I Could Be Wrong But…

The young woman throws her assistive talking device over her shoulder and marches directly to the shack where we keep the helmets, boots, games and – my favorite – hundreds of books.

Camille Corot – Reverie – 1864-65

From the moment we started Square Peg, I dreamed of having a room full of books with an honor system of borrowing.  No check out, no due dates – just bring a book or take home 10.  No worries.

Today, the shelves are bursting with colorful children’s stories, dusty outdated boxes of horse care texts, trashy adult novels and scores of self help books.

The young woman’s parents and I exchange “uh oh” looks at each other.  None of us were fast enough to re-direct her march to the shack.  We’d all hoped it was going to be a good riding day.  The sun was out, the horse was willing, the trails called for a calming ride.  We hoped it was one of those magical days with smiles and exhales and bowel regulation for this non-verbal young woman who is so often anxious and agitated.

But alas, she’s in the shack and she’s grabbing books from the shelves and throwing them onto the floor. She’s working faster and faster to grab and throw.  Occasionally, she opens a book and begins to rip out the pages.

It’s distressing for the family and I have to admit that it hurts my heart to see a book rendered mostly useless after this rough treatment. But I remind myself that we have literally hundreds of books

I sit on the floor with her and open a story and I begin to read it to her.  She takes it out of my hand and throws it onto the floor.  She’s winding up to what we worry will be a mania that ends in crying and possibly some level of frustrated self harm. 

The horse and the volunteer are waiting and we bring his patient self over to the shack and induce him to place his curious face in the doorway hoping it will delight her and cause her to choose an activity we are uniquely qualified to deliver.  She pauses, looks at the horse for the briefest of moments and resumes what looks like random grabbing and throwing of books. 

The horse, unlike me, has no agenda and is not offended.  He happily drops his head and looks for grass to munch.  

I urge myself to take a clue from our horse and drop my agenda too. Something deep in my gut tells me to stay with this young woman and watch.

Watch.  She’s telling us something.

Or is she just winding up to a meltdown that will leave her and her parents exhausted?

Watch Joell.  Just stay.  Hold space.  Breathe.

Soon, I’m not watching, my brain is wandering.  I’m reviewing all the things that need doing – all the triage of my day.  And then I beat myself up for that.

Watch. Stay. I have to force myself not to look at my watch.  Stay.  Watch.

More. books fly off the shelf onto the floor. She’s gasping for breath and clearly frustrated and I’m no closer to understanding than I was before.

Finally, the parents need to go.  Another family is arriving and we begin the painful process of extricating this young woman from the shack and the giant pile of thrown books.  Dad picks her up – no small feat as she’s no longer a little girl. Her eye catches a closed cardboard box up high on a shelf – she needs to see what’s inside.  I know that it’s a dusty box of horse care books and veterinary manuals – not children’s reading.  But she HAS TO KNOW what’s inside – which also means more books thrown onto the floor that I will need to pick up and re-shelve.

I’m human.  I’m tired.  So is dad and I reason with her that “it’s nothing you want.” but that’s not going to work and so I jump in the air and grab the dusty box and, as predicted, they are summarily taken out and thrown on the floor with the hundreds of others.

Feeling like a failure, I watch dad manage his now disregulated daughter toe-walking down the hill to the parking lot.  She’s angry and frustrated and I’m trying to think of the role I played in that.  

Later that night, I crawl into bed and crack open the novel I’m reading.  I’m eager to throw off the day and settle into a story of another land, another time and place, another point of view. 

Then it hits me. 

That’s what this young woman was looking for.  Stories give her the same pleasure they give me.  She likes familiar stories – ones she knows what happens next – characters she is familiar with.  She’s seeking that same deep pleasure that I, a lifetime reader crave.

She was just looking for a familiar book!  A particular book that would soothe her and delight her – the same way a great story delights me.

Not finding that story was the cause of the panic.  Looking desperately for a ticket away from the cacophony of a life of a sensory sensitive person who is also in the throes of puberty is as natural as sunshine – as “right as rain.”

We all seek pleasure, relief, solace. All she wanted was the book that would bring her these three things.

Wait. Watch. Breathe. 


Forgiveness…..No Matter What

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on-

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and the horse (as you can see) hugged him back.

This horse, the son of Afleet Alex is not yet a therapy horse.  He is what you might call “a trainer’s horse.”  That means he’s tricky, hot, brilliant.  He’s also got one eye.  He’s not known to be calm or indulgent or even particularly trusting.

