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More About Animals on a Mission | Spring 2013 Out Here Magazine

Farm animals provide pet therapy

Young Shaun Rawlings is among the fortunate ones who realize how animals can transform lives for the better.

By David Frey

Photography by Sean Simmers

Janel Ashburn knows very well how animals can transform lives. She sees it all the time on her farm in Selinsgrove, Pa., where she runs Animals on a Mission, which provides therapy farm animals for the physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged.

"I always had a love for farm animals," Janel says. "Farm animals have brought me so much joy."

Now she shares the joy that she found with farm animals with others in need of a little love. The differences she sees come about in people are nothing short of incredible, she says.

Many who come to the farm are kids with chronic health problems and disabilities who spend most of their time indoors.

At her farm, they relish getting outdoors and doing outside stuff. "They can ride a horse. They can pet a goat. They can pet a baby pig," she says.

The experience brings kids out of their shells, Janel says, and gives people who are used to being cared for the opportunity to care for another creature.

"What is it like for somebody who is a patient to now be in a position where they can care for others, where their capacity for nurturing is relevant?" asks Philip Tedeschi, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Human Animal Connection at the University of Denver. "Maybe another way to think about it is friendship."

"This is starting to become one of the most major applications of alternative medicine, and it's happening all over the world," says Tedeschi, who has studied therapy animals for years.

Some of the biggest impacts Janel has seen are among adults with developmental disabilities who come to the farm.

"Seeing the excitement on their faces is amazing," she says. "They would come out and they would 'adopt' a pony. It wasn't a pony they could take home, but it was a pony they could work with."

The clients fed the ponies, gave them water, cleaned their stalls, and groomed them, and as they did, their personalities began to change, she says. Clients who never talked began to open up. Clients who didn't like to participate began to join in.

"This is starting to become one of the most major applications of alternative medicine, and it's happening all over the world," says Tedeschi, who has studied therapy animals for years.

But sometimes, Janel says, it's not about transforming lives. Sometimes the results are much more concrete.

One woman in her mid-60s started coming to the farm after she suffered a heart attack. She became the caregiver of a pony at the farm, and they became close companions. But after a second health scare, she was unable to visit the farm for several weeks. When she came back, she was under doctor's orders to get exercise by walking, something her pony companion gave her the motivation to do.

Her horses have even helped clients from a local literacy program. Many young people come to the program saying they hate reading, Janel says. That all changes when they bring their books to the farm, sit down in a stall, and read to a horse.

"The animals have provided a comfortable motivating environment that has encouraged a number of young readers to embrace and find the joy in reading," she says.

She counts herself among her farm's success stories. She started Animals on a Mission after discovering how good she felt coming back to the farm from her former job as an intensive care nurse. She left behind the intensive care unit, but she says she still gets plenty of joy from the horse, sheep, macaws, and fainting goats who are her colleagues.

"Even on my worst days," she says, "I can still find things to laugh about at the farm."

David Frey writes in Gaithersburg, Md.


If you want to know more about Animals on a Mission, call Janel Ashburn at 570-495-3142, or visit her website at