Skip to main content

It starts with love, this story.

And ends with it, too. There wasn't a cure of the young autistic boy. But there was a healing, which helped save his parents' marriage.

Somewhere in the middle, high up on a steppe in the border area of Mongolia and Siberia, love came into play with the Reindeer People and a shaman known as Ghoste.

Story continues below advertisement

That will be explained.

But let us start at the beginning of the story that became Rupert Isaacson's book, The Horse Boy:A Father's Quest to Heal His Son . (There is also a documentary that screened at Hoc Docs in Toronto and is due for general release in the fall.)

A voice in Mr. Isaacson's head said, clear as day, "That's your wife," when he first spied Kristin Neff stretched out on a beach chair by the pool of a hotel in India. She wouldn't talk to him at first. But he persisted.

They eventually married, and their son Rowan was born seven years to the day after they met.

They imagined an unconventional family life of adventure with him. Mr. Isaacson, 43, makes his living as a travel writer. His wife, also in her early 40s, is a psychologist. When Rowan was born they were living in Austin, where Dr. Neff is a professor at the University of Texas.

There would be adventure, all right, but it was one they could not have predicted.

By the time Rowan was 18 months old he was showing all the signs of autism - repetitive movements, obsessive behaviours and tantrums, among other things.

Story continues below advertisement

Parents of autistic children have their own language.

They use the noun "tantrum" to make a verb, "tantrumming." The frustration, discomfort and screaming of their child is often a state of being.

"Put it this way," says Mr. Isaacson, pushing his long blond hair behind his ears. "With a diagnosis of autism, your life shuts down. There are therapies that take 45 to 50 hours a week. … And by the way, the treatment will cost you 80 grand you don't have."

Here in the story is where Betsy comes in. An unlikely heroine, she is all about love, too. Or at least some kind of mysterious energy.

"There is no living being that I am as grateful to," Mr. Isaacson says. "The transformation that went on ..." he continues, shaking his head.

He is talking about a 17-year-old mare.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Isaacson, an avid horseman, originally avoided taking Rowan to see Betsy at the farm next door to their house. She could be grumpy. She had dumped Mr. Isaacson before.

But there was some deep connection between Rowan and animals, and in particular Betsy. For Rowan the horse remained calm, and provided a little breakthrough. He spoke more clearly, in small sentences, when he rode on her with his father. Some of his obsessive behaviours lessened. But only for short periods.

That was in 2004. In the same year Mr. Isaacson, who had written The Healing Land about Bushmen in Africa, took three-year-old Rowan to meet some healers and shamans who were visiting the United States. Again some of his obsessive behaviour abated, but soon returned.

Frustrated, Mr. Isaacson and his wife were struggling as a couple. Nearly 4, their son could not control his bowels. "Code brown" was their expression for cleaning up his pants. "Fully 80 per cent of couples with autistic children break up. It was easy to see why," he writes in his book.

Then Mr. Isaacson had a wild and crazy thought. "These two things - horses and healers - really seemed to help. Was there a place that combined the two things?"

A Google search provided the answer: Mongolia, where the horse had first been domesticated, and where shamanism, along with Buddhism, was a state religion.

His wife thought he was nuts. He thought he was, too. But it was a dream.

"What if nothing happens but we just have this incredible adventure because of autism, not in spite of autism?" he thought.

Mr. Isaacson waited three years until Rowan was 6, old enough to withstand the rigours of the trip. Dr. Neff was still reluctant.

"She had seen the good effects of Betsy," Mr. Isaacson says. "[But]horses were not her thing, and she didn't want to go to Mongolia with an incontinent and tantrumming child."

Their final decision to go was a leap of faith and desperation. Mr. Isaacson secured a guide who would lead them across the steppe by van and on horseback, moving from shaman to shaman and camping in tents. A documentary filmmaker who is a friend came with them. "I thought it would be good to have a camera along," Mr. Isaacson says. He had a hunch they would see a change in Rowan.

They prayed to Lords of the Mountains. Masked shamans beat drums in strange headdresses over the boy. They sang songs, drank herbal and milk potions. The parents were whipped with rawhide lashes, told to jump up and down. To cleanse a black energy from her womb, Dr. Neff was instructed to wash her genital area with vodka.

Often, Mr. Isaacson thought he was "the worst parent on the planet," he writes, especially after one ritual in which a shaman whacked Rowan on the back with the cloths and ribbons attached to the end of a drumstick. His son screamed in fear. And several times, he was so dispirited with his son's outbursts that he asked for the camera to stop filming. Still, he notes, "we had had more difficult trips with Rowan to the grocery store."

They persevered, and between good days and bad ones they saw some mild improvements. Rowan made his first friend, a Mongolian boy named Tomoo.

But it wasn't until they reached the Dukha people, who ride and herd reindeer in the mountain passes in southern Siberia, after a long and tiring journey on horseback that the big breakthrough happened with a shaman named Ghoste.

The shaman performed a ritual with smoking herbs in a tepee. He drummed and chanted. He summoned the spirit of Betsy after being told of Rowan's connection to her. After the second day of ritual, he told the parents that Rowan's incontinence and tantrums would stop, just like that, now.

As they made their way down the mountain it started to happen. The tantrums stopped. And for the first time, the six-year-old squatted on the ground to do his "Code Brown."

Rowan uses the toilet now. He plays with other children. He is learning at his grade level and is ahead in math.

There have been some setbacks, but nature and Betsy always bring him to his new normal.

The family started a non-profit equine centre for autistic children in Austin.

Mr. Isaacson counsels parents that "there are many ways to look outside the box, and often a solution is specific to the child. You have to dare to dream and execute that dream."

Of the shamans' healing power, he says it could be the power of persuasion. But when he presses the shamans to explain, "They say it's just love. They learn to activate it. It resides at the base of the spine."

Report an error
About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.