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For your next therapy session, head to the barnyard instead of an office

People have found that the simple act of hugging a cow can have profound effects on their mood. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — The afternoon sun is hot in Ojai, California, and as I situate myself on the ground of the arena, I can feel thousands of grains of sand clinging to my bare skin, the sweat on my back acting as an all-too-effective adhesive.

On the other side of the arena’s gate, a woman is asking me a series of intimate questions about my closest relationships, my deepest fears, and my wildest aspirations, despite the fact that we’ve only just met about an hour or so earlier. And as I’m trying to dig into the trenches of my soul to respond to the woman’s thoughtful prompts with the authenticity that her own sincerity inspires, I can’t help but find my attention continually wandering to the loud snorts coming from far above my supine position on the ground and the hooves alongside my head that could, at any moment, inadvertently crush every bone in my body.

The horse standing over me is named Red, and today, he is my therapist.

Asking someone to lie down beneath the massive body of a fully grown horse is a tall order, but there’s something about Andrea Gaines, founder of Horse, Heart, and Connection, that makes you want to trust her without hesitation. Maybe it’s her own confidence around her two horses and the tolerant but firm manner in which she interacts with them, or perhaps it's her focused gaze and her perceptive nature that allows you to feel seen and heard from the very moment that you start speaking with her. Either way, I'm unabashed in revealing to Gaines my closely guarded secrets and insecurities, and when she tells me that I should try looking at Red from a new perspective — specifically, from the ground — I'm happy to oblige.

Of course, it is not only Gaines who has persuaded me to assume such a vulnerable position. Some credit must also be given to Red. Without the tenderness that Red has shown me thus far, not even Gaines’ comforting assurances would have been enough. And without Red’s presence in the arena, it’s doubtful that I would be feeling compelled to share quite so freely.

That’s the general idea behind equine-facilitated learning, the approach to personal development that Gaines offers at Smarty Pants Ranch. Ask someone to talk about their feelings in any old office, and there’s a good chance that their mind will go as blank as the four walls enclosing them. But add a horse into the mix, and there should be no shortage of topics to discuss. A horse responding to your cues as you lead him along a path can become a lesson in patience; a horse lying down, an invitation to chat about vulnerability.

A lifelong appreciation for horses and a winding career path that included personal training and life coaching ultimately led Gaines to equine-facilitated learning.

"I've always been into wellness and spiritual wellness, and when I got horses, I realized that's the whole world they live in, you know?" she said. "They're just ultimately present in the now. They're great teachers on how to just be in the moment."

For any prey animal, a heightened awareness of present circumstances isn’t some lofty goal to be sought after in therapy sessions or through meditation. It’s a product of evolution, an innate ability that’s absolutely crucial for continued survival. A horse like Red must be keenly perceptive of his surroundings to detect potential predators. He needs to be prepared to flee at any moment in response to recognized threats. And he cannot afford to be oblivious to his senses, as properly identifying a myriad of sights, sounds, and smells could quite literally be a matter of life and death.

Gaines also found that the calmness of a horse had the unique ability to permeate the air, fostering an increased state of relaxation for all involved in the interaction and establishing an environment conducive to openness and vulnerability.

And within that setting, she discovered for herself what several studies in the past decade have concluded — that horses, as social creatures, have the capability to read human emotions and will often respond accordingly. It's a talent born out of a strong instinct for self-preservation and the need to form bonds with others in the herd, but in the context of equine-facilitated learning, it allows the horse's behavior to serve as a reflection of whatever the individual expresses. Through the horse's honest reactions, a person may then be better able to unearth that which they have buried deep within.

Today, the healing power of animals is broadly acknowledged and utilized, but accounts of animal-assisted therapy prior to its modern-day formalization are scattered.

It's said that the ancient Greeks were the first to recognize that horses, having primarily been used for utilitarian purposes or paraded as status symbols up until that point, could also provide a host of therapeutic benefits to their riders. In the ninth century, animals were incorporated into the treatment plans for people with disabilities in Belgium. Quaker philanthropist William Tuke opened the York Retreat in 1796, where patients were encouraged to interact with chickens, rabbits, and other farm animals to cultivate better self-control. A German treatment center for people with epilepsy employed similar techniques in the late 1800s. Stateside, the Army Air Force Convalescent Hospital in New York used dogs, horses, and other farm animals to aid in the rehabilitation of airmen. Florence Nightingale recommended that those suffering from an illness would benefit from the companionship of a small pet.