The child is similar. He’s brilliant, often violent and oh so tricky.  He’s got a medical and a psychiatric record that baffles the experts at Stanford University. 

The child arrived at the ranch in a frenzy of mixed emotions that manifested in a belief that there were bad people out there trying to hurt him or kidnap him and that he needed to fight and fight hard to be safe. One moment he was cussing and throwing things and the next, he was overcome with tears.  

Even for us – with 15 years experience in this field – it was going to be a rocky day at best. 

I’d taken the boy on a hike up the mountain.  We talked and we played with different surfaces to drum on.  The drumming always helps him.  Drumming has helped regulate humans since we discovered fire.  

Once back to the barn, the boy began to struggle again and he decided to take it out on my one eyed and brilliant horse.  

He’s done this before – he often approaches the horse on his blind side and slaps him on his cheek below the missing eye – not to hurt him but to surprise him .  He laughs cruelly when the horse jumps back in surprise.  Sometimes, as he was doing today, he jumps aggressively toward the horse yelling and watching for the horse’s fearful response.

Any first year psychology student will be able to tell that this is a child who feels threatened and disempowered and is just looking for a moment when it’s HIM that has the power to intimidate and HIM that has the power to create fear.  It’s heartbreaking if you think about it – but this child’s life – despite the most amazing parents who will go to the ends of the earth for their child – his neurology is such that he’s very often in a terrified and fearful headspace.  

I’ve consulted with the experts and sorted through my own skills to think of a way to get this particular behavior to ameliorate. 

As a behaviorist – one tactic is to ignore the behavior.  Clearly this is a behavior that always gets attention from everyone around. I’ve tried having a conversation with the child “What’s going on buddy?  Why would you be so mean to a horse that has never been mean to you?”  I’ve tried re-directing, modeling gentle behavior, rewarding him any time he’s kind to any animal. But here we were again and let’s face it – as a horseman, it’s torturous to watch your horse be punished and for no reason.

So I thought about the root of the problem – about not feeling in control, or heard, or seen. About needing to understand that others also feel fear.

I thought about all of our organizational precepts – about the human environment, about self advocacy – about what real compassion feels like and about the difference between tolerance and acceptance. 

And that’s when I said:

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on –

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and as you can see in the photo the horse hugged him back.

And then the greatest gift.  He turned and looked up at the horse and said –

“You know what Joell?  This horse reminds me of my mom.  She always forgives me too.”

Shut Up – Sass in the City

I got up early, cleaned the stalls,  fed the horses. I pet the dog, kissed my husband and flew across the US. I arrived at midnight and hopped a cab to a funky rented bedroom hosted by a kind stranger. The next morning, I put on warm clothes and hiked a mile or so through an unfamiliar city.  I descended three floors down into a basement of a high-rise. In my backpack was my presentation – my 25 minutes of the best I had to offer.

I’d worked hard on the presentation. I’d stretched myself to contact folks way above my pay grade. I’d paced and lost sleep – because it had to be good.

I promised myself I’d be prepared – as an honor to an academic audience – I prepared answers to extremely hard questions and I’d thought of how to deliver the complex but direct answers with humor and humanity. 

I brought my “A” game. 

Once there – I forged through the technology hiccups, I flexed with grace when they changed the time we would present.  

I tried not to walk out of an earlier presentation. But I had to go – because I’ve been there before in a presentation where the people delivering services treat their charges as less than.  Where people are so busy building logical systems to create resilience and independence for people with disabilities – and they forgot that none of us need more independence – what we need – what we crave – what we are suffering from is a lack of interdependence

When my time came – I honored those who were doing the work – I pointed out the strengths and the humanity of my co-presenter I summoned up all the west coast charm I could muster.

Half way in – I was told I was out of time. I tried to make a joke of it and was met with a blank stare from the young woman who had been managing the fits and starts of event day since early that morning. What she needed was for something to go on schedule as planned. She wasn’t interested in me getting to my point. She didn’t care that most of the people were leaning in – laughing and nodding their heads. 

Anyway, why should she? She was doing her job – getting things moving with an adjusted schedule – attending to needs of others.

But I had something to say.

Being raised to be a good girl – I rushed as quickly as I could – I skipped the meat  of my presentation in an effort to meet her adjusted time schedule – and I sold myself short.

