The “Horse Boy” and the Shamans

If you saw the 2009  documentary The Horse Boy, about Rowan, the autistic boy who is helped somewhat by horseback riding and by Mongolian shamans, there is more to the story. (There is also a book, The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing, published in 2010.)

Before it was released as a DVD, the local university sponsored a showing of The Horse Boy. I called my friend Hal, whose autistic son is now about nine, and asked him if he was interested in seeing it. This boy too enjoys riding horses and donkeys, which he is able to do at home and on trail rides into the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Hal writes eloquently about life with an autistic son, but my suggestion hit a wall. I brought it up again —  same reaction. So I shut up. I am not the one with the autistic son, he is. Maybe he does not like the idea of magic. Maybe a trip to Mongolia just seems impossible.

Meanwhile, Rowan’s father, Rupert Isaacson, a widely traveled man whose parents came from southern Africa, was himself born in London and now lives with his family in Texas, has kept on taking his son to shamanic healers in Africa and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

This is not without controversy. As he writes in the Daily Mail,

So many people thought we were mad, deluded. One friend said: ‘All those shamans. It’s like you’re going to some spiritual supermarket!’

The publication of The Horse Boy was met with a torrent of hate mail accusing us of giving false hope, of abandoning established methods. (In fact, we had continued to follow the orthodox treatments).

But there was one group that did support us: parents. Much of the motivation for telling the story had been my own despair at Rowan’s diagnosis.

If, back then, there had been some story of hope, of autism as an adventure rather than a catastrophe, I would have taken heart sooner, despaired less, and most likely found solutions more quickly.

And the only things that had worked for Rowan in any positive way were the horse riding and the shamans.

The Isaacsons have set up their own therapeutic system, the Horse Boy Method: “We let the children use the horses like a couch, to allow all the physical and emotional discomfort to fall away, and the intellect come to the fore.” I think my friend Hal has developed something similar on his own, although his son goes to special-education classes too.

2 thoughts on “The “Horse Boy” and the Shamans

  1. I have not seen the film, but I read the book very soon after its publication. It was handed to me by a friend with whom we lived at the time & whose passion was her horses. She had been working very closely with them, trying to develop a psycho-spiritual links with them, sometimes sleeping with them at night. I suppose they were, for all accounts and purposes, her children.

    The book made me cry on more than one occasion, for joy, for grief, for anger. Mostly, I think it touched me so deeply for that very reason Isaacson noted: parents. As a parent, it was impossible to not reject the desire to do anything within your power to heal, comfort, soothe your child.

    Of course, I have no problem with magick and perhaps that makes me an exception, but I tend to think that story is much bigger than just the shamans’ magick anyway. Its quite a journey, even for the bedside reader, offering a very poignant illustration of living with a child with autism, an interesting perspective on living with horses & some really wonderful descriptions of people, culture & place, in addition to the very colourful tale of their epic & strenuous journey. I have recommended it many times & would again.

  2. Barb Davy

    I think there are a few aspects of Shamanic healing that can be particularly helpful with autism. Sometimes the family is very much in need of healing to begin again to see the autistic person as fully human, as a person rather than a problem to be solved. Parents of young children often despair that their child will never have a full life, and mistake lack of physical ability with mental incapacity. Professionals do this too, and it can be horribly frustrating for the autistic person. I hate to make generalizations about Shamanism, but I think in general religious approaches have the potential to be helpful if they help people presume competence of autistic people, because religious approaches often assume there is more to a person than is immediately apparent (such as a soul that is complete no matter what the physical manifestation of the body and mind).

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