every one of us has the skills, the training and the opportunity to cure it.

We all need some good news lately. As Scoop Nisker used to say “if you don’t like the news – go out and make some of your own.”

A Very Personal History – And a Chance to Make Change

In 1984 I became a mom.  I was still in high school.  My son Greg was born 9 weeks early and weighed 3 and a half pounds. While he grew in an incubator in the hospital, I finished both high school and my first quarter of college.

My son’s learning difficulty started early.  He had trouble focusing and staying still.  The more people tried to force him to sit in a classroom, the worse his frustration grew.  He was singled out for visits to the principal, suspensions, bullying from not just other kids, but by parents who felt their child wasn’t getting the education they needed because of his behaviors.

By 5th grade I’d run out of options.  He was expelled from school for fighting.  I was working two jobs.  I pulled him from school and began to homeschool despite threats from the superintendent who warned me that he wouldn’t get the socialization he needed.  I reminded him that my son was beaten brutally by another 5th grader while he was at school. His school refused to take action.

I learned quickly about education.  Not from books, but from my son.  I learned that he needed to touch things, manipulate them and feel them.  His brain needed to run and climb and wonder. I learned that daydreaming time is critical mind processing time. We read books in trees, we learned fractions in the kitchen with measuring cups and bags of macaroni noodles. We learned history from reading foreign films. We visited art museums and splashed in the creek.  Because I still needed to work two jobs I sought out mentors – from the
security guards – all retired policemen at the racetrack where I worked to the horseshoer who cared for our horses – my son learned by doing and moving. He began to believe  he wasn’t stupid or unable.

We moved to Southern California and my job got busier. I enrolled him in an academically competitive junior high school where he floundered.  He fell in with “the wrong kids” and began  skipping school because school was, in his words “not for him.”

margotPegIn 2004, we started Square Peg Ranch.  My son was now a young man, working on a farm in Maui.  He’d left high school and was looking for his place in the world.  In Maui, he re-discovered nature and beauty.  He was riding horses again and was mentored by the local polo pro who taught him the game he loves.  Alone, he explored the Haleakla Volcano by horseback for days on end.

As his life began to take shape, this thing called Square Peg did as well.  I knew how much kids who didn’t feel like they “fit in” needed a place where they were valued and accepted.  I also wanted to provide a space for the horses who didn’t fit in – mainly failed race horses could find safety.  My thought was that these kids would care for the horses and both would find peace and safety.

Twelve years later we are on 110 acres,  with 19 horses, three dogs, a couple of goats and a thriving population of families who know the loneliness of having nowhere to fit in.

Every day, I sit with parents who tell me stories of how their child was expelled, shunned, rejected because of “behaviors” in the classroom.  I hear about how people came up to them in the grocery store to tell them that their child needed “a swift kick in the butt.”  They tell us stories of finding their child looking in the bathroom mirror and telling their reflection that they are “bad” or “crazy.”

click the picture to contribute

At the ranch, difference is celebrated – childhood is revered.  The animals reflect back the innocence and the curiosity that the students project.  The natural setting creates a space with minimal sensory triggers – the things that often bring about behaviors such as aggression or elopement (running away) or the dreaded autism tantrums – (crying and screaming jags that can last hours).

The environment we developed at the ranch is set up so that there is an inherent feeling of peace for the parents and the animals and especially for the students.  Laughter is the original communication because it imparts the permission to be joyful.

The experts say that people won’t care what you do – they care why you do it.

Square Peg was dreamed up by a young mother with a child that needed to move and to be encouraged for his curiosity and to have his kindness understood as a strength.  It was created to make a space for ex-racehorses who had given their all on the track and now needed to have a place where they were safe and needed and cared for.  Square Peg was built  for a parent who was desperate for her child to be understood and even admired and where that parent could hear the magical sound of her child laughing.

Square Peg built a reputation of trust with these families by putting human dignity first – and that has made all of the difference.

click the image to contribute
click the image to contribute

Square Peg will be successful when nothing we do is special. 