And I sold my audience short.

And I missed the chance to advocate fiercely for the people that we are all supposed to be serving. 

The good news is that – as per usual – I’m being too hard on myself. People stayed afterward to talk. They cried and hugged me for the message. They pressed business cards into my hand – they asked my advice.  Clearly this is how I best serve the cause? 

But I’m learning.  I learned about civil disobedience and that nobody should be able to rush us when our message is about relieving suffering. Nobody’s schedule is more precious than somebody’s humanity and the message that we MUST change the systems that are creating suffering. 

I promise to do more. 

It’s funny – last year, I was asked to present at the Aspen Brain Lab.  I worked hard on the presentation and then the organizer chose (wisely) to ask someone else – someone local – to do the presentation.  Frustrated, I took my presentation and made it into a video.  That video has been seen all over the world and by many, many more folks than would have been at the Aspen Brain Lab. 

I will do the same with this presentation. Watch out – this is going to be good…..

Go #TeamQuirky. 

Intro to Horse Boy Method Workshop April 1&2

For  years Rupert and Rowan shared the saddle together on a horse named Betsy. The story of  Rowan opening  to the outside world through Betsy is told in the bestselling book and award winning film “The Horse Boy“.

With Rowan’s success,  Rupert started working with other children on the spectrum to see if what  worked with Rowan and Betsy would  work for them. While no method can ever be right for 100% of people  Rupert found a sufficiently high percentage of children benefited-sometimes  in astonishing ways.
The framework of techniques targets different  challenges.  Horse Boy™ and Movement Method are now being used worldwide. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity!

Who should attend this clinic?

Important note: This workshop is hands on and intense.  We cannot have you bring your child to the workshop.  It is our organizational ethic that when a child is here – especially one that needs some support – we focus all our energy on the child.  This workshop is to give you tools to help support those you love and care about – so this is our chance to focus on you

Training Overview 

• Introduction to Autism
• What our methods are. Why they are different?
• Necessary Equipment
• Sensory session with horses
• Collection – what it is and why it matters

• Intro to Back-riding training
• How to create the right environment for Horse Boy Method
• How to cope with children unwilling or afraid to ride
• Long-lines (working with young adults too large to back-ride)
• Rule based games / Perspective taking
• Academics on horseback: how to use the dressage arena and round pen for math, biology, geography and more!
• How to work with the entire family
• Basic trick work. Learning the aids, and demo of how tricks are used for communication

When: April 1&2, 2019 10am to 3pm

Where: Green Acres –  300 16th Street, Montara, CA

Cost: Riders $675  Non Riders: $340. UPDATE: We’ve been approved to offer the following discount: $495 for Riders and $325 for non riders

Space is limited! use PayPal link below to secure your space.  If you prefer to pay by check, email joell@squarepegfoundation.org to reserve your spot.

If you are traveling – the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel has rooms available – it’s a walking distance to the training and a world class view!

Riding or Non-Riding

Take My Horse or Else…….. 52 FREE Thoroughbreds

These are actual things I hear regularly:

“If you don’t take my horse, I have to put him to sleep.”

“I can’t afford a horse I can’t jump/play polo on/race etc.” 

“This horse is costing me a fortune and I can’t afford it anymore.” 

“Aren’t you a non-profit?  Then that means you HAVE to take him.”

“It sure would be nice to be on the payroll of some non-profit that gets free horses all the time.”

I try.  I really try not to be rude or angry.  I don’t want anyone to come to me and leave feeling like they weren’t heard and that they don’t have options. People are fundamentally good. So I try to listen and I try to offer alternative solutions.  One woman was telling me that she can’t afford a lame horse.  She said she’d already spent a lot of money for fancy shoes on the horse and now he’s just barefoot.  

“But if what you are telling me is correct -he needs some support.”  I offered.

“Yeah, but he’s not working so he’s fine.”

“If he was not lame – would he be worth it?”  

“He’s never going to be able to jump so no.”


I look out the window – it’s supposed to be my one day off. I’m spending it doing paperwork and that’s fine.  I look out the window and one of our staff is working with a horse in the round pen.  He needs support, physically and mentally.  He’s not a horse we could re-home.  But he’s down there and he’s trying to learn new things.  He gets worried and she re-assures him.  She pets him and I watch him lean into her.  He’s a good boy. 

I’m sure this other horse is also a good boy.

