By Diana Pikulski
The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2020 approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). April is Autism Awareness Month, so it is fitting that we visit with Joell Dunlap, founder of The Square Peg Foundation, which pairs off-track Thoroughbreds with children affected by an ASD and their families.
Founded in 2004, Square Peg operates out of two facilities in the Bay Area of California with 19 horses in total. Of the 19 horses, 13 are off-track Thoroughbreds. Before life was interrupted by the COVID19 pandemic, Square Peg regularly served 50-60 families per week. There is a waiting list of 30 families who need services.
DP: Joell, tell us what an average week at Square Peg was like before the COVID-19 pandemic?
JD: We served 50-60 families a week with one or more children on the autism spectrum. Our program is geared to provide a great environment, therapeutic riding and a social aspect for our clients. When I was a kid, my best friends were my barn friends. I want to create that for the children that we serve.
DP: How does the program work?
JD: Since 2004, the program has evolved as we have learned more about how horses open up the pathways for children with autism to learn and experience real joy. We are part of the Horse Boy Method network. This is a framework for therapy with children on the autism spectrum. We focus on the environment which is void of bad stimuli, the sensory aspect of being on and all over a horse, riding for the movement and rhythm, perspective exercises, academics while in motion and self- advocacy.
DP: How did you come to start an organization like Square Peg with its specific mission to help autistic children and off-track Thoroughbreds?
JR: I rode show horses growing up and Thoroughbreds on the track as soon as I was old enough. In 1984 at age 16, I became a mom. My son was born 9 weeks early and weighed 3 1/2 pounds. My son's time in the school system was very difficult. From the beginning, he had trouble focusing and staying still. The teachers thought his problem was that he had a young mother who worked at the track. The more people tried to force him to sit in a classroom, the worse his frustration grew. He was bullied by other kids, teachers, and even the parents of other kids because he could not sit still. My heart broke for him. So, I started homeschooling and I learned a lot about alternative education and just how damaging it is for a child when he or she is not accepted. The first riding school that I started was at a Montessori school. I had a 17-hand Thoroughbred who had been singled out as a bad horse with behavioral issues. He could only live outside. The kids all connected with him. One day I found a teenage girl, who was always struggling in school, and she had gone into his paddock and was hanging onto his neck with this death grip of need. Instead of his usual antics, the horse was perfectly still and relaxed as held onto him in a full body hug. A lightbulb just went on in my head and I saw the parallels between these kids and the Thoroughbreds.
DP: Did you set out to work specifically with off-track Thoroughbreds?
JR: Thoroughbreds are the only horses that I truly understand. Square Peg was started for kids who needed to move in order to express themselves and to learn, and for Thoroughbreds who are also creatures of movement who need space, exercise and engagement.
DP: Since 2004, how have you seen the programs connecting horses with Autistic children grow and change?
JR: With the advent of The Horse Boy Foundation, our framework for therapy was established. The Horse Boy framework channels rhythmic movement that allows people on the spectrum to relax, open up and express themselves and learn. Generally, we are seeing more parents seeking our services and government institutions are seeking our services to help children with a variety of issues.
DP: How many Thoroughbred partners do you have currently care for and from where do you get them?
JR: All of our Thoroughbreds come through CARMA (California Retirement Management Account). Lucinda Lovitt, the executive director, has first-hand experience in knowing which horses will work for our program.
DP: What is life like at the Square Peg facilities now, during the pandemic?
JR: The horses are getting a break from services which is good for them. When they are at work carrying their riders, who are often very active and sitting off-balance and sometimes very loud and emotional, it is intense. So, they need the break. Also, our staff is young because the work we do is very physical. So, we are also taking this time to increase their understanding and connection with the horses. Third, we are advancing the training of the horses during this time and really honing their classic dressage skills. Dressage really builds a horse's balance and strength. And, we are trail riding because that is their other job–to be good trail horses for the clients.
DP: When you look at your success today and your road in life to get here, what do you say to yourself?
JR: I am in awe of the horses and the people who have seen the value of what we do and helped us get to where we are today. Together, they got us here. It took me, a single mother at 16 with a son who couldn't fit in and a connection to unwanted horses to create this unlikely situation of having two wonderful facilities and an amazing team of people and horses doing some of the most important work on earth. 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 or retired race horses–where they could find safety. My thought was that these kids would care for the horses and both would find peace. I was right.
DP: You have been in the Thoroughbred industry since the very early days of awareness of the plight of the Thoroughbred after racing. How has the evolution in that realm of the sport helped your work and how has being accredited by the TAA helped Square Peg?
JR: Honestly, if you told me in 2004 that our most consistent and reliable source of donations was going to be coming from the racing industry, I simply wouldn't have believed you. There were always people in racing that cared about aftercare, but I didn't get the feeling that the sport as a whole would pull together to do something about it. And, that's exactly what happened. It is real leadership. It's been amazing to see the industry get involved in aftercare and to watch it get so sophisticated and smart in just a few years. The accreditation process is difficult and smart and Square Peg is a better organization as a result of the process. We've looked at accreditation from other sources like SPCA and HSUS and GFAS and none of them were designed not only to take better care of the horses, but to build stronger organizations but to create a donation source and a trusted accreditation that would qualify us for grants from other organizations.
DP: Do you have any special fundraising needs at this time?
JR: Mostly, it's funds to help see us through the Shelter in Place due to COVID- 19. Roughly 20% of our income is from fee for services for our sessions with families and we have not been able to serve families for a month now and it would seem that it will be another month until we can. That leaves us with roughly a $40,000 shortfall from our budget.
For more information on Square Peg Foundation, go to https://www.squarepegfoundation.org/.
To learn more about The Horse Boy Method, go to: https://ntls.co/community/iliane/videos/video/20-horse-boy-method-introduction.
Diana Pikulski is a partner at Yepsen & Pikulski, Public Policy Specialists and the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.