It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Square Peg ranch and the outdoor arena is empty but for a horse, a boy and a riding instructor. Two goats, Wasabi and Molly, wander in, trailed by an old hound dog named Thair who plops himself down in the middle of the ring for an impromptu nap.
Sitting nearby, the boy’s parents, Laura and Vinod, watch attentively as 10-year-old Shaelin rides tandem with Rebecca Knopf astride an Andalusian gelding named Escribano, also known as “Mowgli.” They walk, trot and canter, talking all the while about fantasy quests, the difference between parallel and perpendicular and whether Mowgli might respond better to commands in Spanish.
The smiling, engaged boy is a world apart from the child whose severe sensory challenges due to autism led to emergency-room visits and repeated hospitalizations for violent outbursts and self-inflicted injuries. “Shaelin had learned that he couldn’t do anything right in school and that there was no place for him in this world,” Laura explains. “Except for doctors’ appointments and school, he didn’t leave the house. He couldn’t go to stores, restaurants, movies, hikes or parks, nor could he interact or talk to anyone but his family and sometimes his teachers.”
Even on good days, the expectations thrust on Shaelin to behave like other kids his age were overwhelming. “Because Shaelin is articulate, people think he should be normal,” says Vinod. “But the stress and the strain would eat at him and he’d shut down altogether.”
“He was trying to adjust to the world, but he couldn’t,” Laura adds. “It was like saying to a child with a broken leg, ‘Why aren’t you running?’”
Studies show that individuals with autism spectrum disorder, a severe developmental disability that impairs social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication, are often acutely sensitive to their environments. Stimuli like artificial lights, smells, textures and noises can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn activates the brain’s fear center. Learning becomes difficult, if not impossible.
The Square Peg Foundation, a nonprofit adaptive riding facility and Thoroughbred rescue in Half Moon Bay, California, some 30 miles south of San Francisco, offered Shaelin and his family something special—a place where horses and riding act as a springboard to meaningful human connection, emotional self-regulation and self-advocacy. Founder Joell Dunlap says dressage training is an integral—if invisible—component of the program, benefiting not only the horses but the riders.
“Ninety percent of the injuries to the Thoroughbreds we get are to their front legs, and by training them classically in dressage, we’re shifting that balance back toward the hind legs and making them lighter in front. If I can move a horse in a swingy, soft balance where he’s through, that creates a rhythmic rocking of the rider’s hips, which is the optimal means for the body to produce oxytocin, the antidote to cortisol.”
The Freedom to Be Silly
Square Peg serves about 50 families each week at its facility—a tranquil, out-of-the-way ranch set in the hills with barns and ample pastures for the program’s 20-odd rescued and donated horses. There are four instructors, including Dunlap; working students, some of whom have special needs themselves; and a group of dedicated volunteers. The riding instructors are also trained as Registered Behavior Technicians, paraprofessionals conversant in the unique needs of individuals with significant developmental, sensory and behavioral challenges.
So what looks to an outsider like a free-form riding lesson is, in fact, a complex therapeutic dance in which the behaviorist follows the child’s lead and interests. On any given day at Square Peg, you might see kids helping to feed the horses, dressed in costumes and reenacting scenes from “The Princess Bride,” playing with the dogs or conducting scientific experiments like “Which flavor of Pringles do the dogs prefer?”
The discussion about parallel and perpendicular, for example, is a roundabout way of helping a child who has trouble with directional cues. “You don’t want to be too obvious about it or your brownie points are lost,” says Knopf with a grin. “Just like with the horses, you teach them something a little hard and then back off.”
Visual schedules, which have been found to be beneficial for those on the autism spectrum, might be used to assist kids in planning their time, to know what to expect and to bring structure to their sessions and avoid the anxiety that comes with unexpected changes. The schedules may include pictures or symbols or they may be written. “Maybe we’ll tell a child that we have time today to do three things,” Dunlap explains. “We’ll say, ‘We have to feed the horse. Should we do that first or should we do that second?’ And then they’ll write it up. We do anything we can to help these kids manage their stress and feel a sense of control.”
Keeping sessions fun is paramount, she says. “The movement of the horse may coax out some language in someone with communication challenges, but it’s probably going to be ‘Moana’ or the dogs or drawing on the white board or playing in the water that makes the difference. We use the horses as a vehicle to carry them through transitions that are difficult and to make them feel more empowered.”
Making these kids “less autistic” isn’t the goal, she emphasizes. Rather, it’s about helping kids learn to navigate a neurotypical world and become part of a community where their differences are valued and respected.
