“The Horse Boy” – Book Review

By Posted on 12 Comments 4 min read 394 views

Just a heads-up: the Amazon link below to the book is an affiliate link. In other words, if you buy the book, I receive a compensation. If you would prefer to purchase the book elsewhere, that’s fine, too.

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:

What’s next for The Epona Center?

My brief stint with a therapeutic riding stable

My healing work (ouch, ouch) at the pony barn

You can follow Isaacson’s updates via Twitter @TheHorseBoy.

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  • Lisa Kemp
    June 15, 2009

    Excellent, intriguing review! Thanks for all the lovely extras and links. I’m going to be able to crack open my own copy this week, now I’m even more excited about it. Lisa

  • rhond7
    June 15, 2009

    Well, have plenty of food on hand (better yet – have someone around to serve it to you) because you’re gonna be reading for a while. :):)

    Thanks for stopping by, Lisa.

  • Jeff Floyd
    June 15, 2009

    Thanks for the great post/ review of The Horse Boy! Your readers can find even more information about Rupert Isaacson, his son Rown, and their amazing journey across Mongolia here:

    We keep it updated with the latest information we get from Rupert!


    • rhond7
      June 15, 2009

      Thank you, Jeff, for the link to (and on) the Squidoo lens. Lots of fascinating links there. Thanks again.

  • Shannon Bowman
    June 20, 2009

    Great review! The other post you linked to is very moving, too… great research and links. I really want to see this now.

    • rhond7
      June 20, 2009

      Thanks, Shannon. I think the movie is coming out in the fall, so we’re all looking forward to it.

  • Marti
    January 8, 2010

    I listened to Rupert’s tale as an audio book this past summer and found to my delight that through his family’s experiences I no longer felt a pressing the personally experience a similar trip to inner Mongolia. It wasn’t because I was put off – indeed not at all — it was because Mr. Isaacson was so complete in retelling his experiences, so relenting in his quest to have them, and with such an intrepid and supportive group hearing him read his own story made me feel as though I had been WITH them. Truly. So in one sense he’s saved me $20,000. And in another he’s left my calendar open to explore other adventures. That he completes this journey by creating a facility for others to find transformation themselves is just so much icing on the cake. All that’s missing to go with that cake is some yak butter and fermented mare’s milk. I hope I can meet him some day – or end up in the same dream at least.

  • rhond7
    January 8, 2010

    I agree – Rupert spared no detail. And I mean that in the “good” way. 🙂 I, too, felt as if I’d ridden with them with no saddle sores for me. Win, win. 🙂

    I have a semi-hazy memory of seeing a special Julia Roberts did for PBS of a horseback tour of Mongolia, where she slept in yurts, like they did in Rupert’s family trip, but without the agenda of meeting shamans for healing. Her journey looked intriguing to me, but I still have to admit that I like my civilized comforts. 🙂

    Thank you for joining the conversation, Marti. I’m so glad you stopped by.

  • Asha P
    May 7, 2010

    THE HORSE BOY, both the documentary and the book, are extremely inspirational – seeing the world through autism and how significantly interaction with horses has improved Rowan’s fits is something short of miraculous. If you liked the film, it is now out on DVD from Zeitgeist Films. If you didn’t get a chance to check it out, consider saving it to your Netflix or Blockbuster queue!

    • rhond7
      May 7, 2010

      Thank you for the heads-up on the DVD, Asha. I always managed to miss showings when the movie came through my area. Thanks for stopping by.