This is a story of adventure, mystery, courage and love. A modern day fairy tale with all the best components, a humble hero, a beautiful woman, a troubled and much loved innocent, a handful of spirits with magical potions, demons, horses and mystical notions.
It is also true, a loving parents journey into the unknown, a courageous and honest account of what can happen when we listen to our instincts and honor the saying that ‘imagination is the highest kite we can fly’.
I do not know what it is like to raise an autistic child, a child who seems to inhabit a hidden realm that I cannot enter, a child overwhelmed at times by feelings and uncontrollable expressions of a determined life force beyond my comprehension. Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristen have an autistic child. One day, Rupert witnessed their beautiful dark haired boy interacting with a horse, this moment was to be the first step on a journey of hope and discovery, an adventure this family could never have imagined in their wildest dreams.
When I first heard Rupert in an interview on radio four and realized there would also be a film it felt like discovering a secret layer in a chocolate box, and I needed something sweet. A few years managing behavioral support services had soured my thinking and I was relieved to read an account of the positive impact that animals and natural environments can have for people with sensory issues.
It is a beautiful story that reminds us about a world full of natural resources and animals just waiting to help us reconnect, in this case through the unique perspective of a very special child. Rupert kindly agreed to spare his time to answer some questions that had popped into my head as I read the book.
SG – What is life like for you now since the success of the book?
RI – I’m amazed by the success of the book, I had no idea (no other book I have written has been successful at all) but if the book and film are useful to other people then I’m very happy.
SG – Have you been able to relax and find a balance with family life?
RI – That’s the nice thing about being a writer, I work from home so I get to parent more than if I worked 9-5, and because we live in the country, when things get stressful we only have to walk out the door to be in nature. Rowan is also home schooled so we don’t have to spend that much time apart which I love, I have to admit.
SG – Do you feel a sense of pressure and responsibility from parents in a similar situation?
RI – All autism (or special needs) parents are part of a wider community, I actually feel honored to be part of that community.
SG – For families who share some of the concerns you had for Rowan, what advice would you offer about where to begin if they sense their child may benefit from this type of interactive experience?
RI – Just see what your child is interested in and follow that. If you do that you probably won’t go wrong. If Rowan’s interests had been steam trains and bicycles then our story would have been that. But as much time in nature as possible, for kids with sensory issues, does seem to help enormously, and animals of course (not for 100% of kids but for most) can often act as therapists when humans fail. Follow your gut. Don’t be afraid of people telling you you’re crazy, if they say that you are probably on the right path.
SG – Do you think that positively facilitated experiences with other animals can be beneficial?
RI – Absolutely, one see’s it all the time, since we started running camps for other kids, we’ve seen children become verbal over the course of three or four days on horseback, or go from one or two words to a massively expanded vocabulary. We don’t really know why, and we are not the only people seeing these positive changes, we just see it happen so often we keep doing it.
SG – How do you think it works? Does having an agenda create certain barriers to the opportunity for healing or experiential learning to occur and, if so, how can someone embarking on a journey of discovery with their own child overcome these?
RI – I really don’t know, I just know that it does work, and yes, for healing you have to go in as non-attached as possible, remember a shaman or healer is a professional at what they do. If you approach it that way they have the best possible chance to do what they can for you. Try to be there as much for the general adventure as for the hoped for result. Hopefully it is an adventure you would want to do regardless of the need for healing.
SG – Is awareness amongst child development professionals growing in terms of equine therapy?
RI – Yes, fortunately, and for the need for kids to be in nature, especially those with sensory issues.
SG – Healing can be seen as a gradual awakening to a deeper sense of self and of others in a way that effects profound change, would you agree with this?
RI – I don’t think one can pin it down. Its different for every individual, sometimes its gradual, sometimes it’s a radical onset. It’s very context specific.
SG – How careful do we need to be that the horses spiritual resources do not become depleted?
RI – Give them plenty of other things to do, my horse jump, do dressage, do circus tricks and so on as well as working as therapy animals, I rotate them for the therapy work just as I would for other kinds of work to keep them fresh. I also have them living out in a herd with a walk in shed rather than in stables, this keeps them happy as horses.