Shaelin and Knopf ride up to a mounting platform. “Butt hug!” she announces playfully. It’s Square Peg’s version of a sensory exercise in which the rider lies on his stomach atop a standing horse, resting his head on the croup and letting his arms and legs hang down against the horse’s sides. Shaelin shakes his head, so Knopf wonders aloud whether his dad might like to give it a try. Delighted, Shaelin offers his father instructions on how to perform a proper “butt hug.”
Young people with sensory disorders and learning differences have few opportunities to take the lead in their lives, but whenever possible Square Peg’s staff is quick to find ways for kids to do just that. “You can’t force them to engage,” says Knopf. “One of my kids loves to run—she’s always moving. So when I’m riding with her I let her tell the horse to walk, trot and canter. She’s directing me.”
Though most riding sessions are one on one, there are plenty of opportunities for kids to bond over shared interests and to participate in outside activities like hiking and kayaking and trips to the beach. Square Peg has become a place for parents to connect and let down their guard as well. “The social isolation of autism is a big thing and some families can’t leave,” Dunlap says. “One mom would come here with her son who would do things at home like bolt down the street or eat a bottle of hand lotion. She’d come here and fall asleep in the grass. This was her one resting place.”
Whether they’re riffing on rap songs or exploring the contents of the costume closet, Square Peg’s staff and volunteers keep things fun for the whole family. “It has to be wonderful and delightful for everyone,” says Dunlap. “Otherwise, the sense of wonder and delight is gone and it’s just a pony ride.”
One day, Knopf got a text from a mom saying, “Be prepared to be Moana.” She had 15 minutes to familiarize herself with songs, and then the staff set up speakers so the child could ride to the “Moana” soundtrack. “I wear tutus, and my Spotify playlist includes a lot of Disney songs,” Knopf says with a laugh.
That wasn’t part of the curriculum at Ohio’s Otterbein University, where she studied equine business management, evented and competed in the Intercollegiate Dressage Association. Dreaming of one day managing a therapeutic riding center, she found Square Peg online and called for an interview.
Dunlap gets lots of emails from college students who want to work for the program. “Most have preconceived notions about how things should be run,” she says. “But when Becca came, she was here for about 20 minutes before she had a pink tutu on and was rolling around in the dirt with a couple of kids. The rest of us looked at each other and said, ‘This could work.’”
Dunlap and her husband, Darius, started the organization in 2004, aiming to reach the square pegs of the world. A shelter in San Francisco sent them their first clients. There were homeless kids, kids from refugee families who didn’t speak English, runaways. “But autism families kept finding us.”
Her introduction to the disorder came a few years before, when she was teaching at a riding school in the Bay area. “A family came to me and said their daughter had autism. They told me, ‘Just treat her like everybody else.’ And here was this cute, freckle-faced girl who just seemed shy.”
One day it was cold and windy and the barn staff decided to feed early. “I had her on a good, quiet horse and she was doing OK, but the horse was distracted and kept going to the gate. So I did what every riding instructor does: I said, ‘Hold your left rein.’ But the horse wasn’t listening. This girl clearly didn’t understand me, so I yelled louder: ‘Left rein and right leg.’” Still nothing happened and then the girl leaned close to Dunlap and whispered, “I’m trying.”
“In that moment, everything I thought I knew went in the toilet and I began thinking about different learners and how important it is to earn their trust and respect.”
Most, but not all, of the children and young people who come to Square Peg have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Some are verbal—even hyper-verbal—while others engage in repetitive self-stimulatory movements like hand-flapping, finger-snapping and clapping or by repeating sounds, words or phrases. Called “stimming,” the behaviors serve as both a coping mechanism and a form of self-regulation. Animal behaviorist and author Temple Grandin, who is herself on the spectrum, once explained, “Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviors because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day.”
Fourteen-year-old Nathan rides a Thoroughbred mare named Classica on a longe line and his hands are in constant motion—clapping, flapping, touching the sides of his face. He gazes off, head lifted, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. And yet when Knopf reminds him to center himself in the saddle, he responds immediately.
Nathan’s mother, Lisa Valerio, says she knew something was wrong when he was just a month past his second birthday. “He’d been talking and playing and interacting normally, but I knew something was up.” He’d become fixated on spinning objects and had stopped pointing. And then he started to lose words. Nathan’s pediatrician scheduled a speech evaluation. The words continued to disappear—first in a trickle and then in a torrent. By the time Nathan was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, he had only a few words left.
Valerio grew up on a small farm in Indiana and always had a horse or a pony, and her father urged her to find a riding program for Nathan. She discovered Square Peg when Nathan was 5 and he’s been coming several times a week ever since.
Craving sensory input, Nathan might ride while shaking a crackly ribbon in his hand or holding a stretched-out piece of Silly Putty that he’ll slap with a thump against his chest. Unconcerned, Classica maintains her quiet, slow pace.