We work tirelessly to make that happen.  We show the world that a person’s dignity is sacred and worthy of reverence. To help others understand that a child’s curiosity is a force more important than facts and procedures and that the most important skills in life – joy, self advocacy, building community and compassion are essential to cultivate and encourage so that these “Square Pegs” can live up to their potential. When neuro-diversity is the new cool we will know we are successful.

This is my personal request for you to join the Revolution

Together we will make change for these families and for the millions of families like them, we offer a ray of hope.

Our mission statement holds as true today as on the day we wrote it over 12 years ago:  Square Peg’s Mission is to turn “I wish” into “I can.”

click the image to donate
join us in this work – click here

We hope you will join us.

What follows is a modest proposal we aim to have funded by June 1, 2016.

Please donate – and share with others who want to be part of our Revolution of Kindness

the greatest poverty is not hunger. The greatest poverty is loneliness and a feeling of being unwanted.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta


To prove Support and Environment are the KEYS to success in learning and in behaviors for children on the Autism Spectrum.

Movement Method™ takes the best of scientifically researched and proven methods and added the secret ingredients: Care and Engagement.

To do this, we employ Movement Method™ Learning

FullSizeRender 172
click the image to contribute

To understand Movement Method™ Learning you need to first understand how two hormones, oxytocin and cortisol, affect a child with autism’s ability to learn.

Cortisol is the stress hormone. It is released by the amygdala and produces the flight or fight response. Cortisol is necessary for us to function successfully. It is what allows us to escape from or fight a threat and stay safe. However, it is also likely to impair our ability to receive and retain new information.

In contrast oxytocin is the “feel-good” or pleasure hormone. It is a vital part of the mammalian care-giving system and allows us to down-regulate the stress caused by cortisol. Oxytocin allows us to feel safe. When we feel safe we have more attention available to focus on new concepts and to learn.

It is well-established that children with autism have an over-active amygdala which causes increased cortisol production. It is therefore essential to decrease their cortisol production and increase their oxytocin production in order to help them learn.


To build and staff a Movement Method Learning Center at Square Peg Ranch, Half Moon Bay, CA.  Donate Here

donate here for
donate here for SV Gives

The Right Physical Environment + The Right Human Environment = Learning

If you want a child with autism to learn then you need to create an environment that is conducive to learning.

The ideal learning environment is set-up to increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol production by targeting the child’s sensory needs and allowing the child to move (PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT).

In addition the child is taught in a flexible, fun and pressure free way through their passions and intrinsic interests (HUMAN ENVIRONMENT).

When both the physical and human environment is set up correctly the child advances quickly in terms of their perspective taking, social and life skills, academics and self-advocacy (LEARNING).

Target Population and Children Served

click the image to contribute

Autism Families of the Bay Area including San Mateo, San Francisco,  and Santa Clara Counties – the autistic children rage in age from 4 to 16 years old – their siblings range from 3 to 19.  We plan to intensely serve 16 children in the summer of 2016 with these programs. These children will receive over 1,200 total hours of one on one hours with certified therapists at the site in the summer of 2016.


With this grant, we will create a self sustaining teaching model, through home school associations and parent participation, insurance and Regional Center support after this first year. The need is tremendous for these families to have a safe emotional space for learning and exploration in a safe physical and emotional environment.

Measurement of Success

click the photo to join us

Each child will receive an initial assessment from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Educational Consultant.  This is a collaborative effort between parents and credentialed professionals. This assessment will provide a baseline measure for the participant in the domains of communication, behavior, social development, and activities of daily living. Goals will be created for each domain by the BCBA and carefully tracked by the one on one therapists. At the end of the summer, a progress report will reflect the growth of each participant. An annual report will be complied for the program that reflects the number of mastered goals in each domain.

Each hour spent with trained staff will be recorded and measured against the initial assessment and goals using the latest technology in ABA Therapy.  Through these tools, behavior and academic goals and activities data will be constantly reviewed by peers, by the families and by the attending specialists.


