When journalist Rupert Isaacson observed his autistic son’s unusual affinity for horses, he and his wife took five-year-old Rowan to the far reaches of Mongolia to seek the healing help of Shamans who work with horses and spiritually-based cures. Desperate to soothe Rowan’s tantrums, incontinence, and inability to interact with other children, the Isaacsons were looking for something beyond traditional medicine. Rupert knew of Shamanism through work he’d done with Bushmen in Africa, but thought Mongolia the more fitting destination because of the importance of horses in the traditional culture.
The Horse Boy (Little, Brown & Company, April, 2009) is Isaacson’s moving account of his family’s remarkable and challenging journey from their Texas home – where Rowan first bonded with a horse named Betsy – to Mongolia, where they sought out Shamans who performed rituals — including whipping them and having them drink mare’s milk.
The Isaacsons’ journey was followed by filmmaker Michel O. Scott, whose documentary, also called The Horse Boy, captures Rowan’s eventual healing, a process so swift, brave and odd it might not be believed were it not recorded on film.
Isaacson took time away from the Texas trails center he now runs for autistic children and their families to talk about the practicality of Shamans, Rowan’s progress, and the screenplay he’s writing about Rowan’s story, which has been optioned by the producers of Lord of the Rings.
JENNY HALPER: How did your work as a journalist and as an advocate for Bushmen in Africa point you in the direction of Mongolia?
RUPERT ISAACSON: As an advocate, I helped displaced tribes get their lands back, and I worked with other organizations successful in helping the Bushmen in Africa. I got banned from Botswana as a result, but it’s because of that that I got exposed to shamanism. The Bushmen and most cultures like them basically address all their dilemmas through a shamanic process – and then they brief the lawyer. They’ve won two of the largest land claims in history. They took Pfizer to court, successfully, and they will take a political dilemma into the spirit world.
HALPER: What gave you the notion that Shamanic rituals would be helpful to Rowan?
ISAACSON: I knew from concrete evidence, because the year Rowan was diagnosed three things happened: he gets diagnosed, he meets Betsy – I didn’t put him on Betsy, he took himself to Betsy – and then that same year I had to bring a delegation of Bushmen to the United Nations. Some of those guys were trained healers, they met Rowan and they said “look, we could do a bit of work on him.” I knew that work simply meant praying on him, and I knew the worst that could happen was nothing, so I said “sure, have at it.” For the four days they were with him Rowan started losing some of his symptoms. When they left he tumbled back into his autism. But by then we were riding Betsy and his language was coming. So I saw a radical positive reaction to the horse, and a radical positive reaction to the Shaman. I thought “is there a place on the planet that combines these two things?” I could go straight to Africa with him, but that’s not a horse culture. Is there a place that combines shamanism and horses? Yes, and it’s Mongolia.
HALPER: Would the trip have been possible without a book contract?
ISAACSON: The idea came in 2004. We didn’t go till 2007. I’ve always been that way – If I decide to do something I’m going to do it. I don’t care if I have to go into debt to do it. That’s how I got my start in journalism – I would wash windows, and train horses, and then I would finance my own story and sell it to a magazine. (My wife) Kristin and I had actually gone into debt, and Michael too, buying tickets to Mongolia. We had actually all gone into debt some months before the book contracts came up. The book contract allowed us to do it not on a 300 dollar camera from Target, which was the original idea – simply to document. It allowed us to make a real movie and allowed us to open the new trails center. The advance paid for that. I was flabbergasted when the contract came in and thought, “well, now it’s enough that we can do this properly. “
HALPER: Were you worried that you might come back with nothing?
ISAACSON: Michel was expecting to make a film that said “nothing happened really, but at least they came to a greater acceptance of the autism, and the autism didn’t stop them from having this amazing adventure as a family.”
I had a gut feeling there would be change or I wouldn’t have taken it. I had to say, “you do realize we could come back with nothing. And we’re taking a film crew so we can’t lie.”
For most people a diagnosis shuts your life down. It doesn’t open your life up. What if autism is the big adventure? Who’s to say it can’t be beautiful?
Once we started riding in 2004, Rowan and I were out there in the Texas landscape riding together for hours and hours a day encountering all kinds of wildlife – that was an adventure we were having without really leaving our home. It inspired me to think, “what happens if I take it to the next stage?”
The fact that it happened so swiftly (in Mongolia) – that I wasn’t prepared for at all. I’ve been around a lot of Shamanic rituals, but usually it’d been a bit more incremental and a bit more gradual. I wasn’t ready for it being as radical as it was.
HALPER: Was there the possibility that the changes could revert once you came back to America?
ISAACSON: We were very worried about that. And Rowan was not cured of his autism – Rowan went out autistic and came back autistic. There’s a difference between healing and cure. Healing implies the amelioration of symptoms to the point where a condition is no longer a dysfunction or a disorder. He came back as a much more functional autistic person – and he went on to continue and improve. We continue to do what Ghoste the Healer told us to do, which is do a healing journey every year.
