Back at the ranch, there I was in a dusty ring, looking a cow named Madonna in the eyes, trying to push every farmer’s daughter joke I’d ever heard out of my mind, when I just decided to let all my internal eye-roll emojis go, and I leaned in for a hug. Madonna smelled like the hot California dust and hay, and she felt strong. I stroked her shoulder while I closed my eyes and leaned hard into her neck; she shifted her weight and seemed to absorb my anxious energy into her stolid heft. I could hear her heart beat, and that dull thump was so soothing. I heard it in all the cows who I would nuzzle over the next hour, that I would walk over to and hug, like I was at a cow cocktail party. At one point later, as I lay atop the shoulder of the herd matriarch, Holy Cow, listening to that internal thud, I thought inexplicably of the roar of the ocean, and the life force in all of us, and basically a lot of major shit that I don’t get to explore during a lunch hour on an average Tuesday stuck on the 405.
Ellie told me how in the decades she’s been doing this, she’s hosted all ages, ethnicities and genders. “We have served those in foster agencies, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, recovering from illnesses or surgeries, at the end stages of their lives and many who are suffering the loss of a loved one,” she told me. “We have also been refuge for those dealing with depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicidal ideation.” At one point, I awoke from what felt like an oxytocin-induced reverie with one cow, and I looked over and saw Ellie resting alongside another of the herd, her eyes closed. She was smiling.
I thought of my teen son, who had made great therapeutic strides during his ranch stay, after a troubled time following the death of his father. “I don’t know about cows, but when I’m with the horses, they take me outside of myself in a healthy way,” he told me later. I definitely felt that with the cows at Gentle Barn. Spending time with them felt calming in a way that was more sustaining than my beloved exercise-induced endorphin highs, sugar-enabled laughter or Netflix-supported escapism. As I drove away from Gentle Barn, I had the sense of not wanting to wash my hands, which felt in some way holy with their layer of oily cow-coat dirt. Sure, you can look at cow hugging as the new goat yoga and leave it at that. Or you can try it out and feel your bones reverberating in the afterglow of a giant, gentle heartbeat.