    • Staff costs 1,200 hours x $45 per hour = $54,000
    • Occupancy $11,250
    • Landscaping (poison oak eradication and edible plant project): $4,000
    • Surf Program $5,000
    • Equipment : lights for the campsite, water and bathroom rentals: $2,200
    • Outfit the TeePee $4,500 (sensory friendly learning tools)
    • Volunteer Costs (training sessions and support) $2,000
    • Insurance $2,300
    • Food for campouts $1,600

Total $75,600

Already raised <$25,000> January 2016 (The Miner Foundation of Orem Utah)

Remainder: $50,600


click the photo to give to the campaign

Square Peg has been serving autism families and rescued animals in Half Moon Bay since 2004. Cognitive breakthroughs in communication, social interaction and self advocacy are a daily happening here. Our methods are effective, compassionate and sustainable. This document seeks to expand and deepen our work for this very worthy population and to inspire other programs to expand their reach and better utilize their operations.

Twelve years ago, Square Peg Ranch set out to change the dynamic we saw at many therapeutic riding programs.  Instead of going to the ranch because you have autism, or a related neuropsychiatric issue – families come to the ranch because the horses need them. The notion of meaningful care of other non verbal beings alongside others in a community based on caring is a life changer for many of our families.


  HIS CHOICE: “At Square Peg, Connor has no disability. The world isn’t hard.

     My son who struggles to pay attention, especially to people speaking, pays rapt attention to his instructor. He does everything in his power to do exactly as she instructs. But, she is not judging. She is not dictating. She gently leads him. Where would he like to go in the ring? His choice. Would he like to trot or walk?

click the photo to be part of the Revolution of Kindness

     His choice.

     She is teaching him to make choices. To be more independent. To let him know his opinion counts. To have confidence in himself. To be successful on his own terms.”

– LaDonna Ford, parent

THE CRUSADE FOR EMPOWERMENT “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.”

– Deborah Lynn Rod, Square Peg Intern

“The Ranch is a place where over the years I have seen my child’s courage and competence blossom. Where I have had 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.”

– Anonymous letter from an autism parentphoto-10

RAISING STRONG GIRLS TAKES A VILLAGE: “But it was Square Peg who embraced and championed her strength and intelligence at this critical time.  Square Peg allowed me to drown out the negative voices and confirmed what I already knew about my daughter.  I’m the one that has grown as a parent and advocate of my child; my kid was never the issue. But then, they always knew that at the Barn…”

I believe that hearing laughter gives us strength.
I believe that hearing laughter gives us strength.

After we got home, my child did some things in the next week that I’ve rarely seen him do before, mostly that involved getting out of his shell.   The camp did wonders for his self-esteem and self-confidence — just being accepted, welcomed, and built up by so many genuinely caring volunteers was invaluable and unmeasurable.   For me, the camp was a much needed respite, and encouragement.  I learn more from other parents of special needs kids than I ever learn from our MDs or books, so being able to have time to meet other parents and get to know them was wonderful.  For me, having an special needs kid has been so lonely and difficult, and just being given the opportunity to participate in something so generous felt like a miracle.”

your support means everything – click here

“I was amazed at how all the volunteers (surfing, camping, horse riding) were so engaging with the kids, and how willing they were to play with the kids.   This gave me a huge break from constant childcare, which translates into a huge decline in stress level.  It was three days of respite for me.”

“Thank you very much for the great family camp. N. had so much fun. Riding horses every day, driving around in the utility cart to feed the horses, and saying good morning and good night to them deepens her love for these sweet horses. Your dogs filled the rest of her days with more fun and love. The campfire, the great tasting food and sleeping in a tent just happened to be a few more of her favorites. No wonder she felt sad on the last day and asked me whether we could have stayed longer. Once again, our lives are enriched because of N.  I was speechless in admiring how giving and loving all of you are. It was the most satisfying moments when I saw you folks enjoy N. as much as I do, actually even more than me sometimes. I wish I could learn your sense of humor in your reaction with N.   This event has recharged me with more hope, energy and strength.”

donate here

“The day was magical and of course the things that no one could plan, the whales breeching, the dolphins  and sea lions and all the birds, the perfect weather conditions were awesome. But as a parent who has been to many events, the things that you did plan, the wetsuits, the boards, the sand toys, all the food and the absolutely amazing team of adults and teens was beyond inspirational and touching. There were numerous time during and after that tears came to my eyes when thinking about the generous spirit you all brought to the day.”

