Helping Horses and People: Square Peg Foundation Supports Autism with Professional Training Program

Imagine a community where those who don’t fit the mold of society find solace; one where people and horses that are undervalued come into their own and thrive. This place can be summed up in three words: Square Peg Foundation.

Founded in 2004 in the San Francisco Bay Area by the wife and husband team of Joell and Christopher Dunlap, the tracking organization was started with a very specific goal in mind.

“We called it Square Peg because we saw there was a great need for horses that weren’t going to fit into a traditional riding program and horses that needed to be pastured pets. , as well as people who were not going to fit into a traditional riding program. riding program and were also not going to fit into a therapeutic riding program,” said Joell Dunlap.

Joell, who has extensive experience working on the track in both riding and managerial positions, acknowledged the gap left behind when horses finished their careers or just couldn’t cut it as a racehorse, and she knew she wanted to do something about it.

What started as a kind of side hustle while still working the track—recycling Thoroughbreds for a second career—turned into a calling Dunlap couldn’t ignore. She says the founding of the organization coincided with the discovery of the autism community in Northern California.

“I just felt like we owed something to those horses who we asked for everything and gave everything to us,” Dunlap said. “I think it was a really natural marriage to think about people who society didn’t think were valuable either. Or people who didn’t fit in…who were strangers to them as well. say.

“It’s really become what defines if you can show people that all life has value and you can invite people to help and care for these animals and show that they have value, then you help people who doubted their own worth to see themselves differently.

Since its beginnings 19 years ago, Square Peg now owns two different locations, including farms in Half Moon Bay and Sonoma. Between the two installations, they have 25 horses including 17 thoroughbreds. The organization employs six full-time workers, six part-time workers and has eight interns in a vocational training program for adults with autism.

“Autism is a lifelong challenge, and some people have higher support needs and they will have those support needs throughout their lives. It doesn’t go away,” Dunlap said. autism, everyone wants to work with children, children are cute and fun and it’s really rewarding, but someone is going to be an autistic adult much longer than they are going to be an autistic child.

Dunlap says that over the years she has noticed the diminishing opportunities for adults with autism as they age without support services. Observing these difficulties inspired her to create her own program at Square Peg.

“Right now we have eight people with autism on payroll,” Dunlap said. “Some of them have quite significant support needs… They help us take care of the animals and they provide physical exercise and social opportunities to work with other people. And they supervise our volunteers.

“If someone comes along and wants to volunteer at Square Peg, your supervisor may be someone you would never have known otherwise, because they’re an autistic person. That’s something unexpected, I never set out to be in the vocational training field, but it’s really profound to see (the changes in) people’s lives and people’s ideas and what they are capable of.

In addition to supporting adults with autism through the Skills Training Program, Square Peg manages to serve approximately 75 families per week and provide support to local eating disorder treatment programs and mental health services for adults. people with severe trauma.

Most Square Peg horses come from the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA), an organization that “provides funds for the rehabilitation, retraining, and/or retirement of California thoroughbred racing horses.”

“We work almost exclusively with California’s CARMA program,” Dunlap said. “We have an excellent relationship of trust, in particular with their general manager, Lucinda Lovitt. She knows what we want, what our capabilities are, what our facilities are.

Dunlap says they rarely adopt their horses and more often than not, it’s the organization’s own volunteers who end up bringing the horses home.

“I think we sent three horses to college after COVID. We had these amazing young women doing their first and second year of college here at home, and working or volunteering at Square Peg, and fell deeply in love with one of the horses in the program and ended up taking the horse in college,” says Dunlap. “Unless we pull one out or the perfect home comes along, we really only bring in three or four horses a year.”

With only 25 horses and a set number of people the organization is able to support, there is still a lot to be desired for many other members of the community who are currently stuck on a long waiting list. The issue of expansion comes down to the expense of keeping horses in California with a bloated economy.

“Our budget this year just passed the $1 million mark, which was significant. Keeping horses in the San Francisco Bay Area is ridiculous, but 140 families on a waiting list just tell you what you need to know. We have twice as many people on the waiting list as we have spaces,” Dunlap said.

Although Square Peg has several sources of funding, including CARMA, Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA), and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), they also seek funds from the community.

“Having the TAA accreditation is huge. Not only is there funding there, but it shows legitimacy with other funding bodies,” Dunlap said. “KARMA and TCA have been consistent funders. We probably have about three or four horse-based charitable grants that we apply for every year that we do quite well with.

“A lot of fundraising is done around the table having coffee with someone saying, ‘That’s what we do, and we promise to make you really proud of your contribution and your help. It’s really about how to look someone in the eye and say, ‘Can I have some money?’ »

Some goals for the future include securing sufficient funding to provide Square Peg employees with a salary, which would allow them to work for the organization full-time as a career rather than a step on the way. from college or a “real job”. Dunlap says she would also like to secure additional trail access to allow for more interactive riding.

However, the most important goal of all is that the needs of the community continue to be met year after year, and that Square Peg remains firmly at the center of that success.

“Horses are social animals; humans are social animals,” Dunlap said. “I have a very strong belief that one of the most toxic and deadly diseases on the planet is 100% treatable by anyone and that is loneliness. Loneliness is deadly. us has the ability to process loneliness for and with someone else.

“It’s the same with horses. When we can meet their social needs, it’s so much easier to work with them because you don’t see all of these problematic behaviors and meltdowns. Thoroughbreds are an interesting allegory for autism. — By Corrie McCrosky

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