By April Charlton

Contributing Writer

For the past two decades, the Santa Barbara Youth Project has been exposing at-risk kids to the healing power of horses at summer day camps, where hundreds of children have saddled up their hurt over the years with hopes of turning sadness into smiles.

And it’s worked, according to organizers and Santa Ynez Valley residents Peter Claydon and his wife, Susan Miller, co-founders of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Youth Project.

“Over the 20-plus years that we have been organizing these horse camps, we have seen profound and lasting changes,” Miller said. “These children typically now see themselves and their place in the world through significantly more hopeful eyes.”

“Most, if not all, of the children we work with have experienced traumatic events in their young lives, often involving physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and/or severe neglect,” she added.

More than 2,000 children every year in Santa Barbara County are identified as needing therapeutic support, and the Youth Project is collaborating with other nonprofit agencies to provide a unique lifeline to those children, Miller said.

For the first time this year, the nonprofit is working with the Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding Program to provide eight weekly therapy sessions for at-risk North County children referred to the camps by CALM (Child Abuse Listening & Mediation). The program, where the kids learn how to ride and care for horses, started June 8.

“We are currently using various scientific measures to assess what specifically is so transformative when we put kids and horses together,” Miller said. “The field of equine-facilitated therapy and learning is relatively new but is now spreading rapidly around the globe.”

The Youth Project’s traditional summer day camps aimed at the county’s at-risk kids — where equines are the highlight — will be held at Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Santa Barbara this year during the first week of August. Kids attend free of charge.

“Both programs have the objective of promoting positive regard for self and others, the thrill of working with and riding horses, the joy of making friends and experiencing the kindness of strangers,” Miller said. “Our motto is ‘Horses help heal the hurt.’”

The Santa Barbara Youth Project is also hoping to extend its collaborative efforts this year by partnering with programs supported by People Helping People, Miller said.

The day camp is funded through an annual benefit concert that was held at Standing Sun Wines in Buellton. The nonprofit was hoping to raise about $3,500 from the event to support about 10 kids attending a full week of horse camp in August. The average cost to send a child to the one-week horse camp is about $350, Miller said.

“All monies collected (from the event) go to providing direct services,” she said, adding that some people who couldn’t attend the fundraiser concert made donations instead.

The Youth Project is supported entirely by donations from the general public and private foundations.

For more information about the Santa Barbara Youth Project or to make a donation to the organization, visit or call 805-965-1332.