Supporting Research

The Physiology of Autism

Our bodies are built to deal with short term stress not chronic stress. Chronic levels of cortisol damage cells in the hippocampus which impairs our ability to learn (Medina, 2008).

Children with autism have elevated levels of cortisol and tend to respond to novel and threatening stimuli with extreme cortisol reactions (Corbett et al, 2006).

Oxytocin can help decrease stress by acting on the amygdala and inhibiting cortisol production (Neumann, 2008; Heinrichs et al, 2003).

Oxytocin might lead to improved speech comprehension in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (Hollander et al, 2007).

The Positive Benefits of Horses & Other AnimalsPanz&Ava

Positive interactions between humans and non-human mammals (such as dogs, cats or horses) can lead to an increase in oxytocin and a corresponding decrease in cortisol (Odendaal, 2000; Barker et al, 2005; Handlin et al,2011). Especially true in children with autism whose cortisol levels upon waking are reduced by up to 60% in the presence of a dog (Viau et al, 2010).

Children who participated in a 12 week riding program had significantly lower stress hormone levels than a waitlist control (Pendry, 2014).

Equine Assisted therapy leads to greater functionality in children with autism, especially in regards to their expressive language and social skills (Bass et al, 2009; Gabriel’s et al, 2012).

Gigi pastureThe Benefits of Nature

People who live in areas with more green space have lower levels of cortisol (Ward et al, 2012).

Having plants in your home is linked to lower levels of cortisol (Ward et al, 2012)

ADHD symptoms greatly reduced when in the presence of nature or doing activities in nature (Kuo & Taylor, 2004).

Walking through nature evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher concentration and positive emotions (Aspinall et al 2013)

A strain of bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. Seratonin is also thought to play a role in learning (Jenks & Matthews, 2010).

The Importance of Replacing Bad Sensory Triggers with Good Onesjames-adorbs

Sensory over-responsitivity is now considered to be a core feature of autism (Ben-Sassoon et al, 2009). Children with autism are five times more likely to have sensory over-responsitivity than members of the general public (Green & Ben-Sasson, 2010).

Sensory processing difficulties are a unique predictor of communication competence and maladaptive behaviors (Lane et al, 2010).

Sensory stimulation (such as a loud noise or scratch sweater) causes hyperactivation in the primary sensory cortex (responsible for initially processing sensory information) and amygdala of children with autism. What’s more autistic brains do not ‘get used’ to the sensory information over time – their responses remain elevated (Owen et al, 2013).

Simply replacing fluorescent lights with softer and colored lighting, playing soothing music and using butterfly wraps that provide calming deep pressure dramatically decreased anxiety and negative behaviors among children with autism (Stein et al, 2013).

Deep pressure is therapeutically beneficial for children with an autism spectrum disorder (Grandin, 1992; Edelson et al, 1999).


We are evolutionarily programmed to learn on the move – (Leonard et al, 1997)

Imaging studies have shown that when we exercise there is increased blood flow to the dentate gyrus which is a part of the hippocampus deeply involved in memory formation (Green et al, 2004).

Imaging studies have shown that exercise stimulates the brain’s most powerful growth factor, BDNF, which is responsible for creating new brain cells and encouraging neurons to connect with one another, both essential parts of learning (Vaynman et al, 2006).

There is a strong body of evidence that shows a strong relationship between motor and cognitive processes. There are direct links between the cerebellum and the basal ganglia (two parts of the brain that process motor activities) and the parts of the brain that process language and memory i.e. cerebellum activation triggers activation in these other parts of the brain (Middleton & Strick, 1994).

The vestibular (inner ear) is activated by any movement that stimulates inner-ear motion such as swinging, rolling, jumping or riding a horse. Activation of the vestibular causes activation of the reticular activating system which is critical to our attentional system and learning (Wolfe, 2005).

