erik lundegaard


The Horse Boy (2009)


How far would you go to help your child? To grasp at a final straw that may help your child?

“The Horse Boy,” a documentary by Michel O. Scott about a couple living in Texas with their autistic four-year-old boy, gives one answer: Mongolia.

Actually that’s not even the real question-and-answer. The real question-and-answer is this: How far would you go in your mind to help him with his? Would you go so far as to believe that a visit to shamans in Mongolia, and to the reindeer people in upper Mongolia near the Russian border, would help his autism? As uncommon as “The Horse Boy” is, in other words, it’s still a common story. When life throws us a gigantic curveball, and western society/medicine shrugs its shoulders, what cure won’t we try?

Rupert Isaacson, a long-haired Brit, met his future wife, Kristin Neff, a down-to-earth Californian, in India in 1994. For seven years they traveled together before getting married and settling down near Austin, Texas, where she was a professor and he was a travel writer. A son, Rowan, was born in December 2001. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism. It was, says Rupert, narrating the film, “like being hit across the face by a baseball bat.”

He adds. “We tried everything,” but the child couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. He had tantrums, inconsolable tantrums, several times a day, some lasting for hours. We watch footage of some of these tantrums, and we both sympathize with the parents and want to get away from the child. And if we, watching one meltdown for 10 to 15 seconds, feel such a tension between sympathy (which moves toward) and flight (which moves away), imagine how the parents, who had to deal with this 24/7, feel. It’s a wonder they didn’t break.

Then one day Rowan ran onto a neighbor’s property and up to a horse named Betsy. Rupert was a horseman himself, a good rider, but he kept Rowan away from horses for obvious reasons. The child is small and fragile and doesn’t know it, and the horse, big and strong, doesn’t know the importance of the child. Both beings are potentially volatile.

But there was an immediate connection between the two. Betsy’s reaction to the boy was gentle and submissive, and Rowan, on Betsy’s back, calmed down and actually began talking. “This is a nice horse,” he says. Rowan, it turned out, had an affinity with animals, particularly horses, particularly Betsy.

And this is when Rupert makes a giant leap of faith. In his travels, he’d encountered shamans in different parts of the world, and he searches for a place that combines healing and horses. It’s the area of the world where horse-riding began: Mongolia. And off they go.

No easy task. A trip with Rowan to the local supermarket can easily turn into a disaster; and now they’re taking him across the world? It doesn’t help that the Mongolian city they land in, far from Rupert’s expectations, is a depressed post-Soviet city; an urban slum.

With a van they trek to nearby mountains and visit nine shamans, who examine the three, and chant, and declare that Rowan’s problem is an ancestor on Kristin’s side, her mother’s mother, who is clinging to the boy. They say a black energy entered Kristin’s womb during Rowan’s birth. Meanwhile, Rowan is crying and crying, “Did I really have his best interests at heart here?” Rupert wonders. Afterwards both parents are lashed by a shaman to release evil spirits.

The whole thing seems insane.

“And then something happened,” Rupert reports. There’s a lot of this. Something is always happening in the doc, and this time it’s Rowan laughing and playing with another boy, the son of their guide, across the steppes of Mongolia. He had never played with other children before. To the parents, it’s a giant step forward, and they don’t know where the credit lies. To the shamans? To the adventure itself? To the mountain air?

But for every step forward... The plan is to trek across Mongolia by horse to upper Mongolia, and the reindeer people there, but, on a horse with his father, Rowan throws tantrums in a way he never has on a horse, shouting “Car! Car! Car!,” and much of the trip has to be made by van, where Rowan is consoled by the plastic animals—his horses and cows and pigs—he’s brought along.

Talking heads throughout the doc try to explain to us what autism is (a disorder of neural development), how it manifests itself (obsessive, repetitive, uncommunicative behavior), and what advantages it may have (the ability to focus). It’s posited that some of our most brilliant minds may have been mildly autistic. It’s posited that shamans may be mildly autistic. One of the talking heads, a professor, turns out to be autistic herself, and says she wouldn’t trade it, and the clarity of its focus, for what other folks supposedly have. Another talking head states that we need to move in the direction of viewing autism not as something other than normal but simply another way of being.

Whatever loftier goals Rupert and Kristin had at the outset—i.e., possibly “curing” Rowan of his autism—are, halfway through the trip, simpler: Rupert wants Rowan to ride a horse by himself; and Kristin wants Rowan to poop properly. There are autistic adults who still shit in their pants, and that’s one of her great fears: cleaning up shit every day for the rest of her life. At bottom is the great fear of all parents of autistic children: If the child doesn’t learn to function in society, if he can’t interact with others, what will happen when they, the parents, die? Who will care for him?

Emotions careen with Rowan’s moods. At one point Rupert says, “Don’t put the camera on me. I just want to cry.” The final trek is made, up grassy mountains, and Kristin has a harder time of it than Rowan. The Reindeer people are found. The shamans are visited. Rituals are performed.

The takeaway is this: By the end of the doc, both parents get their wish, and Kristin, back in Texas, says the difference between Rowan before the adventure and after is night and day. Now he poops in a toilet. Now he plays with other children. So was it the adventure? Was it the shamans? I have a touch of Hamlet in me—There are more things in heaven and earth, Erik... —but ultimately I’m a cynical man who knows people will believe what they want or need to believe. Kristin, down-to-earth, leans toward the adventure; Rupert, always vaguely hippyish, leans towards the shamanism. Both agree the why isn’t as important as the progress Rowan made.

The importance of the doc for the viewer, meanwhile, is, yes, this dichotomy between what we don’t know from science and what we don’t know from religion, and the ways we fill the gap—the chasm—between the two. The unknowability of Rowan helps us reflect upon the unknowability of all of us.

But its true importance is simpler. We spend 90 minutes with an autistic boy. We watch him at his worst. And in the end, we see him riding Betsy, bareback. by himself. Smiling.

—November 13, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard