At a ranch tucked in a valley north of Soquel, horses rescued from their troubled pasts have the chance to make a difference in the lives of children. “I’ll probably be riding for a long time,” said Daniel Fitch, who takes lessons through the ranch’s riding school. In 2007, the 8-year-old from Aptos also came to summer camp and enjoyed the group atmosphere. “People help each other here,” Daniel said.

Cooperation at such a young age is just one of the values co-founder Sharon North-Pohl believes riding can foster.

“All kids have the tremendous opportunity to gain life skills being around the horses,” North-Pohl said.

The ranch is home to 22 horses, ranging from miniatures children can look in the eye to retired racehorses that stand more than 6 feet tall.

But stabling that many animals is not cheap, North-Pohl said. As gas prices have jumped, so has the cost of hay. A bale now costs $17 while in 2000 the price was only $3.

So, in its biggest fundraiser of the year, the ranch will hold its annual open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 31. Pony rides, dressage and grand prix performances, face painting and a silent auction are among the activities slated for Saturday’s affair. Admission is $30 per carload, and 300 to 400 families are expected.

But the proceeds will support more than just the horse-rescue program. In the spirit of changing lives, Willow Pond is also a sanctuary for at-risk youth.

Like many of the horses, these children are often victims of abuse and come to the ranch for court-ordered equine-assisted therapy.

In groups of four to six, the children meet once a week with a therapy team consisting of the horse, an equine specialist and a licensed psychotherapist.

“Our mission is to break that chain of child abuse,” North-Pohl said, who fills the role of the equine specialist. She believes that because both the child and the horse share a history of neglect, they forge a more intimate connection.

That connection can translate into real-life lessons, said Jenny SilberButah, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Willow Pond.

“I think of questions and metaphors for what the children are doing with the horses,” SilberButah said.

At the open house, the public can glimpse a behind-the-scenes look at the people and animals responsible for changing children’s lives, North-Pohl said.

“Families will have a chance to connect with what it is we do here,” she added. “We call this a sanctuary where rescued horses mentor children inspiring enduring transformation.”