Oxygen is essential for brain function, and enhanced blood flow increases the amount of oxygen transported to the brain. Physical activity is a reliable way to increase blood flow, and hence oxygen, to the brain (Medina, 2008)

Simply standing increases heart rate and this blood flow by up to 10% in just seconds (Krock & Hartung, 1992).

68% of high school students in the US do not participate in a daily physical education program (Grunbaum, 2002).

Children with dyslexia were helped by a movement program i.e. when they were allowed to move their reading scores increased (Reynolds et al, 2003).

Children with autism show reduced activation in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. This could explain why many children with ASD exhibit symptoms such as irritability, problems with delayed gratification, anxiety and tantrums.

FY 2012 Actual

FY 2013 Actual

FY 2014 Actual

FY2015 Actual FY16 Budget
Income Grants $‎ 7,500 $‎ 94,150 $‎ 77,083 $‎ 133,744 $‎ 150,000
Donations $‎ 45,400 $‎ 80,482 $‎ 89,232 $‎ 56,770 $‎ 85,000
Horse Sponsorship $‎ 6,900 $‎ 20,960 $‎ 51,139 $‎ 18,950 $‎ 68,000
Program Income $‎ 61,740 $‎ 60,893 $‎ 55,867 $‎ 45,478 $‎ 78,000
Clinic Income $‎ 9,270 $‎ 1,150 $‎ 8,000
Special Events Income (net costs) $‎ 15,327 $‎ 19,445 $‎ 22,462 $‎ 27,962 $‎ 60,000
Total Income $‎ 136,867 $‎ 285,200 $‎ 295,785 $‎ 284,054 $‎ 449,000
Expense Horse Related $‎ 26,733 $‎ 39,337 $‎ 57,978 $‎ 60,988 $‎ 67,000
Facilities and Equip. $‎ 37,707 $‎ 68,662 $‎ 74,127 $‎ 73,974 $‎ 75,000
Auto $‎ 9,919 $‎ 12,734.00 $‎ 7,139 $‎ 6,050 $‎ 25,000
Staff $‎ 53,423 $‎ 102,492 $‎ 120,846 $‎ 94,628 $‎ 210,000
Program $‎ 23,943 $‎ 12,413 $‎ 1,398 $‎ 11,870 $‎ 30,500
Administration $‎ 5,073 $‎ 8,205 $‎ 8,224 $‎ 20,696 $‎ 20,000
Fundraising $‎ 1,113 $‎ 3,794 $‎ 529 $‎ 2,500 $‎ 5,000
Total Expenses $‎ 148,489 $‎ 247,637 $‎ 291,457 $‎ 270,706 $‎ 432,500
Surplus (Deficit) $‎ (11,622) $‎ 37,563 $‎ 4,328 $‎ 13,348 $‎ 16,500

A Young Woman’s Tribute to the Horse She Grew Up With

By Simone Froley

J529x770-03321.jpgI remember being so small on her big white back, I remember being awed and a little afraid of the way she’d boss me around when I tried to tell her what to do. I remember the moment Joell said “there, now you understand her. Now you’ve got it!” She was smiling up at me from the other end of the lunge line. I remember not quite realizing what I had done differently…but now I know it must have been the subtle act of opening up to communication with this horse. She taught me my first lesson then, when I was seven. I learned how to listen.

Gigi demanded dialogue. Conversation in the subtle ways of horses…she was constantly asking why and was always testing the manner in which she had been asked.

Gigi was a person. A horse. A horse who was a person, a horse who’s character couldn’t help but be noticed. She made humans work for her respect. We couldn’t ever make the mistake of taking her compliance for granted. This was given to us as a gift only…sometimes too sparingly, and sometimes with such generosity that it was all we could do to not fall to our knees and bless the very ground under her hooves. I was taught that anger and impatience would never get me where I wanted to be.
I remember, one summer, how I had forgotten all this and how I remembered it again. We cantered in circles and circles and circles and, as it drew towards evening, I realized how truly the rider and the horse are equals: two parts that make a whole, which is somehow more than the sum of the two parts…telepathic in synchronicity, each new step taken with silent agreement and joy, graceful in the way that dancers are. Joell and Gigi together helped create the person I am. I discovered my strengths and weaknesses in those lessons.