It sucks to have to say no.  Recognizing that there is only so much space, time and resources to properly care for the ones you have.  Knowing that even then, there will be chores left undone at the end of the day because time and limited resources won’t allow it. 

I’m not particularly complaining.  I have a brilliant life.  I’ve surrounded myself with animals and humans that inspire me to be kinder and harder working every day.  We searched for and competed for and nurtured donors who believe in what we do. We opened our hearts, our account books and our lives to serve those we choose to serve and it’s good. 

But that doesn’t mean that when I get off the phone with the “take my horse or else” folks that my heart isn’t heavy and I feel like I haven’t done enough.  I can’t help but picture the horse in question and what his alternatives might be. 

So here’s what your local horse rescuers want you to know:

A horse is a responsibility – an expensive one.  If you aren’t taking care of him – someone else has to pay for him;  feed, farrier, vet, bedding, staff to care for him, fencing, blankets, supplies and just the time to attend to the needs of a large animal in an enclosed space.  So *donating your horse is not a gift – it’s a giant, expensive responsibility.  He might live to be 35 years old – and those last seven or eight years he is going to need a lot of support and medicine and special feed. The vet who has been working with the rescue is almost certainly working at cost or less and he’s also attached to the horse. Someone like me and the kindhearted vet  is going to be there with this horse crying on the day he dies and someone will have to come up with hundreds of dollars in cash to render his giant body.  

Nobody wants to tell you no.  It gives us no pleasure.  The good rescues and sanctuaries are almost always full.  If someone is super eager to take your *FREE horse – be careful – there is a few hundred bucks in it for the kill buyer. 

And yes – the 52 FREE Thoroughbreds is an old post from 2011 so please don’t send it around social media – please – I know you are just trying to help.

2018 – A Year to Remember

Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted – The Buddha.”

For Square Peg, 2018 was a year of unprecedented growth.

In July, we officially opened Square Peg at Cadence Farm in Sonoma, CA.  Our own Becca Knopf is at the helm of Square Peg in Cadence Farms making new alliances, bringing in new families and volunteers, training up the horses and bringing that special #TeamQuirky vibe to the California Wine country.

We forged new relationships in our quest to achieve ABA therapy objectives by leading with compassion and support.  The results are in – our clients hit all of their milestones well ahead of schedule.  Helping us prove that compassion, environment, movement and support and intrinsic motivation – rather than rigid and undignified methods are what make real change.

We said goodbye to Bert – our beautiful Dutch gelding who served families at Square Peg for 11 years and Thair, our beautiful Walker Hound who lived his 17 years on earth with grace and sweetness.  We miss them both dearly.

We partnered with Liskennett Farm in County Cork, Ireland to share ideas on how to improve services for families and how to replicate our programs to have greater impact – and we partnered with Farm de Lek in Thailand to bring HorseBoy Method to Asia.  We were able to present what is special about Square Peg in Germany, in Louisville Kentucky and we visited our mentors in Lisbon, Portugal to deepen our understanding of Classical Horsemanship Principles.

Truth is, I’ve personally logged more airline miles in 2018 than in the last 20 years of my life combined – and all of it was in the spirit of sharing and mutually improving our services to support autism families and for Off Track Thoroughbreds the world over.

I no longer feel like I’m shouting into the wilderness.  I feel connected and supported myself and further challenged to know that every wild dream the Darius and I have ever had for Square Peg is not only possible, but that beautiful and kind people have already paved the way and are willing to help us make these things come true.

I could wax on and on for pages – but if a picture is worth a thousand words, then here is a 1:30 video to tell the story of a very important year.

We need your support to continue to grow and connect and serve.

We PROMISE to make you proud to be a Square Peg supporter.

Please donate today.

In gratitude,

Joell &



“……turn and face the strain.” David Bowie

This week we hosted our gathering we call Salon.  We talked about Change.  We had the chance to talk about how fear of change balances with excitement about change and how trepidation and excitement are so closely linked and how we are better able to manage our fear of change when we feel connected and supported.

Connected and supported are the two things that come up every time we sit down and discuss complicated and difficult things.

Change. It’s all around us.  Seasons, climate, elections, aging.  Change our minds, change our space.

A friend posted on her Facebook page a story that a doctor had come to them to explain what he felt was “their reality.”  That they as a family needed to be prepared to support their child for the rest of her life because, in his opinion, she would likely never hold a job or live independently.

