“We are not a petting zoo,” says Suzanne Vullers, owner of Mountain Horse Farm in Naples, N.Y., when asked about cow cuddling, a therapeutic practice she offers at the 33-acre bed-and-breakfast that she co-owns with her husband, Rudi.
Similar to equine therapy, cow cuddling invites folks to brush, pet, and chat with the animals as a way to connect with nature, the bovines, and the inner self.
“It’s not about dominance, it’s not about making them do what you want them to do, but it’s about having a friendship with them, to be invited in,” explains Vullers, pointing out that the cows are not trained in any sort of way.
The couple first heard of “cow hugging” when visiting their home country, the Netherlands, in 2017. Upon their return to the United States, they settled on trying out the practice at the farm. They purchased Bonnie, now 2 years old, and Bella, now 3, in May 2018. Both are crossbreeds of Angus cattle and Scottish Highland cows.
“They can live to be 20 years old,” Vullers says, explaining that the cows’ life spans and general well-being are directly connected to the conditions in which they live.
Those conditions include a specific diet (grass in the summer and hay in the winter, in addition to alfalfa pellets as treats on special occasions) and the freedom to walk around the property. “We never close them at night,” Vullers says. “We do have a barn where they can go in and out as they please, [but] it’s totally their choice.”
Similarities between equine therapy—a more widespread practice that is also offered at this particular bed-and-breakfast—and cow cuddling are obvious. “Both animals are large [so] they command your presence. They command you to be right there; you cannot be distracted,” Vullers says. “Your mind won’t let you be distracted, and that is basically the definition of mindfulness: being right in the moment, not being distracted by your thoughts or anything else that is going on.”
There is, however, one key difference between cows and horses that defines the technical aspects of each type of therapy: Cows like to lie down, which they do for long periods of time while digesting their meals. “During that time, they get really quiet, and that’s a very wonderful time to sit with them,” Vullers explains. Horses, on the other hand, tend to relax when their owner is around, not feeling comfortable enough to do so while strangers are present.
That natural rhythm and character is what the farm owners rely on when setting up the various cuddling experiences, during which both Vullers and a second handler are present. “We’ll go into the field and slowly make our way to wherever the cows are,” Vullers says. “And I will go in first and explain and show to the people what the best way to approach [the animals] is, where to touch, and how to go from there.”
Following a general getting-to-know-each-other period, guests get to brush the cows and enjoy some private time with them, during which most people tend to pet, brush, talk to, or lean against the animals. “Some sing to them,” notes the owner.
According to Vullers, who is an equine therapist, familiarizing the bovines with their environment is just as important as treating them well. “We had Bella and Bonnie interact with people a few weeks after they came here [so they could] pick up on that change [in environment],” she explains, contrasting the experience with that of animals raised in farms to be milked or slaughtered. At Mountain Horse Farm, the bovines are never milked and will never be used as a source of meat.
The mission to provide above-standard quality of life is also the reason Vullers can’t imagine cow cuddling becoming a stand-alone business. “We only do one or two sessions a day and only on three or four days a week,” she says. “Because we don’t want to overwhelm the animals, and we want it to be something that they look forward to as well.” In addition to animal-related experiences, guests can also sign up for massages and revel in the overall wellness-retreat-like vibe that resonates across the destination.
As for who is interested in trying out cow cuddling specifically, Vullers mentions a rather diverse roster of customers. “Age-wise, it goes from early twenties to 80 years old,” she says. Although what fuels their enthusiasm differs. All those who sign up for sessions end up basking in the glory of a face-to-face meeting with such large animals. “A lot of people don’t have much of a connection with the natural world in their day-to-day lives,” says Vullers. “They live in cities, jump in their cars in the morning, drive to work, and barely know what the weather is like outside. So being able to get away once in a while and really get back to nature—they need that.”
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