Rowan's Healing Ride
At first Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, found parenting easy. Their son Rowan slept when he was supposed to, walked ahead of schedule and spoke his first words before his first birthday. But around the time he turned 18 months old, Kristin, a psychology professor, began to worry. Rowan wasn’t pointing; he didn’t respond to his name; his vocabulary wasn’t growing. Then the tantrums started, ear-splitting fits that could last hours. When he was 2, Rowan’s demons were given a name: autism. Although Kristin, now 42, and Rupert, 42, a journalist and former horse trainer, turned to various therapists near their rural Elgin, Texas, home, “our beautiful boy was floating away from us,” writes Rupert in his new book. The Horse Boy, excerpted below, is the story of how Rupert and Kristin, a mare named Betsy and a remarkable trip to the ends of the Earth helped bring Rowan, now 7, back.
When a tantrum happened at home in Elgin, there was only one thing I could do: take Rowan into the woods behind our house. Within seconds the screams would lessen and disappear when he found a patch of sand to run his fingers through, variegated bark to look at. Animals and nature were what motivated him. That much was clear.
One day Rowan slipped away from Rupert and into a neighbor’s pasture.
He was in among four horses, who happened to be grazing there. Laughing delightedly, he threw himself onto the ground, right in front of the alpha mare, Betsy. I froze. Any sudden movement—his or mine—could spook her and leave him trampled. She stood stock-still. Then she dipped her head, and mouthed with her lips. She was spontaneously submitting to the child before her. In all the years I had been training horses, I had never seen this. My son had some direct line to the horse.
And then I cried, because I thought, “He’s got it. He’s got the horse gene. But he’s autistic. I’ll never be able to teach him to ride. Never share this joy with my son.” It’s stunning how wrong a parent can be.
Rupert explained 2½-year-old Rowan’s interest to their neighbor, who said they could ride anytime.
The first time I took Rowan to the barn to saddle Betsy up, he ran amok, pulled on her tail and grabbed at her lip. “Do you want to get up?” I asked, not expecting a response.
“Up!” It was the first time I’d received a direct answer to a direct question. I put him in the saddle. The flailing stopped. His grin seemed to stretch off the sides of his face. “Go!” said Rowan, impatient.
“You want Betsy to go?”
“Go!” he confirmed.
At the pond, a heron was standing. “Heron,” said Rowan spontaneously. Scarcely able to believe what I was hearing, I turned Betsy around. “Do you want to walk or run?”
“Okay,” I said and clapped heels to Betsy’s sides. She rocketed forward. Rowan shrieked, clung to me and laughed maniacally. We pulled up at the barn. “Run!” he ordered. “More run!”
At first these verbal leaps happened only around Betsy, only for him to retreat back into nonsense babble. But his preschool teachers reported that when I had taken him riding, he was much less hyperactive. And he began initiating word games and reciting the alphabet as we rode. Eventually we were practically living in the saddle.
In the eight months since his diagnosis, we had tried chelation, occupational therapy, changes to his diet—just about anything that wouldn’t hurt him. There had been no obvious change except through Betsy and, I remembered, during his brief exposure to some shamans [at a convention of traditional healers I had attended. The shamans had laid their hands on Rowan, who usually couldn’t tolerate touch but seemed calmed; the next day he pointed to grass and said, with uncharacteristic lucidity, "Green"]. Rowan had regressed afterward. But I wondered: if we had more access to such shamans, might he be boosted again? Was there a place that combined horses and healing at the center of the culture? What if his autism, instead of shutting down our lives, could be the gateway to the greatest adventure of all?
A little research convinced Rupert that Mongolia was such a place. Kristin thought he was crazy at first, but the family spent 26 days on the Mongolian steppe, accompanied by local guides and traveling by van and on horseback to visit dozens of shamans from various tribes. Rowan experienced cleansing rituals, spirit-summoning ceremonies, drumming sessions. After one long ceremony where shamans held him in their arms, an astonishing change took place.
Rowan ran over to a little boy. “Mongolian brother!” he said spontaneously. “Let’s go to the river!”
Kristin and I looked at each other in amazement. Had the ritual, all five hours of it, worked? Rowan had made his first friend, or tried to. That was completely new.
Were the healing ceremonies all hocus-pocus, I sometimes wondered? Was I a fool for dragging my family here? But by the time we got back to the U.S., my [previously un-toilet-trained] son was starting to take himself to the potty. The tantrums, the hyperactivity and anxiety—ever-present demons—had left him completely. We had come back with a different child.
At school, his academic status was reassessed. At age 5, he was reading at a 7-year-old’s level. When a friend brought her stepson, Gavin, to ride with us on our new horse Clue, Rowan and Gavin became fast friends. Soon half the neighborhood kids were turning up for riding play dates. By Rowan’s sixth birthday, a few months after returning from Mongolia, he had so many friends that we had to throw a party—his first ever birthday party—for a whole gaggle of kids. Rowan’s social life was now like that of any other child.
Is “recovery” too strong a word? Perhaps “healing” is better. Rowan is still autistic—his essence, his many talents, are all tied up with it. He has been healed of the terrible dysfunctions that afflicted him. But to “cure” him, in terms of trying to tear his autism out, now seems to me completely wrong. Can Rowan keep learning the skills necessary to swim in our world while retaining the magic of his own? It seems a tangible dream.