HALPER: Do you always go to Mongolia?
ISAACSON: No. We went the Bushman in Africa last year, where I know the healers personally. And what emerged out of that was extraordinary mathematical knowledge that had not been there before. This year we had to be in Australia for work so I looked for an Aboriginal Shaman down there and we ended up going into the Daintree rainforest.
The changes since then have been really quite extreme to the point where the other day Rowan came downstairs and said, “could you cook me a super pretzel please and could you cook it in the microwave and not in the toaster oven because if you cook it in the toaster oven sometimes it overcooks.” Me and Kristy go, “Who are you? You don’t talk like that?” But remember we’re not born again Shamanists. We do continue with western therapy.
HALPER: Was your wife skeptical about the trip to Mongolia?
ISAACSON: She’d seen the Bushman at work, she’d been in Africa with me, and she’d seen healings happen in the indigenous context. But she first pointed out, “our lives are massively stressful.” And she doesn’t love horses. When we first started going out I taught her how to ride but she never really took to it. So for her a month on horseback was not an attractive proposition.
I said, “My gut is telling me I have to do it.” It could be a South African thing. There is a trust of intuition in the culture I grew up in. (Also) when you live twelve thousand feet up a mountain in southern Siberia like Ghoste does, or in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, you have to be practical. These are not people who read books on Crystal Chakra healing, there’s nothing new-agey. So if something doesn’t have practical merit, you’re not going to spend time and energy on it. So why don’t these people die when they get sick and they don’t have access to Western medicine? People live into their late eighties or nineties, usually. You also don’t want snake oil salesman showing up and saying, “I’m gonna heal your kid.”
HALPER: Have you met people like that?
ISAACSON: No, but I haven’t looked for them. Because the only place I’ve looked for shaman are in the parts of the world where those traditions have persisted. I haven’t looked for that here, in the west.
HALPER: Was there anything the Shaman did that you were skeptical about?
ISAACSON: I wasn’t that happy about being whipped. And I’d never seen that before. When I saw him coming I was like, “he’s going to whip me, isn’t he?” and the tour guide’s like, “yeah, little bit, it’s important not to cry out.” But I hadn’t come halfway across the world to wuss out, and maybe there’s something cathartic about it too. What was weird about that was you never got the feeling that there was anything abusive going on – they were trying to help you out, and these people had traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to come and do this healing. And Rowan made his best friend at the end of that ritual. That’s when he had his first major breakthrough. Nature, for a child, is in a much more optimal environment. At the new trails center we do a lot of academics on the horse and in the tree.
HALPER: So, can you, for instance, give a lesson about subtraction to a child riding a horse?
ISAACSON: Why not? You only have to sit at this desk if there are thirty of you.
HALPER: Was your schooling like that?
ISAACSON: I had everything from the most conservative military school you can imagine – stripping down machine guns, putting them together. I was using my first grenade when I was fifteen. I also went to a Waldorf school when I was younger. I think I got the best results out of that Waldorf School.
HALPER: Has Rowan seen the film?
ISAACSON: He’s watched it a million times – a lot of therapists use filming and playing back to do all kinds of therapies. It has given him all kinds of perspective and understanding.
HALPER: Because he knows “that’s what I was like then?”
ISAACSON: He talks about it. “Oh yeah, I was a bit upset there.” It’s important to remember that with Rowan, we’re not saying Shamanism cures autism or horses cure autism or autism ought to be cured. It’s a perfectly viable way of being. If his interest had been stream trains and machines we would have followed that story. Whatever is motivating the kid, you go with that. You can only do that with a mixture of intuition and trial and error.
HALPER: What’s your process in adapting this into a feature film? Are you writing the script?
ISAACSON: I get a couple of stabs (at the script). I’d be amazed if it ends up being my screenplay, but I want to have a go with shaping it. If it goes off to another screenwriter they might go, “oh, this needs to be a film about Rupert and Kristin, or the story is just the boy and the horse,” but I know there’s a certain point where I lose control of that.
HALPER: It was optioned by the producers of Lord of the Rings, which has such a different tone.
ISAACSON: But if you look at how true to the narrative they stayed…and that’s one of the reasons why I trust their creative judgment. We all love Lord of the Rings, we all would have been absolutely up in arms if they had made something that didn’t reflect what we felt was truthful to Tolkien. And they did. There was nothing they added that was their own twist, thank god. They stayed true and produced an amazing piece of work. They did justice to the book, I thought. That’s difficult. PLEASE NOTE: This article is protected by copyright and may be reproduced only with the expressed and written permission of AWFJ. However, please feel free to link to it and/or use short quotes from it with full attribution.