Psych Central: The Magic of Equine-Facilitated Therapy (2009)

The New York Times published a fascinating article last week about one young family’s success using an unorthodox combination of equine (horse)-assisted therapy and Mongolian shamanism to ease their autistic son’s behavioral difficulties:


By Renée M. Grinnell

When Rupert Isaacson decided to take his autistic son, Rowan, on a trip to Mongolia to ride horses and seek the help of shamans two years ago, he had a gut instinct that the adventure would have a healing effect on the boy. Mr. Isaacson’s instinct was rewarded after the trip, when some of Rowan’s worst behavioral issues, including wild temper tantrums, all but disappeared.

…“The Horse Boy” traces Rowan’s early difficulties with “demonic” tantrums, speech delays and incontinence. The only thing that seemed to help, Mr. Isaacson discovered, was riding horses. On horseback Rowan was calm, gave verbal directives and expressed joy.

Then Mr. Isaacson, who had previously written about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa and witnessed several shamanic ceremonies, took his son to a convention of traditional healers. For a few days Rowan improved.

Mr. Isaacson, a travel writer, wondered where he could combine horses and shamanic healing, and landed upon Mongolia… A young filmmaker agreed to record the trip.

The Isaacson family’s approach was unorthodox to say the least, and Mr. Isaacson is careful to specify that “the book isn’t really saying that shamanism cures autism or horses cure autism; it’s saying we found a way.” He added later in the article that he wanted to write a book to reassure families with newly diagnosed autistic children, to demonstrate that it was still possible to “lead a life of adventure” together.

Although the Times story makes for great reading, and I’m delighted to hear the Isaacsons have found some treatment approaches that work for them and for Rowan, it’s important to keep in mind before hopping the next plane to Mongolia that this is one story about what worked for one family. While seeing shamans worked for the Isaacsons, its validity as a treatment approach for autistic disorders certainly counts as new and uncharted territory for now.

The therapeutic value of horses, however, has made equine-assisted therapy an increasingly popular and well-researched treatment modality. I volunteered at a NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) equine-assisted therapy barn for many years, where I saw firsthand the positive effects of interacting with horses on people living with various physical, mental, and emotional challenges. For a wheelchair-bound person, the gentle swing of the horse’s walk exercises the same pelvic and trunk muscles used for walking, improving balance and coordination. The instant height and mobility gained from sitting on a horse do equal wonders for the rider’s confidence and self-esteem.

Perhaps my favorite memory from my years working at the barn is of a tiny autistic boy who came with his mother each week to ride Hank, a former show horse. Although Hank was easily twice as tall as the boy, he carefully packed his tiny cargo around the ring, slowing or stopping whenever his rider tensed up from nervousness. The boy couldn’t speak, and communicated mainly by hand signals.

I will never forget the look on the mother’s face when, after five or six weeks of lessons, her son looked at us and very clearly said the word “trot”.



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