If Joelle Dunlap ever tells you she was a typical, horse-obsessed little girl, don't believe her.
There was nothing "typical" about Dunlap's obsession.
"I was the kids that if you had a horse in your backyard if you looked out at the right time of day I was sitting on it," Dunlap said. "People called police. It was a problem."
Asked if that were a joke, Dunlap replied, "No, it's the truth. Ask my mother."
Dunlap eventually learned to get permission to be around horses and hasn't left their side ever since. She competed in jumping competitions, played polo, and spent years working at racetracks exercising the Thoroughbreds. The racetrack work, though, proved too tough on her body and too difficult a schedule for a single mother so a friend convinced her to open her own riding school.
Dunlap says she gained a reputation for being good with children who were normally difficult to work with, and soon parents of children with autism began making their way to her Pacifica stables.
Dunlap believes her background as a teenage mother helped her relate to the families.
"As a teenage mom, I felt really lonely and isolated and judged all the time," Dunlap said, "and I'm meeting these autism parents who are my age now who are feeling exactly the same way. I thought I can take my experience and I can make a difference for these families."
Dunlap soon learned that the combination of children with special needs and horses often created wonderful results. The children gained confidence taking command of a 1,000-plus pound animal. The horses, Dunlap said, seemed to instinctively know the right way to deal with the children.
Dunlap decided to dedicate all her time to working with such families and transformed her riding school into a non-profit called the Square Peg Foundation.
Dunlap now has twenty, retired racehorses she works with helping dozens of children, primarily with autism, and their families. She says the secluded, 100 acre property in Half Moon Bay where Square Peg's stables are is the perfect place for families to be able to relax and have fun.
"We have a couple of kids that have sensory issues with clothes, if the clothes come off who cares. If a child needs to scream we're not at a public boarding facility so that's not gonna upset someone dealing with their horse."
Dunlap stresses that what they do at Square Peg is not therapy, and she is not a therapist.
What they offer is simply freedom for a few minutes, riding high above all of life's special challenges.
"When you have a kid that feels marginalized all the time and told he's bad and told that he can't and you can put him in that position, you know you serve that family," Dunlap said.
Dunlap said the Square Peg success stories are too many to list and special moments are a daily occurrence. Neither, however, is what motivates Dunlap to keep going.
"I've got one word. Dignity. It's really what fuels me. We'll know that Square Peg is successful when it's not special. When it's normal."