Rather than extinguish or redirect these behaviors, Square Peg staff accommodates them and puts the horses through intensive training to desensitize them to the unexpected stimuli that come with their riders. “You’ve got to have a horse who’s not going to react to things, and not all can,” Dunlap admits.
Square Peg’s horses bring their own unique gifts to the program. Former show jumper and dressage champion Bert is now retired from the program, but Dunlap says he can still be counted on to reach boys who don’t want to communicate.
“We call Bert ‘Farticus.’ Farts are the original icebreaker and Bert is ready to deliver.” Bert’s stablemate is Panzur, a 1993 Holsteiner gelding whose preferred pastime is licking people.
A Very Special Herd
The majority of the program’s remarkably gentle and cooperative horses are Thoroughbreds. Some had successful careers on the track and were retired early due to injuries. Six-year-old Mythical Storm, whose sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, won the Kentucky Derby in 2000, raced in Southern California before coming to Square Peg in late 2015. Easygoing and smart, “Hermes” has become a favorite around the barn. Then there’s 13-year-old Cee’s for Clever, aka “Cecil,” a gray dressage mount who made more than $100,000 on the track.
Dunlap has worked with Thoroughbreds throughout her career, which includes stints at the racetrack as an exercise rider and trainer, and she prizes their sensitivity. “I’ve always taken in Thoroughbreds. Unlike any other breed, they’re surrounded by humans from the moment they’re born. Certain horses would never work for the program, but those that do are eager to please and connected to their humans. If I have a kid who’s stimming and flapping, the horse has to trust me. That connection comes very naturally with the Thoroughbred.
“They’re often square pegs themselves,” she adds, “the horses from the track with physical problems.” Pairing kids with behavioral challenges and horses bred to run really fast might seem counterintuitive, even reckless, but Dunlap insists that it works when the animals’ environment is managed correctly, which means regular in-hand and longe work, careful scheduling for mounted work and plenty of time in the pasture with other horses. “If these same horses were locked in a box stall and ridden three to four times per week for 40 minutes at a time, they would be anxious, fearful and some might become aggressive.”
She applies the same logic to the kids she sees. Is a horse cooped up in a stall most of the day so different from a 10-year-old who spends hours at a desk indoors? “Brain science says that we have to learn to move. If we’re stressed and forced to not move, our brain naturally shuts down. It’s not naughtiness or ‘a boy thing’ or ‘a girl thing’ or a lack of intelligence. It’s our nature.”
Square Peg’s approach follows the Horse Boy Method founded by Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, in Texas. After their son, Rowan, was diagnosed with autism, leaving him prone to tantrums and with no expressive verbal language, Isaacson sought guidance from experts like Temple Grandin. “How does my son become you?” he asked. Grandin offered three suggestions: follow Rowan physically, emotionally and intellectually; spend as much time as possible outside in an environment free of negative sensory triggers; and allow Rowan to move as much as possible.
As in the Horse Boy Method, mounted activities at Square Peg are aimed at addressing each child’s sensory needs. Younger children and those who benefit from body-to-body contact and deep pressure might ride in tandem with an instructor. For young people who can sit independently, long lines are utilized to shift the horse’s center of gravity off the forehand so that the rider can feel the horse using his back. Studies indicate that the rocking motion of the horse produces the hormone oxytocin in the rider, encouraging social interaction and improving communication in some individuals with autism.
The work in-hand is also key to keeping the horses strong. “For the younger horses with racing injuries, it’s a great way to exercise them without putting more strain on their legs,” Dunlap says. Christian Bachinger from the Spanish Riding School has come to work with the horses and help with training problems as has French-born, Northern California-based Dominique Barbier and Portuguese rider and trainer Sofia Valença. Says Dunlap, “Because our horses are so different from the Lusitanos they’re used to, they decided to work in a working equitation sort of way to help the horses with balance and rhythm. It keeps the Thoroughbreds thinking and the riders, too.
“It’s not about teaching our kids to ride a perfect 20-meter circle,” she adds. “It’s about using classical methods to train the horses to have beautiful canters and flying changes and even building piaffe and then re-creating that in the mounted in-hand sessions so that these kids can ride a horse in balance. If the horse is stressed, he’s going to give us a stressful ride, and these kids already have enough stress in their lives.”
A Paradigm Shift
After his mounted session, Shaelin helps feed the horses. “He likes to feel like he’s contributing,” says his mother. “It gives him a confidence boost.” She pauses. “This is the first thing he’s really loved. A few weeks in, we started to see it translate to the world beyond here. Then his teachers started to notice he was making eye contact, that he was much more calm and engaged. This place has been a savior for him.”
Watching young people who don’t fit in blossom through horses and play is something Dunlap never tires of. But she wishes that the things her staff do every day with humans as well as animals were simply the norm. “I always say we’ll be successful when what we do here is no longer special.”