SG – Has your experience increased your confidence in spiritual energy and intuition as opposed to scientific reason and logic, how does this manifest as your journey now branches out into the world of healing for other children?
RI – I have great faith in both spiritual healing and in western science. I honestly don’t think there is any conflict between the two. I always encourage parents to follow both paths simultaneously, and most good doctors and shamans say the same.
SG – Is there a danger that using behavior modification involving varying degrees of positive and negative punishment can disrupt a sensitive or autistic persons chances of processing information?
RI – Yes, I think pavlovian behavioral therapies like ABA (applied behavioral analysis) can set up deep seated resentments in the child (or animal, many animals are trained this way) and can inhibit their brilliance in return for short term results of ‘better behavior’. I think ABA’s methods can be made more positive if applied in an environment where the kid already wants to be (ie on a horse, on a swing, in a garden, park, beach etc). Get out of the therapy room and apply the therapies in nature, you’ll get much further that way.
SG – How important do you think effective environments are?
RI – We are genetically programmed to be out in nature, we thrive there, especially if we have sensory issues. Man made environments can be very stressful, environment is immensely important.
SG – Absorbing equine movement in order to maintain one’s balance astride a horse can naturally re align the energy balances within the mind/body/spirit, is this holistic therapy widely acknowledged?
RI – It is among the better horse professionals, those coaching at the top levels and among natural horsemanship people. It is the middle ground of horse people, who still often train by coercion and don’t believe in aligning yourself with the horse, but I’ve trained with some Olympic level coaches and they definitely train this way because it works.
SG – Do you think that part of the therapeutic value lies in having the horse ‘present’ as a ‘witness’ to the individuals sensory and somatic experiences? Do you think the horse provides sensory feedback that is comforting whilst holding a safe, repetitive and predictable rhythm through which processing information is facilitated differently?
RI – You know I honestly don’t know, I think it sounds pretty likely though.
SG – Is riding something Rowan always wants to do? How do you manage your expectations for his future?
RI – No, in fact lately (last few weeks) he seems to be transitioning out of riding. I will make sure it is always there for him but if its time for him to lead me in a different direction (in his case, wilderness and wildlife) I’m ready to follow. I will always ride for myself, however I suspect he will probably return to riding a little later, going in and out of natural seasons where it’s what he wants to do.
SG – I love the way you describe Rowan as having a ‘direct line’ to animals. When he first meets Betsy he seems to intuitively know how to manage the information that is shared between them in a way that eliminates the risks usually associated with lying on the ground near a horse. How significant was this moment for you?
RI – Massive, my son’s mind had been closed to me, Betsy helped him open it to me, I have never had a more profound moment as a parent.
SG – What is it about sitting on a horse that seemed to open up the dialogue you must have started to think would never be possible? How did this feel?
RI – It felt ecstatic. As for what was going on you’ll have to ask Betsy, and maybe in a few years Rowan will be able to articulate it. I was just a third party, but a very happy one.
SG – Do you have any more experiences to share since you opened up the ranch, can we expect another book?
RI – Yes we have continued to make healing journey’s (so far Africa, Australia and this year Native America and Northern Scandinavia). There will be another book, and many of the experiences on the ranch and the camps will be in there, I don’t want to give too much away but the next project has come direct from Rowan and is very exciting, he will be much more behind the camera this time and much of the book will be in his words.
SG – Where would someone looking for nature respite and equine therapy start?
RI – The internet and word of mouth, you are honestly better off forging a relationship with someone who keeps horses and has a very quiet horse to ride than going to a riding school for this kind of work as it needs to be very flexible and open ended, and riding with a child in the same saddle, the most effective technique, is not allowed by most riding schools. As for nature respite, just head for the local park and do as many of your therapies and academics as possible there.
SG – How can we get a sneak preview of the film and when it due to be released?
RI – The film is being shown at community screenings around the UK through the year. It will be repeated on TV (BBC 4) sometime in the next twelve months, to find out about screenings in the South, contact [email protected] (she also runs the horse boy camps) and in the North, Gillian Naysmith, [email protected].