Autism, Horses and a Hail Mary Trip to Mongolia

Rowan Isaacson is a seven-year-old boy with autism. Until the age of five he had suffered every symptom the illness threw every possible symptom and limitation his way. Rowan's father and mother, Rupert and Kristin, were heartbroken that their son's life was filled with wild tantrums and little meaningful connection. "You're saying goodbye to a bunch of dreams that I think every parent has of a certain type of childhood, and a certain type of relationship with your child," said Rupert.

"He would just stare off into space," Isaacson said. "I was worried it was going to get progressively worse and that eventually, he might float away from us entirely."

]Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan

One day in the midst of a tantrum Rowan wandered off into a neighboring horse paddock, and scrambled under the hooves of a mare. The absolute worst place for a small child. Surprisingly, the mare, whose name is Betsy, sniffled the boy, accepting him.

"I've never seen a horse offer that to a babbling two-and-a-half-year-old," he said. "Rowan and Betsy obviously had some sort of connection."

Isaacson quickly made arrangements with the neighbor for Rowan to "ride" Betsy, because that mystical connection held the key to his son's apparent happiness. Isaacson, a horse trainer for most of his adult life, began horseback riding along with with Rowan, finding that the rocking rhythm of the animal's stride soothed his son. Throughout his horseback riding, Rowan continued with more orthodox therapies, including applied behavioral analysis, one of the most commonly used therapies for kids with autism. Isaacson quickly made arrangements with the neighbor for Rowan to "ride" Betsy.

He would be in the midst of a terrible tantrum and Rupert would put him on Betsy, and it was like that - it's instant," Kristin said. "He would calm, he would stop ... His language just started to pour out of him," Rupert said. "And the door into his mind sort of opened a crack. Whenever he was on a horse he wouldn't tantrum. When I put him on Betsy that would be the only time his tantrums would stop, any other situation and he could turn at any point. We wanted to keep him on a horse as long as possible.

Horseboy Rowan in Mongolia

The transformation with Betsy was so extreme, his parents bet on another extreme chance: a quest to Mongolia, where the connection between humans, horses, and healing has been very strong for centuries. In the summer of 2007 when Rowan was 5, Isaacson and his family went to Mongolia, spending four weeks where Rowan was happiest: on the back of a horse.

"Before we went to Mongolia, Rowan was incontinent and subject to neurological fits and tantrums and was cut off from his peers," said Isaacson. "We came back with a child that was toilet trained and no longer having tantrums. He made his first friend on that trip, too."

It was the most extraordinary thing. It really was remarkable to see how quickly he changed, Pretty mind blowing actually.

said Rowan's mother Kristin.
More than two years later, the progress continues with traditional therapy and horseback riding.

Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan[/caption]

Is Rowan cured of autism? His parents are quick to say "no." But at the same time, he's doing remarkably better, and they believe his connection with horses is a big reason why.

Others are in agreement, yet others argue that Rowan's transformation gives false hope to thousands of parents of autistic children. While therapeutic riding programs have grown in popularity among parents of autistic children, not every child makes a similar transformation.

Instructor Amy Causey says science hasn't explained it, but she sees once-unreachable children respond.

"For some reason they have that other sense that they can connect and understand how that horse is feeling and that helps them understand how they are feeling," Amy said.

Rupert Isaacson has written a book, "Horse Boy," about the journey, and has opened a center where other autistic children can find their own connection with horses for free. "Every family goes to Mongolia in their own way," Rupert said. "Every family goes to the ends of the earth."

As for the ongoing debate about Hippotherapy and autism, the answer hasn't yet arrived. We know that animals provide a low-pressure environment for kids to practice certain types of social skills. Therapists use horses as social objects for children to relate to, for learning how to read more subtle social signals. There is little doubt that this skill is important, and that it can be learned. In itself, it is not a cure for autism. Perhaps Hippotherapy can address many of the symptoms of autism, allowing for some self-regulation and mood improvement. It may also help with accepting certain kinds of stimulation from the environment. The resulting calmer, less agitated child will be happier and easier to live with, more enjoyable family member.

And for the Isaacson's, life is far happier today than it was before Rowan began riding.

Isaacson and his wife founded The New Trails Center , which offers homeschooling and equine therapy for kids like Rowan.

"Every parent of an autistic child knows they have to go up a few blind alleys before they find what will work for their child," said Isaacson. "No one should be so hamstrung by skepticism that it forces them into an extreme position that they stop following possibilities."

"Rowan was healed of some of the dysfunctions he had and that, for us, was miraculous," he said.

"That made the difference between a horrible life and a life where Rowan's life and ours were in harmony."
Mr. Isaacson has optioned feature film rights for “The Horse Boy” to Mark Ordesky, an executive producer of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Ileen Maisel, an executive producer of the “Golden Compass.” Mr. Isaacson is writing the screenplay. I am looking forward to reading the book and watching the film!

References for this post:
The Daily
Patricia E
The Horse Boy
About Behavioral Analysis

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Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 28, 2009 at 1:10pm

Thank you for commenting here!

Mr Isaacson is on a US tour supporting his book, so check to see if he's coming to a city near you. You can get your book autographed, and hear about his son and his trip first hand!

I too am reading the book, and loving every minute of it.
Comment by Dorothy McDonall on April 28, 2009 at 11:45am
I just bought this book on Sunday and am really looking forward to reading it.

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