You don’t have to be in Switzerland very long to notice the thing about the cows. At night, walking in the resort town where my parents live, you can smell the manure on the breeze. At cow-themed festivities, cows walk up to the high mountain pastures to the sound of enormous gonging cowbells — and come down again, wearing hats made of plastic flowers. The extremely popular Battle of the Queens is a world-championship fight between doughty females of the Val d’Hérens breed, who head-butt each other until one leaves the ring. And then there are the cow T-shirts, the magnets, the mugs, the piggy banks, the keychains, the cylinders that moo when you tip them, the plushy cows with big brown eyes.
The thing about the cows so is pervasive, so marvelously odd — the local paper includes accounts of cows falling into swimming pools; cows are often spotted hanging from helicopters as they’re air-lifted to vets — that when I first learned about cow-back riding, I thought: Surely, here is a moment of irony, a joke about taking cow-fancy to its logical conclusion.
But when I found myself at Bolderhof Farm on the northern border of Switzerland, contemplating getting atop a very large animal, I realized the whole thing was significantly less cheeky than I had expected. This was serious business — and I wanted to figure out why.
Bolderhof, located in the valley of the Rhine, is the only Swiss farm where you can ride the cows, as far as the people there know, and the practice is a relatively recent development. As Sabine Engl, the farm’s outdoor educator, told me, it was nine years ago that farmer Heinz Morgenegg’s children went to a fair in a nearby town, where they were promised a chance to ride camels. The exotic beasts proved disappointing — they might have been sick, or the ride too short. The children were crying. Later that evening, when Heinz went out to take care of his own cattle, he thought, We have perfectly good animals, worthy of riding, right here.
“That night,” Engl told me, “he rode his first cow.” He and his wife Doris started practicing in the evenings, after the children were in bed.
Not long after, Engl said, a woman from Germany named Nina was visiting nearby Stein am Rhein for vacation when she heard that someone was riding cows at Bolderhof Farm. As it turned out, Nina trained horses for the Berlin mounted police. She offered to help prepare more cows to be ridden. (As Engl spoke, I imagined a training montage: Cows lumbering through hula hoops and performing agility drills. The reality was rather more staid, but the number of cows deemed to be ridable grew.)
She gripped a bunch of clover with teeth like a steam shovel. I put my foot on her thigh, pushing myself up into certain cow-related death.
Bolderhof was already a tourist farm, where people could help take care of the animals and learn to make cheese and so on — the week I visited, a family from Saudi Arabia was vacationing there. But soon, hundreds of tourists each year were also paying a minimum of 95 francs (about $95) for a 1.5 hour cow-back riding tour, a pastime billed as “cow-trekking.”
“In summertime I think we have 4 or 5 trekking tours a week, three or four people per tour, sometimes six,” said Engl. People come from China, from the United States, from Switzerland, too. The day I visited, all the riding tourists were Swiss.
There is a reason people don’t generally use cows as a form of personal transportation: They are willful, and not easy to train. As I led a lurching, furry behemoth named Coli down a lane, walking alongside, the small mammal inside me shrieked, “She’ll step on you!” Turning around, I called to my sister, “You’re going to die because I wanted to ride a cow!” She called back, “It’s too late now.”
Coli was supposed to be the sweetest of all of the Bolderhof cows, the most placid and easiest to ride. But she was also nearly a ton of muscle under an undulating carpet of ruddy hairs, and much more of an individual than I had imagined. She gripped a bunch of clover with teeth like a steam shovel as Engl motioned to me to step on a foam pad over her knee. I swallowed a couple times and put my foot on her thigh, pushing myself up into certain cow-related death. Then I clung to my rope halter and let Coli take me where she wanted.
This odd experience brought back a central question: Why is it that cows feel so quintessentially Swiss? Perhaps because cows are the living embodiment of a connection to the mountains, suggests Julie Hartley, an anthropologist who has studied the connection between traditional festivals and Swiss national identity.
“Most of Switzerland is urban, and has been for a long time,” noted Hartley, when I asked her to speculate on the thing about cows. “But the farms are the symbol of what they are supposed to be.”
Swiss national identity, to extent that it exists, is something of a puzzle. The nation is a confederation the size of Maryland, made up of twenty-six nearly independent states, or cantons, with four national languages. National identity seems most often to be synthetic, built out of thousands of tiny allegiances to people’s villages or towns, then to the canton, and after that the country as a whole.
But a major unifying feature is the mountains, which make up more than 60 percent of Switzerland’s area. “The connection with the mountains is a very Swiss ideal,” Hartley posits. “That’s kind of where their strength and identity as a nation come from.” Over centuries, the mountains have served as strategic defense from invaders, protection from outside governments, and escape hatch from encroaching armies.
And where do the cows come in? The high-altitude valleys nestled in those mountains are not good for growing crops. But they are good for grazing cattle in the summer, allowing the conversion of grass into cheese. For years, cows have been walked up and down from communal pastures, called alps, that lie below the peaks of the eponymous mountains.
So the thing with the cows could be a thing about home. There is, after all, a long history of people leaving Switzerland, including my own great-grandfather — and people arriving from elsewhere, like my parents and sisters, 15 years ago. For centuries, Swiss mercenaries traveled all over Europe. For a while in the 19th century, Swiss towns even issued passports to their own unemployed or insolvent citizens and invited them to see themselves out. The first occurrence of the word “nostalgia” was in a Swiss medical student’s writings: It was the name he gave to listlessness that came over mercenaries when reminded of their distant homes. (Later commentators suggested the feeling was brought on by hearing cowbells.) Maybe cows represent a commitment to the peculiarities of the place you’re from, a recognition that there’s something valuable in even the most prosaic of origins.
Or maybe the cow attachment is more intensely personal. Peter Moser, an agricultural historian and director of the Archives of Rural History in Bern, grew up on a farm where the family’s kitchen and the cows’ stable shared a wall, and points out that farmers and their animals have long had closer relationships than many realize. He imagines that more than questions of national identity, more than the curiosity factor, this is why Morgenegg began to ride cows.
“The cows were not only meat or milk producers, but they were also working companions for him,” Moser says. “I don’t know him, but that’s probably what gives him the confidence of doing something like that…because he knows the cows. He trusts them.”
For the duration of my ride that day, very close indeed to the cow, I had no choice but to experience that trust. I was in the control of another creature, forced to see things from her perspective: How nice she thought it would feel to wade into the river, or how important it was to trot home at a quicker pace. Living for an hour and a half on the cow’s terms brought things down out of the abstract. It’s easy to get lost in heady concepts in the absence of a real, breathing, fly-covered animal, but the persistent reminders that here was a creature with her own mind, connected to a long history of which she had no personal inkling whatsoever, were surprisingly grounding.
Months after that ride, I asked Heinz why he had thought it was a good idea to ride a cow. He wrote back with a one-line email.
“Because it is a unique experience for the heart.”
And the longer you hang on to something that seems odd to everyone else, the more likely you are to convince other people it’s worthy. When Coli carried me back to Bolderhof that day — mercifully, completely intact — I noticed that the visiting Saudi family’s little daughter was now riding a cow. Around and around she went, through the dappled shadows of the trees, for all the world like a ride at a fair.