Maybe I’m making it all up. After all, she was just a horse, and I’m just some girl who could imagine things. But I loved her. In the winter she’d get all fuzzy and white and muddy and grumpy. In the summer she became so muscular and sleek, with little brown freckles. Her J270x360-03961.jpgtail was always tinged yellow. Gigi hated taking baths and for some reason I took it upon myself to accomplish the nigh impossible task of bathing her. We used a lot of water and a lot of soap and way too much conditioner. We always accomplished the baths in one piece…well, my leather riding boots never did, and IJ1092x1709-18482.jpgalways looked like I had been hosed down too, but something in my refusal to be intimidated by her granted me her slightly grudging agreement to become clean. We were on the same team.

DSC_1571.jpgGigi helped me grow up, and in doing that, I believe she will always be a part of me. She never gave up, never gave in, until it was the right time. When I heard that she was so sick the first time and had to go to the hospital in Davis, I felt jarred, the whole thing felt wrong. Gigi never gives up. And she didn’t. I came to the ranch and stood at her stall and sobbed over her and she was all skinny and sick but she patiently stood there and rubbed her face against my shirt and I cried until my shirt was covered in little tiny white hairs and it was all okay again.
I will always remember her. Thank you, Joell, for sharing your horse with me. Thank you for allowing us to have that relationship, for understanding her and using your great knowledge to help me and so many others reach our higher potentials…to grow and become the people we want to be.

Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoners

…..Peace and kindness are contagious but must be cultivated.

This week, I pushed a student past her limit and she hit an anxiety wall.

It wasn’t the end of the world.  This student is unusually forgiving.  Mom was pleased  I’d had the temerity to push her daughter past her comfort zone.  The daughter was able to laugh about the incident and all was forgiven.

But the whole thing stayed with me:  What was my intent in pushing this anxious child?

C. Bachinger of the Spanish Riding School with instructor Rachel Bisaillon on Cecil

When training a horse if your intent is pure, the horse will forgive your mistakes. But if you come to the horse in fear or ego, there is no joy for either of you, even if the move is perfect.

Earning a child’s trust comports moral responsibility – this increases exponentially when the child has special needs. Only when you earn trust can you challenge the student to push boundaries and explore new skills and interests. At the end of the day – the motivation must come from inside the student for that skill to have  lasting effect or real meaning.

So – what is the value of an education foisted on a child?

Enter; moral ambiguity.

On one hand – education drives our society forward.  Education battles ignorance.  The pen is mightier than the sword and the information super networks have made our planet a community like never before. But our education systems are not designed to teach the values that make life worth living;  joy, curiosity, community andFullSizeRender 172 compassion.

Even that’s not true.  I attended a high school’s science fair last week and the kids were smarter,  better integrated, more tolerant and just plain nicer than my generation. Education has made  great strides in innovation, embracing different learning styles, and encouraging curiosity.

IMG_8041_2While riding my horse in the sunshine, his powerful back swinging freely creating oxytocin in my overworked and sore body, I started to untangle the role Square Peg plays in this giant education question. I had a feeling as l rode, it started to gel when I wrapped my arms around his muscular neck thanking him for a brilliant ride. I took my saddle off his warm back and this statement flowed out: Peace and kindness are contagious but must be cultivated.

Square Peg’s overarching purpose is to cultivate peace and kindness any way we can.

photo by Robyn Peters

If it’s taking a dreamy child for a ride in the kayak to tell stories while floating in the pond – or in making the time to listen to a worried parent fresh from the latest IEP or in teaching a young man working with a jumpy young horse that his kindness and patience are strengths – not weaknesses.  It’s putting a guinea pig into a baby sling and placing it on the heart of a child while she rides a horse fully 20 times her size. This is how we cultivate kindness and peace radiate them into the world.

