The Horse Boy
(Documentary film, 2009)
There's a bit of magic in that instant when you first put a child onto the back of a good horse. It's a moment when a connection can form, and for many horse people, a memory like that one stands at the beginning of a lifetime relationship with all things equine.
When Rupert Isaacson put his son Rowan on the back of a neighbor's horse, it was just as magical, but something even more remarkable happened. Rowan's tantrum ended. He went quiet. He clung warmly to the horse's back, and then he started talking.
For other kids, that might not be unusual behavior, but Rowan is autistic, and the challenges his parents faced were much different than those that other parents dealt with. Rowan couldn't answer when someone asked his name. He couldn't be potty-trained. His tantrums were heartfelt and prolonged. He didn't socialize with other kids and he rarely spoke. He spent hours obsessively lining up toys end to end.
But something happened when the neighbor's mare, Betsy, came into the picture. On her back, Rowan was different. He was calmer, and he spoke more. He was happy. And for his parents, this was a glimmer of hope where every other form of therapy and medication had failed to make in-roads.
It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually take them to Mongolia, where they would participate in shamanic rituals, ride to waters renowned for their healing powers, and ride north to meet the Reindeer People who make their home near the Russian border. And by the time they returned home, their son was transformed.
I haven't read the book that also tells this story, but a friend who has told me that she was disappointed that the story didn't focus more on the horse's role in the story. This is also true of the documentary, but I don't count it as a failing on Isaacson's part in telling his family's story; on the contrary, this story is essentially about Rowan, and about his parents and how they deal with what their life together is. The horses are an agent of change for Rowan, and though the film carries an undercurrent of gratitude and affection toward its equine participants (particularly Betsy), they are not the focus of the story.
The documentary is wonderfully filmed and deftly edited (the music is particularly fantastic), and though at times it's uncomfortable to watch, it is an unflinchingly real look at how Rowan's autism affects his life. I watched him throw tantrums in which he seems almost terrified by his own helplessness to stop himself, and I watched his parents clean him up after yet another "code brown," and I saw his parents struggle to reconcile their love for this boy with their obvious anguish that he isn't able to really connect with them.
When father Rupert -- after trekking the remote Mongolian steppe with his wife and his autistic child, holding his son's flailing arms as a shaman beats a drum next to the boy's head -- wonders aloud whether he's insane and whether he's really doing this for his child's benefit, I wondered too.
When Rowan's parents marveled at some change in their son that seemed almost mundane to me, I wondered whether they aren't just seeing what they want to see, whether they were trying to justify what they'd put themselves and their child through by seeing progress that wasn't there.
And when Rowan ran off to play a game of chase with the Mongolian guide's son, and chattered like a normal boy, and sat atop a reindeer as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to anyone (which clearly it is, because he was sitting on a freaking reindeer), I did begin to see their point.
This film is a profoundly touching and deeply educational look into autism and the ways in which autistic people can form closer ties to their world. There are interview segments with experts, including Temple Grandin, and throughout the film it's clear that the goal with Rowan is to help him lead a richer life, relate better to his family, and take some of the pressure off of his parents. Similarly, the issue of traditional medicine is treated sensitively and respectfully; the Isaacsons may not both entirely buy into the idea of shamanism, but they're willing to try for their son, and they're full participants in the ceremonies of the many Mongolian shamans who come to help them, even when that means biting their tongues and taking their literal lashes. Ultimately, whether it's the shamanism or the horseback riding or just pushing him outside of his usual comfort zone, the trip does change something in Rowan.
Though the film's conclusion in some ways fails to lead up to the build-up -- particularly true of the segment in which a fairly arduous ride to see the reindeer people mostly culminates in Rowan sitting on a reindeer for a moment like a child in a petting zoo -- the whole of the film is both fascinating and inspiring, and definitely worth watching.
Rowan's parents have since founded The Horse Boy Foundation, an organization uniting autistic and neurotypical children in learning horsemanship. They also help to fund and support other autism programs.