In his extraordinary best seller 'The Horse Boy', Rupert Isaacson told the heart-warming story of the equine adventure that helped ease his son's autism. Now he is determined to bring the therapy to children here.
With his long, blond hair, biker jacket and distressed jeans, Rupert Isaacson looks like a surf dude displaced to the lobby of the plush hotel where we meet. After a day spent on a friend's farm in North Wales – a faint aroma of leather, sweat and horse surrounds him – he is shattered. A long train journey back to London followed, and he has shoehorned this interview into a packed schedule before flying home to Texas the next morning.
Weary, then, but not so weary that he's willing to accept a substandard glass of the wine that he'd carefully selected from the waiter's extensive list. "It's on the edge, I think," he says politely after the first sip. A new bottle is opened. A man who looks as if beer is his tipple knows his grape.
Satisfied, he settles back into his chair, one battered boot up on the table between us. I wait for the spiel. He must have the routine off pat, having been interviewed countless times by journalists from all over the world following the publication of his acclaimed book, The Horse Boy, earlier this year.
It is the extraordinary story of Isaacson's autistic son, Rowan, a tormented child given to demonic tantrums, long silences and incontinence, who is discovered to have a special affinity with horses. Riding in front of his father on Betsy, a temperamental mare owned by a neighbour, Rowan finds some sort of mental and physical peace. His vocabulary, once limited to a few words of dialogue from his favourite DVD, Toy Story, starts to expand, and he begins to interact in a meaningful way with his desperate parents.
Conventional therapies have brought Rowan little relief, so Isaacson and his Californian wife Kristin, a child psychologist, decide to exploit this chink of light in Rowan's dark world. They take the five year-old to Mongolia, birthplace of the horse. Travelling on horseback and by van, they seek out shamans, the traditional medicine men of the steppe and, according to believers, intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. The family take part in bizarre ceremonies en route to the sacred Lake Sharga before a final encounter 12,000 ft up a mountain with Ghoste, a shaman to the Reindeer People.
Rowan returns healed, not cured – on that Isaacson is very clear – and the family's life is transformed. Rupert and Kristin still have an autistic child but the rages and silences abate, there are no more lavatory "accidents", and his verbal and writing skills improve dramatically. Best of all, Rowan starts to make friends.
It is a tale that is fantastical in parts, grim in others but funny and heart-warming. Publishers recognised its potential immediately, offering a $1m advance after reading Isaacson's 37-page proposal for the trip. He had literary form, of course, as a widely published travel journalist who had worked for the Telegraph, and written a book on the Kalahari. But this was different, and so it proved. The book is a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, has been serialised internationally, and the film rights sold with Isaacson writing the screenplay. "I get two goes at it," he says. "I don't care who plays me. Robert Downey Jr perhaps?"
There is also a documentary; Isaacson's friend Michael, a film-maker, charted the draining reality of life with Rowan before the trip and accompanied the family on their adventure in 2007. It will be shown on BBC4's Storyville in November.
We meet to talk about the documentary, which removes some of the book's romanticism with its unflinching portrayal of the rigours of the venture and the toll it took on them all. The footage also shows, in a way that words did not, the enormous depth of love this father has for his troubled son. Isaacson, however, has other things he wishes to discuss. Mentally he has already moved on from the success of The Horse Boy,and is consumed by what the Horse Boy – or rather the Horse Boy's father – does next. Passionate about horses from boyhood, and a former professional trainer, Isaacson, 42, who was born in Britain to parents from southern Africa, is convinced of the therapeutic powers of equus. "There's an old English saying: 'There's nowt so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.' I believe it," he says simply.
Using some of the proceeds from the book, he has opened an equine therapy and nature centre called New Trails, near the family home in Austin, for children with learning disabilities and personality disorders. It is a charitable venture; only those parents who can afford to pay do so. He sees it as Rowan's living legacy, a place where the healing powers of the horse are combined with those of the natural world.
"Horses are social creatures and they have a great capacity for empathy," he says. "The best therapy horses tend to be dominant females, like Betsy. They will nurture the young and that includes children. And we know that kids with neurological issues do better in nature. They have nervous systems that are misfiring so the less stimuli, from the lights, smells and noise of the modern world, the better."
Now he is hoping to open a similar centre here, in association with Frederick Hugh House, a school for children with moderate learning delays in Kensington, west London.
"Disabled children are well catered for when it comes to riding but those with learning disabilities less so," he says. His trip to Wales was to see an old friend whom he hopes will be involved in the venture. Riding for the Disabled, the British charity, has been "very welcoming" to the initiative, he says. "They've been looking for better ways to serve all kids.'
Scores of children have visited the Texan centre since it opened in October 2008. There are four "therapy horses", and few children have failed to benefit, he says.
"For a kid who's unwilling to speak or interact directly, being on a horse with you [or with you walking beside the horse] offers a way of indirect contact. It is a voice in their ear, not in their face. Horses are big, warm, and comforting and they smell good – a safe therapy room if you like."
He believes the children get a "massive adrenalin rush" from cantering and galloping, which seems to inspire them verbally. He also cites German research that suggests that the hip movements involved in maintaining balance and posture in the saddle can trigger the release of a "feel good" hormone, oxytocin.
Isaacson is influenced by the work of Dr Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, who is severely autistic herself. She wrote a best-selling book about how autists "think in pictures", just as animals do. While this may prevent a child connecting with people who think in words – as most of us do – it can give them a greater connection with animals.
Dr Grandin also points to studies that show a repetitive rocking motion that requires a person to continually find and refind their balance stimulates areas of the brain where learning receptors are located. "Add the fact that being on a horse is just so darned cool and it's no wonder kids respond. If only more were taught this way," she says.
That, then, is Isaacson's mission now. Shamanism is not offered at New Trails, although any parents interested in it are "pointed in the right direction". Rupert Isaacson's own interest in this ancient tradition grew from his campaigning work as the founder of the Indigenous Land Rights Fund which helps displaced tribes to regain their ancestral lands.
Despite his appearance and occasional hippy demeanour, he claims not to have "a New Age bone in my body". He says shamanism is not magic but eminently practical in its application and its results. If it wasn't, it would not have persisted for thousands of years among people living on the edge of survival.
"I think it is about the power of suggestion. [Shamans] have found a powerful way to tap into the cognitive process and activate the immune system. Basically, that is what modern medicine does; give someone a drug and you also give them a powerful suggestion that this will work. Who knows how much of the benefit is down to the drug and how much is suggestion?" I wonder how this applies to an autistic child who is, presumably, less suggestible than a non-autistic child. He shrugs. "I don't know how it works. But then I don't know how a computer works either." He has since taken Rowan to visit shamans in Namibia and in Australia.
His wife, Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, says she is "open" to the possibilities of shamanism but also considers that the intensity of the experience of the Mongolian adventure and the time spent with both parents may be a factor in Rowan's dramatic improvement. Now seven, he reads and does maths to the ability of a nine year-old, is "pretty conversational" and capable of complex storytelling.
So was it the horses, shamanism or the adventure that brought this little boy some way out of the darkness of autism? Like the shamans, Rupert Isaacson is a practical man. Whatever it was, it worked. Now he wants other children to benefit, too.