Seven-year-old Rowan Isaacson is like many kids his age. He enjoys playing with toys, reading books, and spending time with friends and family. But as the new documentary and book "The Horse Boy" illustrates, as little as two years ago, Rowan’s life was very different.
As a toddler, Rowan began to shut out much of the outside world, and threw several tantrums a day, some of them lasting for hours at a time. He was diagnosed with autism. His father, Rupert Isaacson, said the diagnosis was like being “punched in the gut.”
“All you can see is a desperate present, and the future is too terrible to contemplate,” Rupert says. “And at the same time, of course, you have to – but you don’t know what you’re dealing with, so you’re completely confused and afraid.”
Rowan was also suffering from incontinence. He couldn’t even interact with anyone other than his parents. Rupert’s wife, Kristin Neff, was worried.
“Early on, we just decided we are going to try everything we thought wouldn’t hurt him, because we didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the research to catch up. We tried a lot of different things, [but] it was so hard to know if they were even working. The first dramatic change was really Betsy the horse.”
Rowan met Betsy when he made a sudden dash away from his father’s watchful eye during an afternoon walk at their home in Elgin, finding himself right in the middle of a herd of horses on the neighbor’s property. Instead of spooking, Betsy bent her head lovingly to the child, and Rupert, a lifelong horseman, says then something extraordinary happened.
“I put him up, and I got behind him, and I thought ‘now what do I do?’” Rupert explains.
“So I said almost rhetorically, ‘do you want to go to the woods or the pond?’ and he said ‘to the pond,’ and I was like ‘Is this echolalia?’ I don’t know, but we’re building on something here. We get down to the pond and this big blue heron flapped up from the pond and Rowan said ‘heron.’ I didn’t know he knew that word. So that was the first lucid communicative speech, and I knew at that moment the door had opened a crack into his world, and I’d found my way in.”
Every moment spent in the saddle with his father was a joy for young Rowan, and his language skills continued to progress. And this is where the story goes farther—much farther—than you would think. Following his gut, Rupert Isaacson told his wife he wanted to take the family on a healing journey to Mongolia. Kristin wasn’t so sure about that.
“It thought it was an absolutely absurd idea,” Kristin says. “And it’s funny, it’s not so much because of the shaman aspect. It was more the going to Mongolia part that got me, because our lives were so stressful, and, you know, [Rowan] did tantrum so easily, and he had so many sensory issues, and we had so much going on, and also the other part is I don’t like to ride horses! So the idea of going of going to Mongolia and riding from shaman to shaman on horseback just seemed like kind of hell to me.”
But Rupert was determined, and Kristin wasn’t about to let them go alone. And so it was decided. And this is where the documentary begins. The couple invited a filmmaker friend, Michel Orion Scott, to join them. The plan was to go to Mongolia and travel across the steppe, visiting healers and bathing in sacred waters. Shortly after leaving the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, they attended their first healing ceremony with nine shamans.
“That ritual was really intense,” Rupert exclaims. “It lasted for about 4 ½ hours, and initially, it was just too much for Rowan, and it was too much for us. I got whipped with rawhide, Kristin got whipped with rawhide. Kristin was made to wash her… her bit where Rowan came out with a sort of sacred vodka. I thought she was going to divorce me!”
But then halfway through the ritual, something shifted, as Rupert explains.
“Rowan began to laugh and joke and sort of play with the shamans, and try to tickle them and grab their headdress. And his whole demeanor changed, and I thought, well, maybe this is okay." Rupert continues, "As [Rowan] started to enjoy himself, we started to relax. Then something amazing happened. Towards the end of that final ceremony, Rowan turned to this little six-year-old boy and opened his arms, and hugged him and said ‘Mongolian brother.’ He’d never done anything like that before.”
The Isaacsons headed north to Siberia to an encounter with a powerful shaman named Ghoste that lived among the reindeer. After that, the terrible symptoms Rowan suffered from stopped, almost instantly.
“Ghoste had said, the stuff that drives you crazy, the incontinence and the tantruming will stop now,” Rupert says. “I was skeptical. But those changes happened right when Ghoste said they would.”
That was in 2007. Since then, the Isaacsons have taken two more healing journeys, according to Ghoste’s instructions. In 2008, they visited the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, and just this summer, they traveled to Australia. Rowan’s parents continue to take him to regular behavioral therapy sessions, and they’re quick to point out they’re not born-again shamanists; they do practice Western medicine. Rowan has continued to show remarkable progress. He’s on a regular first grade curriculum, and now he rides Betsy all by himself. Rupert Isaacson says he understands how anyone could be skeptical of their story.
“Skepticism is a very necessary tool. You don’t want to be chucking credulity around willy-nilly. What you want to do is look for results. The thing was,” he says, “we were getting them.”
And Michel Scott, whose award-winning film, "The Horse Boy," documents the Isaacsons’ journey, says he doesn’t pretend to know exactly what happened out there on the Mongolian steppe. But he does know one thing:
“Had the parents not decided to take this trip; had they decided not to take that extra step, to follow their child, and follow the love they have for their child, to think outside of the box, I can say 100% without a doubt, none of this would have happened.”
Five years ago, Rupert Isaacson saw a dark, desperate future for his child. And now? In an email following up after this interview, he says: “I see that Rowan's autism has so many gifts -- his profound love of nature, his gift of memory, his ability to discern patterns and relationships between species, his ability with animals. I see no reason why he won’t be able to pursue a career and lead a productive, happy, joyous life. It won’t be quite like yours or mine, but that’s no bad thing. What if it’s much, much better than yours or mine? Who’s to say it isn’t already?”
Trailer: "The Horse Boy"