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Journalist and human rights activist Rupert Isaacson knew something was up from the way a horse behaved around his young autistic son.
What began as a bond between a neighbor’s mare and a troubled little boy turned into a family trip through Mongolia on horseback. Documentary filmmakers joined them in a group determined to take young Rowan to Mongol and Siberian shamans for healing.
The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son
is the chronicle of their journey. The book will inspire you, shock you, make you laugh and leave you in wonder.
An Incredible Journey
Isaacson is also an adventurer and horse trainer. His wife Kristin Neff is a psychology professor at the University of Texas.
Their son Rowan was diagnosed as autistic when he was 3. Bottom line, Rowan’s autism left him, in Isaacson’s words, “emotionally and physically incontinent.”
Think about it. Loud violent fits and tantrums. No toilet training by the age of five.
Two seemingly unrelated events gave Isaacson the idea to go to Mongolia. He noticed that Rowan seemed to have a way with a neighbor’s horse. The generous neighbor allowed father and son to ride together on the mare. During their rides, Isaacson saw Rowan improve and speak.
Also, Isaacson’s work with Bushmen from Botswana brought him and Rowan into contact with Bushman shamans. The shamans had performed healing rituals for Rowan, and the boy’s condition improved after that, too.
Isaacson took the positive-thinking view:
“What if there were a place in the world where horses and healing came together? What if Rowan’s autism could be the gateway to adventure?”
For someone like me, whose idea of adventure is going away alone to an unfamiliar American city where I stay in a business-class chain hotel, the family’s horseback journey into the steppes of Outer Mongolia is mind-blowing.
The Book Itself
Isaacson writes in a vivid, candid style and spares no detail. Nor does he spare his doubts, fears and ambivalent feelings about what he and his wife cope with.
The center of the book has color photos. You can see more photos at both the book’s and the film’s website. The movie is schedule for release later this year.
If all the shaman talk isn’t your thing …
Even if you think shamans amount to a bunch of hokum, the book also works as an adventure story and travelogue. Plus, the bond between the young family, the film crew and the locals they encounter along the way makes for a special story in itself.
Just FYI, the family didn’t abandon more mainstream therapies for autism in favor of shamanism, according to this CNN story about “The Horse Boy” film and book.
Learning more about autism
Still, if no one close to you has been touched by autism, this book will give the condition a face for you. According to the Autism Society of America, one child in 150 is autistic.
While researching this review, I found this essay about another family’s experience in meeting Isaacson at a promotional appearance – and the way their 10-year-old autistic son reacted.
My impressions of the book
As moving and as hopeful as this book is, I couldn’t help but cringe at the idea of this family traveling so far from modern support services.
But what I saw as insurmountable stress, they saw as an opportunity. An experienced international adventurer, Isaacson planned his trip and set out with a local guides.
Unlike Joe Six-Pack or Denise Desk-Jockey — or me, Isaacson seems to have had a pretty good idea of what he was doing.
The questions on my mind while reading were numerous. Will everyone in the group stay safe? Will the local guides become overwhelmed? Will Rowan lose his temper? And how will his parents talk him down? Will his non-horsey mother adjust to weeks of a horseback journey? And what will the shamans do? And, most importantly, what happens after the shamans?
Because, even if you think shamanic healing is crazy talk, you know that — if this experience ended up as a book and a movie — something happened.
If healing and horses interest you, maybe these other posts will, too:
You can follow Isaacson’s updates via Twitter @TheHorseBoy.