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Book review: The Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson

mk88Travel writer and activist Rupert Isaacson has written for an assortment of publications in diverse parts of the English-speaking world. Married to an academic psychologist and based in Texas, travel was his livelihood as well as his pleasure. But when his son was diagnosed with autism in 2004, the whole family’s world threatened to implode. Five-year-old Rowan had epic tantrums during which he would scream and wail inconsolably for hours, was physically incontinent and  completely unable to connect with others. The child had 9 of 10 symptoms of autism, but because he could make good eye contact the clinicians thought he couldn’t be autistic.

Life for Isaacson and his wife became a never-ending series of crises. Hypersensitivity could make Rowan flip out if the texture of his clothing wasn’t quite right, or when he had to go from one place to another. And of course, he was still in diapers.

Nothing seemed to help until, in 2004, Rowan started making friends with his neighbour’s horse, Betsy. The first time they met, she dipped her head to him in the sign of obeisance which horses rarely give to other horses, let alone humans. Rowan liked Betsy just as much. On her back his tantrums calmed, he began to speak lucidly and even told the horse he loved it – the first time he had expressed love for anything or anyone.

Then, around the same time, Rupert was hosting a delegation of Kalahari Bushmen to the US and ended up attending an international convention of traditional healers, tribal leaders and shaman. Kristin and Rowan came with him and the effect on Rowan was extraordinary. “He calmed right down and started interacting, showing people his toys – normal toddler behaviour. He even allowed a Carib Indian shaman to touch him, something he’d never done with a stranger.” The seed of the idea was sown – Rowan needed a combination of shamanism and horses.

So Isaacson decided to take his family to Mongolia, travelling on horseback to look for shamans who could help Rowan.

The magnitude of this undertaking beggars belief. Going to a developing country with a child with completely unpredictable behaviour, who was still incontinent, totally dependent on interpreters and guides unknown to them personally – we can only marvel at the courage (or maybe the desperation) involved. And they had a couple of friends along who constituted an ad-hoc film crew, to document any change that would occur and to provide evidence thereof. The rest of the story you’ll have to read or watch, but it’s worth it. The book could have been really unbearably twee, but it’s not, because Isaacson keeps us grounded with humour and humility.

Isaacson and his wife have used the money from worldwide sales of the book and film to found an equine therapy centre, hoping to help other kids with autism. He stresses that neither horses nor shamanism will “cure” autism (which he doesn’t consider a disorder so much as a way of being); rather, it helps establish communication and tone down the worst of the sensory overload. He says now that the experience of raising an autistic child has made him a far better father than he would have otherwise been, and he regards the opportunity as a gift, albeit one that he wouldn’t have chosen at the outset.

I think the story resonated with me particularly because I’ve also launched myself into the unknown in search of healing. But if I took a small step of faith, Isaacson and family took a giant leap for Rowankind.

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