Friday Standing Ovation, Presented by Ovation Riding

This week’s honoree: Square Peg Foundation.

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Each Friday Horse Nation teams up with Ovation Riding to spotlight an individual or organization that is doing good work in the horse world. This week we salute the Square Peg Foundation of Half Moon Bay, California.

Rachel Bisaillon kindly took a few moments to answer our questions about the organization — thank you, Rachel! Photos courtesy of Deborah Rod, Janet Kunze, Sarah Hitzeman, Joell Dunlap and Robyn Peters.

What is the story behind Square Peg? When was it founded?

Square Peg was started in 2004 by Joell and Darius Dunlap. Joell has had much experience in the horse industry, from hunter jumper showing, to fox hunting, to even being an exercise rider at the local track. She began teaching children with special needs in 2001, and by 2004, Joell and Darius made a full-time commitment to starting an organization that values the uniqueness in everyone, emphasis on horses and children. Darius took two years on the backend to build the program from the dirt up, while Joell took on lesson horses and families that needed a space to just “be.” Now, in 2014, we are located in Half Moon Bay, California, with a facility that holds up to 25 horses, as well as a retirement/layup pasture. We mainly focus on the rescuing, rehabbing, retraining, and rehoming of ex-racehorses, as well as bringing these horses together with people, mainly children, on the autism spectrum.

Bubbles, sunshine, and ex-racehorses; the perfect afternoon.

Bubbles, sunshine, and ex-racehorses: the perfect afternoon.

What is the Foundation’s mission?

Our mission is simple: to turn “I wish” into “I can.” There is so much stigma that surrounds people with Autism, Aspergers, Tourettes, and ADHD, that our goal is to empower them to be who they want and to achieve their goals. We have created a friendly and open space where a student is able to learn at their own pace and enjoy the learning process, because they are encouraged to, not forced. We have a space where the care of the animals reminds us that all life has value and deserves respect and another chance.

Sensory work is always fun for our students and Rickie the Bashkir    Curly pony is the best!

Sensory work is always fun for our students and Rickie the Bashkir Curly pony is the best!

What is the story behind the name? 

Ah that is always my favorite question! Paul Collins once said “The problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.” Our notion is that “EVERYone Fits” and by trying to force someone to confine, act, or be a certain way, you could easily be destroying who they are.

Whether you’re trying to make a racehorse run who doesn’t want to, or you’re trying to make a special needs child sit still in a classroom, it sometimes just doesn’t work. In one way or another, we are all square pegs and instead of debilitating someone because of a diagnosis or label, we aim to appreciate one another’s uniqueness and celebrate how special each of us is.

Axel enjoys a trail ride with instructor, Lauren Nenning.

Axel enjoys a trail ride with instructor, Lauren Nenning.

One thing that is unique about Square Peg is that it’s not just horses helping people, or people helping horses — it’s both. How does that synergy work?

The synergy is an incredible thing. Ex-racehorses and children with autism are very similar when you get down to it, which is why what we do works. Both feel lonely and isolated, but have an immense desire to fit in. Both get distracted easily and sometimes can be found stimming (anyone ever see a racehorse weave?). The really magical part is that these huge animals understand the children, in a way that therapists, teachers, IEP aids, or family could not. They connect on a — dare I say it out loud — magical level. And overall, by giving the horses a new job and home, we are saving another OTTB from possibly being done away with because they couldn’t conform to said lifestyle. And by giving a child a place to be themselves, free of judgement, menacing words, or disappointing stares, we may be saving a child.

A student enjoys a lick from Bert, a dressage schoolmaster.

A student enjoys a lick from Bert, a dressage schoolmaster.

Who are the horses of Square Peg? Who are the people?

The greatest part about our program is that the horses of Square Peg are really just square pegs themselves. They are ex-racehorses who failed at the track, became injured and were no longer “worth it,” or were very successful but hit a bump in their race career & their life was no longer valuable to an owner. Our horses exemplify everything our program is because just like how large the autism spectrum is, our racehorses are all so different and special in their own way. We also have some polo ponies, dressage horses, and ex-jumpers, all square pegs as well. And of course, two goats, two hounds, a mini aussie, and an HIV+ (AIDS) barn kitty.

A student enjoys wrestling with resident goat, Chocolate,                       and mentoring all SP volunteers in successful "Goat Patrol"                             management

A student enjoys wrestling with resident goat, Chocolate, and mentoring all SP volunteers in successful “Goat Patrol” management.

FIV+ barn kitty, Pickle, enjoys a cuddle with a student.

FIV+ barn kitty, Pickle, enjoys a cuddle with a student.

The people are our kids, our staff, our volunteers, and our families. Our kids are mainly on the Autism spectrum, have ADHD, Anxiety, or Tourettes. Our staff includes a professional event rider and trainer, a ranch manager/polo trainer, our founder Joell, her husband Darius, and me, a working student/instructor. Our volunteers and families are made up of all different ages, abilities, and lifestyles, but a certain aspect of our program connects them all; a love for animals and kids and a desire for acceptance across the board.

Karolyne Keller riding Red Power, aka Sam.

Karolyne Keller riding Red Power, aka Sam.

How can people help Square Peg?

People can help Square Peg in a number of ways! We are always looking for volunteers to help keep the program moving forward, as well as funding of new programs and activities. My favorite way that people can help though is through sponsorship — both horses and students. At the moment we have four new OTTBs who are living in our facility right now, all of different personalities, ages, and 2nd careers, who we would love to start into training with our head trainers. We also have a growing list of students who would really benefit from the program, but we are unable to completely subsidize their lesson fees. If they had a sponsor that could provide ongoing financial support for the child’s riding lesson fees, we would be able to begin working with the child and give them the experience of riding, a feeling and love that we can all understand.

Ace, 5, and Owen, 3, play while in turnout! These are two ex-racehorses who would LOVE a sponsor.

Ace, 5, and Owen, 3, play while in turnout! These are two ex-racehorses who would LOVE a sponsor.

We applaud Square Peg for the great work they do and encourage Horse Nation readers to visit their website and Facebook page to learn more.

Go Riding!

Many thanks thanks to Ovation Riding for their support of both Horse Nation and individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. If you know someone who deserves a Standing Ovation, we would love to recognize them in a future post. Email the name of the person or organization along with a message about the good work they do to [email protected] Photos/videos are always welcome, and include a link to their website if applicable.

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