When Cassandra Hilberman came to the Pony Express program three years ago, she was excited about working with horses for the first time in her life.

The nonprofit group focuses on mentoring kids in a safe and healing environment through the use of horses as teachers — primarily working with at-risk youth ages 12 to 18, including many of those exiting the foster care system.

In Sonoma County, The Pony Express is better known in the community for offering horse rides at Howarth Park.

Yet on Sunday, Hilberman, 15, noted the program has given her more than just a chance to ride and take care of horses. It also boosted her self-confidence and put her on path where she wants to attend UC Davis to study veterinary medicine.

“This gave me so many opportunities,” said Hilberman, a student at Cardinal Newman High School.

Spurred on by stories such as Hilberman’s, about 150 people turned out Sunday for the 12th annual Pony Express horse show and fundraiser at its ranch west of Oakmont.

Last year’s event was canceled in the aftermath of the North Bay wildfires, so founder Linda Aldrich was especially eager to see visitors come through the gates Sunday.

The event was expected to bring in an estimated $25,000 for the program, which has 12 rescue horses that teen volunteers care after.

“Our fundraiser is a huge chunk. We are a nonprofit,” Aldrich said of her group that has about a $150,000 annual operating budget. “(The fires) hurt us. It was scary going forward.”

Aldrich launched the program in the early 1980s, providing numerous children an opportunity to work with horses that they otherwise would not have had.

Hilberman said the program built up her communication skills. She had to interact with the public at Howarth Park, forcing her out of her comfort zone. She became more comfortable speaking with others, whether answering questions from a documentary film crew or reassuring a young child trying to sit on a saddle.

“I would never go up to people and talk with them. I would never socialize with them. … Four years ago, I wouldn’t even dare to talk to someone,” Hilberman said of her initial fears.

Mariah Blevins, 20, said the nonprofit helped her while she was a teen at Maria Carrillo High School.

“I kind of grew up in a chaotic household. I had a lot of siblings. It kind of just provided a sanctuary for me to come after school. … I met a lot of great friends here,” said Blevins, who’s now a student at Santa Rosa Junior College and works part time at a dog kennel.

She said the horses provided her with “a kind of therapy” that she wasn’t able to get elsewhere.

“Horses listen to you in a way that people don’t,” said Blevins, who also plays on SRJC’s soccer team. “They really feed off of your energy. You feed off of theirs.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.