When Rupert Isaacson's son, Rowan, was diagnosed with autism in 2004 at the age of 4, he and his now-ex-wife, Kristin, were convinced by doctors their son would lack skills in school and society, including a relationship with them as parents.
Eleven years later, Rowan is able to read, write and do basic algebra. He is interested in opening a zoo for "endangerous" (his word) animals — endangered and dangerous. Most important of all, though, he is able to maintain friendships with people of all ages, especially his parents, despite what Rupert's family was told that day in 2004. The source of this miraculous change? A horse.
The organization he founded to share the success, Horse Boy, has spread to 11 countries and will start this summer in Carbondale, with valley publicist Sheryl Barto operating the practice out of her home.
"My son's diagnosis was presented to us like a catastrophe," said Isaacson, who lives in Austin, Texas. "They told us, 'You can say goodbye to all these dreams,' and it felt like an emotional baseball bat. But there's always that part of me asking, 'What's the other 50 percent of the story?'"
In 2004, after his diagnosis, Rowan slipped through a hole in a fence into a neighbor's yard where horses were grazing. Isaacson ran after him, fearing his son would be trampled. He slowly made his way toward Rowan in order to remove him from any danger.
But as Isaacson approached, he noticed that the alpha mare, a sweet horse named Betsy, nudged the other horses away from Rowan and leaned down closer to the boy, half closing her eyes and 'licking and chewing,' which Isaacson, a longtime horse trainer, describes as "an act of submission, like a dog showing its belly."
After several visits with Betsy, Rowan eventually insisted on being lifted onto her back. Soon, Isaacson and Rowan began to ride together. For the next four years, Isaacson and Rowan lived in the saddle together, learning not just the alphabet and how to do basic math, but about the door that autism had opened for the father and son.
"It felt like the gates of heaven opening up to us, honestly," Isaacson said, describing how it felt to see Rowan's behavioral changes before and after riding with him. "We had a completely different child."
A trip to Mongolia, where horses and healing are intertwined, thousands of hours spent in the saddle learning and living together, and a miracle later, Horse Boy, an organization founded by Isaacson in 2007, was brought into existence. It has a simple mission: "bring the healing effects of horses, nature and supportive community to autism families free of charge."
12,000 FAMILIES WEEKLY
Today, Horse Boy has more than 1,000 practitioners administering a scientifically proven, six-stage method that has seen positive results in autistic children and their families universally, reaching 12,000 families weekly. The method is simple enough: get outside and move.
On June 17, Isaacson and Barto held a demo at the Carbondale Rodeo Grounds, with the help of local organization Ascendigo. They explained the Horse Boy method to 25 people interested in learning more about the organization.
Both Barto and Isaacson want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with being autistic.
"Autism translates to 'locked within the self,'" Isaacson said. "An autistic person's amygdala is overactive. Their fight-flight-freeze response is overactive and the nervous system up and down the spine is misfiring, giving wrong information and creating what I call a negative spiral," Isaacson said. "Their clothes feel like they're ten tons too heavy, someone's voice could sound like a jack hammer to the head. This creates a negative spiral and can cause a child to shut down very quickly."
Isaacson's motive behind Horse Boy is to create a positive spiral, and allow for autistic children, adults and their families to realize autism does not inhibit the ability to lead a "typical life." If anything, according to Isaacson, it allows those faced with autism to lead an extraordinary life.
"Rocking produces oxytocin, so I then need to start riding with the child in front of me in a very consistent rhythm, in a positive, non-triggering environment, producing oxytocin, which calms the nervous system, and tells the amygdala to stop producing cortisol, the stress hormone. This activates the cerebellum, thus producing Purkinje cells, which makes the brain talk to itself properly. This activates the prefrontal cortex, the commanding officer of the brain, which is related to emotional functioning and reasoning, which in turn tells the amygdala there is no threat, it can calm down, and then the brain is open for learning."
Anyone can learn this method and become a Horse Boy practitioner. Through Horse Boy's five-level training technique, anyone can become certified in these therapeutic practices, and use them anywhere in nature with a horse or in a living room with a rocking chair. Barto, a trained, level-four Horse Boy practitioner, has worked for three years to bring Horse Boy to the Roaring Fork Valley.
Barto, mother to an autistic son and longtime lover of horses, will open her own Horse Boy approved practice out of her home, with partner and step-daughter — "I prefer to call her my bonus daughter" Barto said — Zoe Hanlon, 14; her stepson/bonus son, Zane, 11; sons Mark, 19, and James, 21, and husband, Karl Hanlon.
The whole family has contributed to getting Barto's practice up and running, including the family pets. Barto is already accepting families, and should officially open for business by the end of August. The practice will be run out of the family's property, with the help of horses Adobe, Alaska and Gates.
"I love horses," Barto said. "I've been riding since I was 12, and my son and I leased a horse for a year when he was 12," Barto said of how she decided to become a practitioner. "It was a really great experience, but I never noticed changes in his behavior like Rupert did. We were just getting joy from being out there and around horses. I realize now, though, that this is what I want to do with the second half of my life."
Isaacson believes that a Horse Boy practice should be found every five miles; one in 68 children older than 8 and one out of 56 boys are diagnosed with autism.
"I think these kids are dream whisperers," Isaacson said. "When I started serving these kids and families, and making their dreams come true, my dreams came true, too. My son is my biggest mentor, and we learn more and more about life together every day. The method is a logical way for a neuro-typical brain to understand a non-neuro-typical brain. Autism doesn't close doors, it opens them."