At the foot of the mountain, a small boy sits wriggling in his father’s arms, giggling at the strange figure dancing before him. Wearing a deer-skin coat hung with ribbons, pieces of antler, arcane symbols forged in iron, on his head a masked, feathered headdress, the shaman dances to the rhythm of his own drum, chanting and intoning; lost in trance. All of a sudden, he sits down and beckons for the boy to be passed to him. Still laughing, but also nervous, the small boy is put under the drum, the thundering rhythm loud in his ears. Father and mother look on worriedly: will this be too much for their child?
From the pine tree above, its branches hung with blue silk prayer scarves left there as offerings by previous supplicants to the Lord of the Mountain, an eagle looks down on the proceedings, stormclouds gather in the distance. Two cawing ravens flap by on the quickening wind. The horses, grazing outside the circle of noise and movement, swish their tails and look up, ears pricked as the shaman drops his drum, hugs the boy to him and then, with a great shriek, lifts the boy to the heavens, mingling his prayers with those of the mother and father. Please help this child. Lord of the Mountain, help this child.
In April 2004 Rowan Isaacson, a two year old boy, was diagnosed with autism. The new epidemic, which now touches one child in one hundred and fifty (though no one can agree why), seemed to snatch away his soul. The charming, animated, blue-eyed, brown-haired boy suddenly ceased to say the few words he had accrued over the previous year. He began to flap his arms and babble, to obsessively line up his toys, to retreat into himself for hours at a time, to avoid eye contact, to scream uncontrollably, inconsolably, as his nervous system erupted like a series of volcanoes, searing him with burning, with pain, terrifying him, traumatizing him, causing him to ‘fly away’ into an otherworld far from the reaches of his distraught, grieving parents.
That same year, while casting about for solutions, Rowan’s father Rupert stumbled upon something extraordinary. He noticed that his quarter-horse mare, Betsy, displayed submissive body language to the two year old boy whenever he wandered, babbling and spasmodic, into the horse pasture.Intrigued, Rupert put him up on the mare’s back. Immediately the ‘stimming’ (self-stimulation) stopped, replaced by an unusual, even blissful calm. The next day Rupert took Rowan riding with him, holding him in front of him in the saddle. Not only did the shrieking and jerking cease, Rowan began to talk.
Rupert had found his way into his son’s world. Betsy, the patient, bay mare, had provided the link between his world and his son’s.
Again that same year, Rupert Isaacson — a human rights activist and journalist — had to bring a number of San Bushman hunter-gatherers from Southern Africa to America to speak out about the loss of their land to diamond mining. Rowan and his mother Kristin — a professor of psychology — joined Rupert for part of that journey; ten days at a gathering of healers, elders and shamans from around the world. While there, some of the healers brought Rowan into their ceremonies, praying over him, going into trance. Rowan’s autistic symptoms began dramatically to reverse. So, thought his father, where in the world is there a place that combines horses and shamanic healing?
In the summer of 2007, Rupert and Kristin took Rowan to Mongolia, journeying on horseback from healer to healer, shaman to shaman, across the wide Steppe, and up into the forests of Siberia. This is their story.