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A place of healing for animals

The Gentle Barn uses traditional and alternative medicine to heal

Posted: August 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Michael Stiles, Gentle Barn Healing Center manger, says goodbye to Hiroka as he leaves her at The Gentle Barn's main facility.

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The headlines were horrific. A backyard butcher in Canyon Country was arrested in April for felony animal cruelty and 58 animals, some injured and malnourished, were seized by Los Angeles County Animal Control.

More than 20 goats and sheep, five cows and a seriously injured and emaciated horse were confiscated and brought to The Gentle Barn for rehabilitation.


The horse seized in the April raid has been named Hiroka and the deep, life-threatening wound on her leg has responded well to the treatment she received at The Gentle Barn’s Healing Center.

“Hiroka is Japanese for beautiful lady,” said Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn.

“We call her Hero for short because she really is our hero,” Laks said.

Michael Stiles is the manager of The Gentle Barn healing center and has cared for Hero since she arrived.

Horse and human have also formed a unique bond.

“She is just about as special as an animal can get,” Stiles said. “I couldn’t ask for a better companion, she lives in a stall right outside my window.”

Stiles said he worked with the horse to put on weight and to heal her injuries.

He has kept a close eye on her during her recovery, he said. “I play guitar for her all the time,” he said.

Stiles said he estimates that Hero is somewhere between 15 and 20 years old.

“You couldn’t ask for a better patient,” she said. “She is very wise and very smart.”

Stiles said Hero, who is allowed to roam freely at the facility, could open any gate at the healing center.

“She’s opened gates to let the goats out,” he said. “She’s not a big fan of gates.”

Stiles suggested a clue on why Hero has been able to survive her abusive experience and her dangerous injury.

“She’s a fighter all the way,” he said.

Medicine and more

Hero, a red roan, was recently relocated to The Gentle Barn’s main facility and visitor center so she could enjoy the company of other horses and receive additional treatment for a swollen knee.

Treatments include receiving ultrasound and chiropractic sessions, as well as deep tissue massage and alternative energy healing work.

“We rely on the care of a veterinarian to heal our animals and also chiropractors and massage therapists,” said Laks. “But when all of that hasn’t given us the results we want we will use animal communication and animal energetic healing to help us.”

Gwen Bernardo of Woodland Hills brings her skills as a certified equine body worker weekly to The Gentle Barn.

“Of the horses here, Cinnamon, who is 30-40 years old, has benefited the most from the acupuncture, chiropractic and body work,” said Bernardo. “I work closely with the vet so we can all be on the same page.”

Amanda Riester

Amanda Riester, of Palmdale, is a professional animal communicator and certified pet grief therapist. She also performs Reiki and Quantum healing.

“She is amazing,” said Laks. “She is very effective and has helped us so much with the animals we haven’t been able to heal in other ways.”

Riester, who has worked in the field professional for five years, said she began speaking to animals as a child.

An encounter with a pit bull in her native Chicago at age 7 exposed her skills to her parents.

“There was a pit bull who lived across the street and she got out and bit some kids,” said Riester. “One day she got out and was headed toward me and I told her she was beautiful and she shouldn’t bite me.”

Riester would visit the dog every day who told her that she didn’t know she wasn’t suppose to bite.

When Riester’s father found her talking to the dog, and she explained that the dog was talking to her, he forbid her from seeing the dog again, or to talk to any other animals.

Riester, 31, suppressed her natural talents at the insistence of her parents who she feels were concerned that other children might taunt her.

“Five years ago my dog passed away and I was having a very hard time,” she said. “My husband got me a book on animal communication and I realized that was what I had been doing all these years. It made me see there was a place for me in the world.”

Many of Riester’s clients have pets who have behavior issues — aggression or excessive chewing or barking.

“I ask the animal why they are doing it and then I tell the person. I try to work with both to find a resolution, a compromise, something in the middle,” she said.

Riester also teaches animal communication classes.

“Everyone is born with the skill, I am nothing special,” she said. “When I give people the tools to use the skills they already have, it is life altering.”

Riester said she often feels her job is more “inter-species mediator” than simply a “communicator.”

Sir Lancelot

During Riester’s recent visit to the Gentle Barn she communicated with Sir Lancelot, a handsome brown thoroughbred, receiving treatment for what Gentle Barn staff believed was a leg injury.

Riester quickly learned from Sir Lancelot that the pain was located in his heel, not his leg.

“This is the perfect example of why we need Amanda,” said Laks. “We were addressing the legs, the shoulders, the back, but we weren’t making any headway and we couldn’t figure it out. Now we find out it was the heel and none of us detected that.”

Laks said it is a problem that most likely can be fixed through the use of special horseshoes.

After working with Sir Lancelot, Riester also communicated with Hero.

“She said she didn’t realize that Mike wasn’t going to move here (to the main facility) with her. She’s very sad,” said Riester.

When Laks learned of Hero’s wish to stay with Stiles she arranged for the horse to be moved back to the healing center the same day.

Pet grief

In addition to her work with animals Riester is a pet loss grief counselor. She works with people to work through the grief of losing a pet.

“For many people animals are so much more than pets,” she said. “They are their children, their companions, their soulmates, their best friends and many people have trouble getting past the grief.”

Riester said she works to help people validate their grief.

“Many people try to be helpful and say things that don’t help, like, ‘You can always get another dog,’” she said. “Counseling helps a lot of people to understand that their grief is valid, it is okay. Everyone grieves in their own time, there is no rush.”

The Gentle Barn

The Gentle Barn, founded in 1999 by Laks, moved from the San Fernando Valley to a six-acre property in Canyon Country in 2003.

The facility houses more than nearly 160 farm and domesticated animals that have been rescued from abuse and neglect.

The menagerie includes horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, llamas, dogs, and cats.

The animals are cared for by Gentle Barn staff and volunteers and have been nursed and rehabilitated with quality nutrition and traditional and non-traditional medicine.

Visit The Gentle Barn

The Gentle Barn is open to the public Sundays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Visitors to The Gentle Barn can groom the horses, brush the cows, give the pigs tummy rubs, hug the goats and sheep, sit under the shade trees, munch on popcorn, and make new friends, said Laks.

Visitors are requested not to bring in meat, poultry, fish or dairy foods onto the property out of respect for the animals.  

On Sundays, The Gentle Barn regularly offers vegan pizza, vegan hot dogs and vegan cupcakes for sale from the snack shop.  

A $10 donation per person is requested. One Sunday a month a special Sunday event is scheduled that includes special treats, music and crafts activities.  Check voice mail in adverse weather at 661-252-2440.

For $50, regular visitors can purchase a season pass. Pass holders can skip all the lines with no waiting to get in the front door and no waiting to get into the upper barnyard.   

A private tour can also be arranged with Laks who will share stories about the animals that call The Gentle Barn home.

Private tours are available for a $400 donation.

The Gentle Barn is also available for birthday parties and school field trips.

More information is available at

Call 661-252-2440 or email to book your Gentle Barn event. The Gentle Barn is located at 15825 Sierra Highway
, just north of Vasquez Canyon Road, in Canyon Country.

To contact professional animal communicator and pet loss grief counselor Amanda Riester email or call 773-790-7000.


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