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Therapeutic Activities with Cows

Due to the fact that they are animals of prey and generally more flighty than horses, cows offer unique opportunities for therapeutic benefit in animal-assisted programs. Although not widely utilized as therapy animals, cows, particularly when employed in herds, provide challenges and learning experiences related to nonverbal communication, perspective-taking, social skills, patience, trust-building and acceptance, as illustrated in the videos below.


As part of an animal-assisted psychotherapy program called "Eye of a Horse", a young woman on the autism spectrum celebrates her birthday with some special acquaintances--a herd of cows and calves (and a few untrained horses). Despite some challenges in her life, this young woman demonstrates a high level of focus and attentional skills, as she carefully monitors her behavior and waits patiently for the cattle to approach her and interact "up close and personally."

The 45-minute therapy session took place at the Crescent J Ranch on the grounds of Forever Florida, a 4700-acre wildlife preserve in rural Osceola County, Florida.

Temple Grandin, a leading expert not only on the cattle industry, but also on autism (being on the spectrum herself), credits similar experiences with cows during her own adolescent years as helping her to overcome some of the challenges of autism. Dr. Grandin's many books and publications explain how animals can help those on the spectrum due to similarities in patterns of "thinking in pictures", i.e., primarily through the visual mode. Moreover, this type of therapeutic intervention also trains "social thinking skills", and helps individuals better understand the impact of their non-verbal communication skills.


In this video clip young adults are playing hand drums in a pasture of Charolais cows on the grounds of Forever Florida, a 4700-acre wildlife preserve and working cattle ranch in Osceola County. They are part of the Eye of a Horse Nature Exposure Animal-assisted Mental Health Programs. In this therapeutic experience the participants are focusing on feedback from these curious, but cautious animals in order to become more aware of their own personal impact on others--both animals and humans. They also learn about the concepts of clear communication, cooperation and coordination as they attempt to synchronize their hand drumming rhythms with each other and observe the effect on the cows.


Part of the herd at Forever Florida's Crescent J Ranch, these Charolais bulls help autistic adolescents learn social thinking skills. Here the bovines are interacting with a new Equi-Spirit horse ball while students on the side-lines interpret their social behavior and responses to a novel object.


A short clip from a session of animal-assisted psychotherapy at Eye of a Horse, an experiential therapy program utilizing horses and cows in their natural setting on the grounds of a 4700-acre wildlife preserve aptly named Forever Florida, located in Osceola County. With the help of licensed mental health professionals, animals offer a unique approach to addressing emotional and psychological concerns involving shame, guilt, trust and forgiveness.


Observing social behavior in both humans and animals is an important training intervention in teaching social thinking skills and perspective-taking to individuals on the autism spectrum. As part of an animal-assisted psychotherapy program incorporating horses and cows, young adults on the spectrum were invited to watch the PBS filming of a historical re-enactment of an 1870 cattle rustling feud, as we had allowed the film crew to utilize our therapy horses and cattle for the video footage. The young observers were serendipitously treated to a special event when a newborn calf, which had been left behind by the herd, was spotted hiding in the tall grass. In the therapeutic debriefing that followed the experience, the participants entertained many different theories to interpret the newborn’s interesting behavior.


A short clip from a "pasture walk," a form of animal-assisted psychotherapy utilized here with a group of autistic teens. In this session the youngsters are learning to read non-verbal language from a herd of cows. Much of the focus of this session was on boundaries and overly aggressive or bullying behavior--the students are attempting to read what the cows may be thinking or feeling by discussing their body language with the psychologist. These "social thinking skills" are then applied to their own interactions with humans in social situations in their own lives. The session took place at Eye of a Horse on the grounds of Forever Florida, a 4700-acre wildlife preserve in central Florida.


A young girl works on issues of trust using non-verbal communication skills while attempting to interact with a small herd of cows. Cows are animals of prey, and as such, humans who have been preyed upon can often relate to their sense of caution and need to protect themselves. Working with animals of prey, such as untrained horses and cows, offers opportunities quite different than traditional "pet therapy" with dogs and cats, which are both predators, rather than animals of prey. The type of animal-assisted therapy seen in this video can increase levels of patience, consistency, and focus, while evoking a sense of acceptance and trust.