Here's a new way to deal with holiday stress.
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With the holiday season in full swing, life is bound to get a bit stressful in the coming weeks. Though there's nothing new or unexpected when it comes to end-of-year stress, one animal rescue farm is offering a different approach to coping with it: cow-hugging therapy.

"I believe we haven't lived life until we've hugged a cow," said Ellie Laks, who founded The Gentle Barn on a half-acre property in the middle of California's San Fernando Valley in 1999. Now, visitors can find The Gentle Barn on six acres of land in Santa Clarita, complete with large horse and cow pastures, a red and white barnyard for the smaller animals, an organic vegetable garden, lots of trees providing shade, and a panoramic view of the nearby mountains.

The Gentle Barn is open to public visits on most Sundays, when guests can wander the grounds and spend time interacting with the many animals that call the farm home. Those animals include horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, llamas, emus, dogs, cats, parrots, and pigeons — all of whom were rescued from severe abuse and neglect.

Houdini, a brown and white faced cow at The Gentle Barn
Credit: Courtesy of The Gentle Barn

Staff will be on hand to help facilitate the experience, but the true therapists are the cows, who, according to the folks behind The Gentle Barn, can sense what a guest needs. For those who need quiet meditation, the cows can be still with them. For those who need to laugh, the cows have plenty of silly tricks up their sleeves. And for those dealing with trauma, the cows are ready to lie with them in a warm embrace.

"I don't know how people make it through even one day without a cow hug," said Laks. "Cow hugs have been supporting and healing me for 22 years, and I'm so honored to be able to extend that out to the community to come heal along with us."

Though cows aren't the first animal that springs to mind when it comes to what's known as pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy, this method of helping people is not new.

A woman snuggles up to a cow at The Gentle Barn
Credit: Courtesy of The Gentle Barn

According to Healthline, "Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond. Interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues. It can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect. This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state."

It's exactly this bond that The Gentle Barn helps visitors with. Though anyone can visit or even book a private tour, The Gentle Barn is also home to several ongoing programs for children and adults, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, foster agencies, homeless shelters, children's hospitals, centers for seniors, war veterans, and domestic violence, and more.

A sweet looking black cow at The Gentle Barn, named Johnny Cash
Credit: Courtesy of The Gentle Barn

To partake in cow-hugging therapy at The Gentle Barn, you can purchase your tickets in advance or even book a private tour to have the whole place to yourself.

Beyond the California farm, The Gentle Barn has expanded to Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, with the goal of having at least one location in every state.

For more details and reservations, visit The Gentle Barn website.

Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but she's always on the lookout for her next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.