The woman’s social media community reached out in kindness and anger and we all digitally held this mother’s hand with words of encouragement and solidarity.

Connection and support.

But it wasn’t enough.

When I think of opportunities for Square Peg and where we are going and how best to honor families needs, donors’ contributions and employee and volunteer efforts – I think about where we are going and I remembered something radical that my friend Rupert Isaacson   said.

He was being interviewed and the interviewer asked him what his most dangerous idea was.

He didn’t hesitate – he knew exactly where he was going.

He said:

“What happens today is that a doctor walks into his office to confront anxious parents.  He/she sits down, looks them in the eye and says ‘your child has autism. You must be prepared that your child may never live independently.  He/she will need lifelong medication, special schooling and therapy.  He may never talk or hold a job.  You need to learn how to make visual schedules for everything and you will need special caregivers.’


Rupert’s wild and dangerous idea is this:

“Instead, the doctor walks into the office and addresses the same anxious parents by popping open a champagne bottle and pouring glasses and saying ‘you are in for a wild journey.  Your child has a different neurological makeup than most of us.  He sees the world differently and you, as his parent are going to learn more about this world than you ever imagined.  You will learn more about yourself, about nature, about language and about emotions than anyone you know.  You are going to meet some amazing people and your entire understanding of humanity will expand. So let’s toast to your new life and get this party started!’”

Change.  A change in perception – a shift from trepidation to excitement. A change from feeling abandoned to feeling supported and connected.

This shift means everything.  And the path for Square Peg becomes clear – to embody this shift from fear to engagement – from isolation to connection.


“………..And these children that you spit on   –  As they try to change their worlds –  Are immune to your consultations –  They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through”.    David Bowie 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016

For Bert

October 2007, almost 11 yeas ago, a dark brown Dutch Warmblood came to stay at Square Peg.  He was handsome, he had a very good impression of himself, he had some moves.  For a time, he was king of the pasture and we called him “the Benevolent Dictator” because he ruled quietly, but carried a big stick.  He loved to lick people and did it with his eyes half closed, his thick and long eyelashes fluttering in pleasure.

He could carry you through exuberant lead changes and then pack a scared rider with care.  He always knew.

He was steadfast on the trail – brave and clever.

He and his best friend Panzer –  we referred to as “Grumpy Old Men” – they truly loved one another.

His favorite human, Carolyn cared for him daily with quiet walks and grooming.  Their bond was special and we are so grateful to Carolyn’s family for their support of Bert in his senior years.  They never wavered when he needed care.

He allowed pensive teen girls to scrub his white socks to a gleam and for wistful thinkers to braid flowers into his tail.

Dogs always wanted him to play with him and I never understood why they singled him out.

Last month,  friends were visiting from the Netherlands. The two teenaged daughters took him for a walk and spoke lovingly to him in his native Dutch.  I’m smiling just  remembering their sweet words and how he looked like he was enjoying it so throughly.

As his health and vigor faded, he never complained and I kept my promise that I’d feed and clean and medicate him as long as he still wanted to eat.

Today, he refused even the cookies he loved so much.  It was time.

Our steadfast veterinarian was with me to do what must be done. No matter what anyone tells you – it’s far from easy. But gentle Bert made it  clear to us that he was ready to go.

I’m so grateful to him – for the years of service and friendship.  For the joy he brought to so many.

Rest well my friend – and give my best to Cometa – another gallant soul who was part of the Square Peg Family that passed earlier this week.

This is the two of them together.  I’d like to think they are sharing stories again.

Is Square Peg at Cadence Farm – Sonoma What Your Family Is Looking For?

Square Peg at Cadence Farm is now accepting families to serve in Sonoma California. Conveniently located just off Hwy 121 in Sonoma we are able to offer our world class services for autism families.

Imagine a place where laughter is the norm – where sensory needs are addressed with kindness and respect and movement, curiosity, and play rule the day.  Imagine rescued and donated horses with a new lease on life caring for a family with grace and kindness… This is Square Peg

What you can expect? This video explains our method and illustrates our means of support

If this sounds like something your family wants to participate in – begin by filling out our online intake form.  https://www.squarepegfoundation.org/programs/interested-in-services-fill-out-this-form/

One of our instructors will contact you to set up a no-obligation visit to the farm to see if Square Peg can support your family.

Interested in volunteering?  Start here.

Learn more about how Square Peg came to Cadence Farm