Hugging horses and cuddling cows

Bella the cow gets a cuddle from a Mountain Horse Farm guest.
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Visitors to this unique B&B discover the therapeutic benefits of connecting with animals.

Mountain Horse Farm (MHF) is an elegant bed and breakfast and animal sanctuary nestled on 33 bucolic acres in Naples. Five well-appointed guest rooms – all with baths and three with fireplaces and personal hot tubs on private outdoor decks – are housed in an attractive carriage house. Gourmet breakfasts are included with your stay, with massage and sauna offered as additional amenities. Deeper into the property are the pastures, a barn for resident rescue horses and cows, and the private residence of MHF owners Suzanne and Rudi Vullers. Also on the property are two enormous outdoor tipis utilized for special programs and retreats.

Opened in 2010, MHF began as a tranquil B&B in a rustic setting, but when the Vullers adopted rescue horses, their guests’ fascination with their pets inspired them to offer Meet the Horses sessions in 2017. The following year, the couple integrated more equine experiences with horse clinics and during wellness retreats. They also adopted two cows and added Cow Cuddling to the mix. Wait, hold your horses! You’ve never cuddled a cow?

Hold your Horses

Suzanne’s uncle and grandfather kept horses. Spending time with them and riding were a big part of her happy childhood memories. When she and Rudi purchased the MHF property, Suzanne wanted horses back in their lives – but not to ride them. “The focus in the horse world is riding,” she says. “The connection is more important to me.”

The Vullers now have six horses of various sizes and breeds, ranging from two miniature horses (Suzy Q and Missy) to an 1,800 pound Belgian Draft named Jaxon. All have distinct personalities, but are gentle natured despite some neglectful and even abusive pasts. 

The 2017 Meet the Horses program welcomed guests to the pasture to interact with the animals. Suzanne or Rudi were always there to make the introductions, supervise, answer questions and offer guidance. Connections made by touching, petting or brushing these magnificent animals are calming and a natural stress buster.

The Cows Come Home

Also in 2017, the Vullers discovered the odd but charming concept of cow cuddling during a visit to the Netherlands, their native country. The following year, they added two cows to their horse herd; Bonnie and Bella were young females rescued from a meat farm. 

Now guests could choose to interact with horses or cows in sessions they renamed The Horse & Cow Experience. “People can sit with the cows. They lay down like dogs,” Suzanne explains. “After the lack of touch during the pandemic, being able to snuggle with a large animal is relaxing.” 

Pandemic aside, cuddling releases a calming hormone called oxytocin. It can also lower blood pressure and cortisol, the stress hormone that controls mood, motivation and fear. A cow’s warmer body temperature, slower heartbeat and mammoth size can make hugging them an especially soothing experience.

Wellness retreats were also added in 2018, with the horses playing a role. The first retreat at MHF was “What’s Next? Designing Your Next Chapter,” designed for women reimagining the next phase in their lives. The retreat was led by South Bristol resident Melissa S. Kelly-McCabe, a certified life and leadership coach, along with Deb Denome, a certified forest therapy guide from South Bristol, Tina Albright-Menna, a licensed counselor in Canandaigua, and Suzanne Vullers. It featured goal-setting, discussion, reflection, nature immersion, creative expression and time spent with the animals. In one group activity, the women were challenged to move a horse through a simple obstacle course of cones and pool noodles, symbolic of using instinctive or creative approaches to reach a goal despite the hurdles that can stand in the way.

During the retreat, the cows were ready for cuddling. Alesia Perry of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was excited to try it. “Cow cuddling is an amazing, therapeutic experience filled with warmth, belonging and peace,” says Perry, who enjoyed brushing their soft coats. “This was an experience about being present and taking it all in.”

A little intimidated by Bella’s size, Gretchen Coleman of Roanoke, Virginia, was headed toward Bonnie – but Bella decided that Coleman was hers. “She rubbed up against me, and if I moved a little she moved with me,” says Coleman. “The experience is hard to describe. She was very gentle, but also insistent.” Coleman hugged Bella, brushed her back and gave her chin rubs. “Bonding with her gave me a level of calm I really didn’t think I could feel around animals that big.”

Horse Sense

Horse clinics, which debuted in 2018, have become signature programs at MHF. The first clinic presenter was horse trainer Sharon Wilsie, who co-wrote the book Horse Speak: The Equine–Human Translation Guide.

“I read Sharon’s first book and thought it would be amazing to have her do a clinic at our farm,” Suzanne explains. The two women connected and began planning their first clinic together. A voracious reader of equine-related books, Suzanne has since collaborated with several clinicians whose work she loves. “It’s amazing to have them interact with our horses and to help participants find a better way to connect with horses,” she explains. 

During clinic weekends, MHF only books rooms for attendees (usually six people). All-inclusive rates cover the clinic, accommodations and all meals. 

There were no 2020 clinics due to the pandemic, but this summer and fall there will be four. The first, Embodied Horsemanship: Deepening Feel & Connection with our Horses, takes place ​August 27-30, 2021. Presenter Paula Josa-Jones is a skilled horsewoman, choreographer, dancer, movement artist and author of Our Horses, Ourselves: Discovering the Common Body. Creator of Embodied Equine Experiencing™, she teaches an intuitive, improvisational approach to the human-horse bond using movement and touch.

Josa-Jones guides guests to build emotional attunement with the horses, learn how softness and listening creates physical and emotional balance for both horses and humans, connect with horses non-verbally using touch and movement, and more. Brenda J. Archer of Penn Yan attended one of Josa-Jones’ 2019 MHF clinics. Although Archer had plenty of prior horse experience, she says, “The clinic with Paula was one of discovery for me.” With three horses of her own, Josa-Jones describes the MHF resident horses as intuitive and generous with a wide range of types and personalities. “They are safe and lovely to work with,” she says. Archer appreciated how the horses were not treated like tools during a clinic. Although they were great partners and teachers, their well-being and comfort were most important. 

And that level of respect and care is just how the Vullers envisioned it when they adopted their beloved herd. “We are on equal ground with the animals,” says Suzanne.

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