Betsy the Horse Helps Autistic Boy 'Heal'

With his new book The Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson shares the story of his son's special bond with horses

When Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin Neff discovered their once active, energetic son Rowan had suddenly become introverted and easily angered, they came to the painful realization that their only child had autism. “Our beautiful boy was floating away from us,” Isaacson, 42, writes in his new book, The Horse Boy, portions of which appear in this week’s PEOPLE.

Recalling a particularly difficult tantrum, Isaacson took Rowan, now 7, out to the woods near their Elgin, Texas, home, and found that the comfort of a local mare named Betsy (right) brought Rowan a sense of clarity and calm.

“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,” Isaacson writes in his book.

Realizing his son had the “horse gene,” Isaacson, a journalist and former horse trainer, began to ride with Rowan, who began to speaking and making commands like he had never done before.

“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,” he writes.

After seeing increased progress both at home and in school, Isaacson was determined to continue treatment to help his son. They tried chelation, occupational therapy, even dietary changes. But it was a brief experience with shamans during a convention they attended that Rupert felt made the most difference with Rowan. So, he began looking for a way to combine Rowan’s riding therapy with guidance from shamans.

The family decided to make the trek to Outer Mongolia, where, after one long ceremony where shamans held him in their arms, they say a new Rowan was reborn. Rowan is now outgoing and with a social life like any other child’s. Isaacson does acknowledge that his son is still autistic, but he says there has been a “healing” of the hurdles that afflicted him. Now Rowan can learn and absorb the world around him.

For more on Rowan’s ride to recovery – including his life before and after meeting Betsy the horse, and his travels to Mongolia – pick up the latest PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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