You might have seen it in an Instagram photo dump: a group of people in downward dog, with various tiny goats accompanying them. Some goats stand on people’s backs, others are scattered between the yoga mats.
This is of, course, goat yoga. Originating on a farm in Oregon, it has since been replicated across the country, with classes ranging from $30-$50 per person. It’s pricier than a typical yoga class, but then again, a typical yoga class doesn’t involve a furry friend. That’s not the only activity you can do with goats. There’s also goat hiking, which is what it sounds like: taking a group hike with a herd of goats at your heels.
Goat yoga classes tend to use Nigerian dwarf goats, mostly for the comfort of the attendants—they max out at around 40 pounds, a fraction of the weight of your typical dairy goat. (Imagine trying to balance a 160-pound Nubian buck on your back!) According to Backyard Goats, which publishes advice for raising goats at home, Nigerian dwarf goats make excellent pets for people of all ages thanks to their “calm, even temperament and engaging personalities.” They tend to be playful and gentle, and combined with goats’ proclivity for climbing. It certainly sounds like they might enjoy a silly, lowkey yoga class.
To find out the truth, I reached out to an expert on goat cognition, Alan McElligott, a researcher at the Department of Infectious Diseases and Public Health Centre for Animal Health and Welfare at the City University of Hong Kong. Goats were likely the first domesticated livestock, he tells me. They’ve spent millennia living alongside us. Unlike dogs, they weren’t domesticated to live or work closely with humans, but they can be surprisingly social and are far more intelligent than we’ve given them credit for.
For example, McElligott’s research suggests goats know how to ask us for help if they can’t open a sealed box full of food. Have you ever noticed your dog seems to communicate by staring at you when they want something? Goats do the same thing—the study shows that they maintain eye contact with humans to nonverbally request assistance. And they can tell the difference between positive and negative human facial expressions—they prefer it when we smile. In a 2018 study, 20 goats were shown photos of humans with a happy expression and an angry expression; they approached the happy faces first, and spent more time nosing the happy photos. What’s doubly fascinating about this is that previous to these studies, both behaviors (gazing to communicate and facial expression recognition) had only been noted in dogs and horses, which (unlike goats) were domesticated specifically for companionship. So goats are hardly just dumb, cud-chewing livestock; they’ve learned to read human behaviors.
And good news, goat lovers: some goats love goat yoga. McElligott reassured me that, barring outright animal abuse, stretching around our caprine friends is perfectly enjoyable, for them and for us. Goats really do like climbing on anything they can see, whether that’s a haybale or your back. And hiking is equally as fun for them—they need exercise, too, and taking them on a walk allows them to munch on vegetation they otherwise don’t get to eat in their pasture.
Note, however, the use of the word “some” in that paragraph. McElligott explained that the question is not, necessarily, “do goats like yoga,” but instead “does this goat like yoga?” Goats have personalities—goat temperament can vary not just between breeds, but by individual. One goat may be exceptionally shy, while the next one could be a “people goat” who can’t get enough of our attention. To some degree a goat’s preferences will vary on how it was raised. A herd of dairy goats on a farm will be plenty friendly around their farmer, the source of all their food and affection, but shy away from a stranger standing by the fence. Alternatively, goats that are socialized around humans from birth (such as therapy goats, which, like other therapy animals, are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in need) are likely to walk right up to you, nosing for treats or pets.
A particularly shy or aggressive goat should not be made to join a yoga class when it would clearly cause them discomfort. But as long as the right goats are selected, and they have an escape route if they get overwhelmed, the truth is that goat yoga can even be beneficial for the goats. The same goes for goat hikes: the farm should switch out their goats so they aren’t overworked, and choosing goats that enjoy walking is crucial.
If you attend goat yoga, watch out for signs that the goat wants to be left alone—backing away, showing the whites of their eyes, yelling in agitation. According to McElligott’s research, happy goats tend to keep their ears forward and their tails up. Goats’ bleats vary in pitch more when they are upset, comparing it to a person’s voice wavering when they’re nervous to make a speech or talk to a crowd, (although if you’re not already familiar with a goat’s call you probably won’t be able to tell the difference). A frustrated goat might also butt heads with another goat, though even distressed goats are unlikely to target human bystanders with head-butting on purpose.
While there’s little to no research on the specific effects of goat yoga on the goats, based on what we know about goat welfare and behavior, you should feel fine about attending a properly-run goat yoga class. After all, if it makes you smile, the goats are happy too.
This content was originally published here.