Delayed language, tantrums, arm flapping, hyperactivity, incontinence—Rupert Isaacson’s son, Rowan, possessed all the signs associated with autism. Rather than helping, behavioral therapies, diet changes and special classrooms seemed to bring out the worst of the boy’s behaviors. Only when they were riding their neighbor’s mare, Betsy, across a Texas range did Rowan exhibit lucidity and calmness and his father feel some reprieve from his incessant grief and fatigue. Isaacson’s astonishing memoir, The Horse Boy, reveals how, inspired by these rare moments in the saddle, he began a quest through Mongolia to heal his five-year-old son.

A travel writer, accomplished horse rider, and activist for the Bushmen of the Kalahari, Isaacson (The Healing Land) had witnessed the shamans’ indescribable healings and had even borrowed Rowan’s middle name, Besa, from a Bushman healer and good friend. He set his sights first on the shamans of the horse people of Mongolia and then on finding Ghoste, the most powerful shaman of the nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia.

With intensity and candor, Issacson describes their travels by horseback, shamanistic rituals, Rowan’s small leaps forward and continuing setbacks, his own fears and worries after dragging his family across the world, and the miraculous transformations that eventually changed Rowan and brought peace to the family. There’s a reason extreme locales are referred to as Outer Mongolia; the author weaves the flavor of this remote region into his story, from exotic foods that required him to overcome his gag reflex, to river crossings that put both horse and rider in danger.

Isaacson’s journey to heal his son is just that, a healing, not a cure. But he wouldn’t want it any other way. While the author’s purpose was to draw Rowan out of his autism, he came to realize the overlooked gifts it entails. The Horse Boy will leave readers with a new appreciation for autism and the healing techniques of other cultures; like Rowan, they, too, will be changed forever.


Angela Leeper is an educational consultant and writer in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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