And if you were one of Sigmund Freud's patients during the later years of his life, there's a decent chance that a third party would have attended your sessions — a chow chow by the name of Jofi. Jofi was intended to be more than just a calming presence for the patients, though Freud certainly believed that she had merits in that regard as well. Far fluffier than the founder of psychoanalysis, Jofi was no less perceptive, at least in Freud's opinion, such that she was able to provide a clear assessment of a patient's current emotional state.

A few decades later, child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson advocated for the systematic usage of dogs in therapy during the 1961 American Psychological Association Conference in New York City.

Levinson's interest in the little-explored method was sparked by an unintended encounter between his own dog, Jingles, and a young patient whose family had arrived at Levinson's office an hour in advance of their scheduled appointment time. As Levinson greeted the family, Jingles ran over to the boy and began licking him. To Levinson's surprise, the child responded well to Jingles' affections. Levinson began to include Jingles in subsequent sessions with that child, as well as in those with a select group of other patients. He watched as Jingles provided the children with acceptance and in return became a safe object for the children to love.

"The dog serves as a catalytic agent, helping the child to regress, accept himself and progress tentatively, and then more surely, on the road to self-discovery and self-healing," wrote Levinson in a 1962 paper.

But when Levinson presented his findings to his colleagues, he was met with ridicule. Much of the negative response stemmed from a resistance to new techniques and a discomfort with the methods Levinson himself had once feared were much too unorthodox.

Still, Levinson remained persistent in his approach, and the concept that he characterized as "pet-oriented psychotherapy" gained greater traction as the years passed. By the 1970s, there were several more instances of success. A therapy dog named Skeezer became an integral part of treatment at the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Samuel Corson, along with his wife Elizabeth, published a paper in 1977 detailing the optimistic results of a study in which 50 psychiatric patients, all of whom had seen little improvement through traditional therapy methods, were introduced to pets. That same year, the Delta Society, briefly called the Delta Foundation at its inception, was formed to ensure continuing research on the human-animal bond.

To date, a wide variety of species have been used in treatments for numerous populations and a plethora of conditions. Dogs may be the most popular, but there’s plenty of room for other animals, too.

Cows, as of now, are not a particularly common option. Much of the current research involving cows in animal-assisted interventions focuses on care farming, a therapeutic strategy that uses agricultural activities to promote the well-being of people living with mental health challenges or physical disabilities. But as I lay my head against the massive body of a cow and surrender to the slow-paced rhythm of his heart, it's easy to understand why cow hug therapy has been heralded as the latest wellness trend multiple times in the past year, especially in consideration of the overwhelming loneliness that has accompanied the pandemic for many.

There are a handful of places around the world where one could go to hug a cow these days, but it all began with The Gentle Barn, an animal sanctuary with locations in California, Tennessee, and Missouri that has been encouraging this practice for over two decades.

Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn Foundation, discovered the profound benefits of hugging a cow by chance. Just as Levinson had Jingles, Laks had Buddha. Buddha was the first cow that Laks ever rescued, a miniature cow from Washington that Laks brought to her half-acre backyard over 20 years ago to save from slaughter. It was the early days of The Gentle Barn, and in dealing with the challenges of opening and operating an animal sanctuary for the very first time, Laks often rested her head on Buddha's shoulder at the end of a long day.

"When I would do that, she would wrap her neck around me and hug me. Instantly, the day would melt away. Everything that I was feeling would disappear, and I would feel whole and happy again," said Laks. "So when we opened The Gentle Barn's doors, I knew that every single person that visited needed a hug like that."

Receiving comfort through physical touch is an age-old concept, but Laks believes that nothing quite compares to a hug from a cow. She attributes some of that magic to the difference in size between humans and cows. When interacting with a smaller animal, Laks explained, you're still the one who is doing the holding. But when a cow's head is resting on your lap, you're able to fully surrender into the bulk of the animal's body, and it's through that level of complete physical support that a greater sense of emotional support can be achieved. The dynamic is reminiscent of that of a parent and a newborn child, enabling the person receiving the hug to feel nurtured in a way that they may not have experienced beyond infancy.

It’s because of their large stature, though, that cows, typically regarded as docile creatures from afar, actually run the risk of appearing intimidating when you first approach them. But their calm demeanor and mild temperament will almost immediately help to lessen any apprehension, while their warm body temperature and slow heart rate are thought to further put your mind at ease.