Registering our intention as an organization means we can forgive ourselves and others for mistakes.

The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: 

Oh how we love our beautiful rowdy prisoners….

Strong Women Aren’t Always Human

Gigi:ThairWhen a horse at the ranch dies, It’s my job to help  kids come to grips with the circle of life.  I carefully consider the age and emotional state of each person when I break the news to them. It’s a tricky dance navigating each family’s culture regarding death.

This time was different. This time, I did what must be done quietly and privately. I acknowledged  Gigi and I had been soulmates for close to 17 years. This time, I attended to my pain and loss with the tenderness I afford others in these situations.

What flowed back was the kindness and innocence that Gigi loved – I am grateful for the care I’m giving myself.

Around 1999 (Art Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer) asked me to give him $1 for a skinny and awkward horse. She looked like both front legs came out of the same hole.  Her exercise rider said she was crazy.  Plus, you couldn’t tie her – she’d panic and destroy anything to get free. Add to that, her leg was injured and swollen. 

I said yes.

Thoroughbreds are handled by humans from the day they are born.  Therefore, most Thoroughbreds are happy to please humans and see them as fellow members of their herd. This filly – not so much.  She had no name, no tattoo, the exercise rider told me she was bred by some guy who left his horses mostly wild until they were four years old.

She grew big and strong and brilliant but still fearful.  I called her Gigi.

Gigi circa 2000
Gigi circa 2000

I showed her through first level dressage.  The judges consistently wrote “very tactful rider.” They could tell I was sitting on dynamite. Gigi jumped boldly, if flat and fast.  She was famous for turning bounces into giant spread fences. She brought out the best and the worst in me as a rider.

As much as Gigi could humble arrogance,  Gigi was better at recognizing true innocence. Faced with a child or a kitten or even an adult without an agenda – Gigi’s face softened, she’d stretch her elegant neck toward them and lick them with her pink tongue.

Image003When I started using her in lessons, people who knew her complained bitterly. They said she was unsafe, unpredictable, strong and willful.  With me – yes.  With any professional who climbed upon her broad back – absolutely.  With children – never.

By 2004, when we started Square Peg, she was a cornerstone of the program.

IMG_2562For eleven years she packed kids.

Last year we knew something was wrong.  After a light ride, Gigi was sweaty and tired. She angrily bit one of our best kids while brushing. Her coat turned rough and then she started losing weight.  We checked teeth, we pulled blood.  We supplemented her food.  She was only 20 for goodness sakes.

A fantastic private thoroughbred charity called us last year and said “how can we help Square Pegs?”  I knew right away what to say.

“Our matriarch is sick and we can’t figure out what’s going on.  I’d like to send her to the UCDavis and see if we can help her.”

After the Finish Line gave us the go-ahead and our vet made all the connections to have her examined by the University’s best. After a week of ultrasounds, blood tests, biopsy procedures and more we came home baffled. Gigi slipped another notch or twelve in that time. The tests for Cushing’s Disease came back inconclusive but it’s all we had to go on.

Our friends at Auburn Labs supported her with over $1,000 worth of their APF Pro product that had proven results for horses with Cushing’s Disease.

In Cushing’s the adrenal glands won’t shut down. Gigi was under constant chemical stress.  It destroyed her eyesight, her joints, her metabolism, her lungs.

For the last five months we attended to her every whim.  We grazed her in the most lush spots. We cleaned her water bucket daily so she could try to quench her insatiable thirst.

Yesterday, my friend, my teacher, my treasured co-worker was finally able to lie down again.  The stress hormones no longer pushed through her veins.

A friend left flowers and a note in front of her stall with words that spoke volumes: “Strong women aren’t always Human.”

Gigi was a bold diva – a princess with a  gallant heart.  She reminded me of one of my favorite film heroes – Maude from Harold and Maude.  When Harold demands “You can’t die – I LOVE you!”  Maude smiles and answers  “That’s wonderful! Now go and love some more.”

Goodbye my darling Gigi.  I promise to go and love some more.