Friday, December 31, 2010

The Horse Boy

The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son
Rupert Isaacson (2009, Little, Brown and Company )

Rupert Isaacson is a travel writer; he met his wife in southern India (he’s British, she’s from California) and has traveled all over the world; he has close friends among the Kalahari Bushmen. He’s also a horseman who, as a young man, trained horses for a living. So when he and his wife, Kristin, had a son, he had high hopes of sharing a life of adventure with Rowan.
What he didn’t count on was Rowan being severely autistic. At five, he was not toilet trained, and he threw tantrums all day long; his parents had not been out together in years, because not even the most devoted grandmother could handle him safely.
Distant as he was from people, Rowan loved animals, and he made a deep connection with a neighbor’s horse, Betsy. She was unusually careful and patient with him; on Betsy’s back, Rowan was calm, and verbal, more than he ever was at home. The only other time he achieved that level of peacefulness was at a gathering of native healers, when Rupert’s African friends were on a visit to the US.
As Rupert and Kristin watched Rowan grow, and worried about how to get treatment for him, Rupert conceived a strange and powerful notion that Rowan needed to go where he could be treated by shamans, in a horse culture. Rupert made up his mind to take his son--who was difficult to take to the grocery store--to Mongolia, and thence to the border of Siberia, to see the shamans of the reindeer people. Kristin was understandably daunted by this prospect, but as Rupert raised the money (by getting an advance on this book) and signed up a video crew of three, the trip took on a reality for the whole family.
The Isaacsons didn’t really know what to expect from the journey; they were working out of Rupert’s deep, strong intuition. What actually happened was astonishing: Rowan made his first friend, lost toys without having hysterics, and (perhaps most thrilling for his parents) gained control of his bowels. He has not been cured, but he is healed.
I would dearly love to know more about the mechanics of Rowan’s transformation. Was it the hours on horseback in his father’s arms, the hours in the tent with his mother singing to him, some language in the touch of the shamans? The question is well beyond science, in its modern, techno-experimental sense--you can’t put an MRI on a moving horse, and you can’t send a hundred randomly chosen children to outer Mongolia, to see how many of them come back talking. That kind of science depends on reducible, reproducible events, and Rowan Isaacson is one of a kind.
To his credit, Rupert does not claim to have an answer to the question. He’s too skeptical to convert wholesale to the religion of the shamans, though praying to the spirits of certain places comes to seem natural. With all the hardships of the trip, his persistent question is this: “Was this all complete hocus-pocus? Was I a fool for even being here at all, dragging my family through...through what, exactly? Or were we exactly where we needed to be?”
The applicable study here, which Rupert Isaacson has done, is science in its natural form: deep, close observation of nature. That’s also, of course, what traditional healing traditions are all about. The Mongolian shamans have experiential insight into the storms in Rowan’s mind, and the unspoken language he shares with animals. If the drums and burning herbs that are the tools for expressing that insight seem primitive, it’s because they are primal.
The Horse Boy is a story of faith, too, in its natural form: loving perseverance. Intellectual assertions about belief weigh nothing compared to actually packing up your gear and getting on an airplane. Faith’s reward, fortuitously, is Rowan’s healing, but also new opportunities for hope. Through The Horse Boy Foundation, Rupert has started a farm to provide equine therapy for autistic children, and to train others in the work.
Rowan Isaacson is still autistic, but he has made contact with our world. Will he grow to become a translator between worlds, a shaman in his own right? I hope some day he’ll tell us what it’s like to be him.

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