Where Work is Play

Chil­dren with autism and sec­ond-chance horses make magic to­gether at the Square Peg Foun­da­tion in Cal­i­for­nia.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Kelly Sanchez

Chil­dren with autism and sec­ond­chance horses make magic to­gether at the Square Peg Foun­da­tion.

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-ofthe-way ranch set in the hills with barns and am­ple pas­tures for the pro­gram’s 20odd 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 in-

ter­ests. 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 ver- sion 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.’”

Un­der­stand­ing Autism

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 hy­per­ver­bal—while oth­ers en­gage in repet­i­tive self-stim­u­la­tory move­ments like hand­flap­ping, 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-yearold 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, mount- ed 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.”

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Lo­cated in Half Moon Bay, Cal­i­for­nia, some 30 miles south of San Fran­cisco, Square Peg serves about S0 fam­i­lies each week at its tran­quil fa­cil­ity.

Lisa Va­le­rio dis­cov­ered Square Peg when her son, Nathan (pic­tured), was S. He is now 1R and has been com­ing to the fa­cil­ity sev­eral times a week ever since.

Square Peg wel­comes in­ter­na­tional dres­sage train­ers, such as Chris­tian $achiNIGR PicěuRGd &OMiNiQuG $aRbiGR aNd 5OĂa 8aĚGNka ěO iěS faciĚiěX

Each of the horses at Square Peg’s fa­cil­ity bring their own unique gifts to the pro­gram.

Shaelin per­forms a “butt hug,” which low­ers blood pres­sure and helps with self-reg­u­la­tion.

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