Tag Archives: Hippotherapy
Horses, Shamans and Autism in Mongolia

Horses, Shamans and Autism in Mongolia

Andrew Campbell of The Regal Vizsla turned me on to this fascinating topic. Thank you, Andrew!

Rowan Isaacson is a seven-year-old boy with autism. Until the age of five he had suffered every symptom the illness threw every possible symptom and limitation his way. Rowan’s father and mother, Rupert and Kristin, were heartbroken that their son’s life was filled with wild tantrums and little meaningful connection. “You’re saying goodbye to a bunch of dreams that I think every parent has of a certain type of childhood, and a certain type of relationship with your child,” said Rupert.

“He would just stare off into space,” Isaacson said. “I was worried it was going to get progressively worse and that eventually, he might float away from us entirely.”

Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan

Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan

One day in the midst of a tantrum Rowan wandered off into a neighboring horse paddock, and scrambled under the hooves of a mare. The absolute worst place for a small child. Surprisingly, the mare, whose name is Betsy, sniffled the boy, accepting him.

“I’ve never seen a horse offer that to a babbling two-and-a-half-year-old,” he said. “Rowan and Betsy obviously had some sort of connection.”

Isaacson quickly made arrangements with the neighbor for Rowan to “ride” Betsy, because that mystical connection held the key to his son’s apparent happiness. Isaacson, a horse trainer for most of his adult life, began horseback riding along with with Rowan, finding that the rocking rhythm of the animal’s stride soothed his son. Throughout his horseback riding, Rowan continued with more orthodox therapies, including applied behavioral analysis, one of the most commonly used therapies for kids with autism. Isaacson quickly made arrangements with the neighbor for Rowan to “ride” Betsy.

He would be in the midst of a terrible tantrum and Rupert would put him on Betsy, and it was like that – it’s instant,” Kristin said. “He would calm, he would stop … His language just started to pour out of him,” Rupert said. “And the door into his mind sort of opened a crack. Whenever he was on a horse he wouldn’t tantrum. When I put him on Betsy that would be the only time his tantrums would stop, any other situation and he could turn at any point. We wanted to keep him on a horse as long as possible.

Horseboy Rowan in Mongolia

The transformation with Betsy was so extreme, his parents bet on another extreme chance: a quest to Mongolia, where the connection between humans, horses, and healing has been very strong for centuries. In the summer of 2007 when Rowan was 5, Isaacson and his family went to Mongolia, spending four weeks where Rowan was happiest: on the back of a horse.

“Before we went to Mongolia, Rowan was incontinent and subject to neurological fits and tantrums and was cut off from his peers,” said Isaacson. “We came back with a child that was toilet trained and no longer having tantrums. He made his first friend on that trip, too.”

It was the most extraordinary thing. It really was remarkable to see how quickly he changed, Pretty mind blowing actually.

said Rowan’s mother Kristin.

More than two years later, the progress continues with traditional therapy and horseback riding.

Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan

Rupert Isaacson and his son Rowan

Is Rowan cured of autism? His parents are quick to say “no.” But at the same time, he’s doing remarkably better, and they believe his connection with horses is a big reason why.

Others are in agreement, yet others argue that Rowan’s transformation gives false hope to thousands of parents of autistic children. While therapeutic riding programs have grown in popularity among parents of autistic children, not every child makes a similar transformation.

Instructor Amy Causey says science hasn’t explained it, but she sees once-unreachable children respond.

“For some reason they have that other sense that they can connect and understand how that horse is feeling and that helps them understand how they are feeling,” Amy said.

Rupert Isaacson has written a book, “Horse Boy,” about the journey, and has opened a center where other autistic children can find their own connection with horses for free. “Every family goes to Mongolia in their own way,” Rupert said. “Every family goes to the ends of the earth.”

As for the ongoing debate about Hippotherapy and autism, the answer hasn’t yet arrived. We know that animals provide a low-pressure environment for kids to practice certain types of social skills. Therapists use horses as social objects for children to relate to, for learning how to read more subtle social signals. There is little doubt that this skill is important, and that it can be learned. In itself, it is not a cure for autism. Perhaps Hippotherapy can address many of the symptoms of autism, allowing for some self-regulation and mood improvement. It may also help with accepting certain kinds of stimulation from the environment. The resulting calmer, less agitated child will be happier and easier to live with, more enjoyable family member.

And for the Isaacson’s, life is far happier today than it was before Rowan began riding.

Isaacson and his wife founded The New Trails Center , which offers homeschooling and equine therapy for kids like Rowan.

“Every parent of an autistic child knows they have to go up a few blind alleys before they find what will work for their child,” said Isaacson. “No one should be so hamstrung by skepticism that it forces them into an extreme position that they stop following possibilities.”

“Rowan was healed of some of the dysfunctions he had and that, for us, was miraculous,” he said.

“That made the difference between a horrible life and a life where Rowan’s life and ours were in harmony.”
Mr. Isaacson has optioned feature film rights for “The Horse Boy” to Mark Ordesky, an executive producer of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Ileen Maisel, an executive producer of the “Golden Compass.” Mr. Isaacson is writing the screenplay. I am looking forward to reading the book and watching the film!

References for this post:
The Daily Mail.com
Patricia E Bauer.com
The Horse Boy
ABC News.com
About Behavioral Analysis

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Got Spare Change? 14-Year-Old Therapy Gelding, Pilot, Needs Our Help

Got Spare Change? 14-Year-Old Therapy Gelding, Pilot, Needs Our Help

This is a really touching and important story for me. If I had more money in the bank, I’d give them a lot more. Maybe I should get The Horseman’s Card and charge a huge donation.

Through the years, it has been my honor to support therapeutic riding facilities in three states. My daughter’s first and most beloved therapy pony, Winnie, meant so much to all of us that she uses his stirrup leather as a belt 14 years after his death. I have a chunk of his mane in my special box. An added benefit of this type of program is that elderly horses who might otherwise be put out to pasture get to have really interesting and fulfilling jobs, well into their old age. The impact of therapeutic riding and of the individual horses themselves cannot be underestimated.



14-year-old Quarter Horse Pilot has been at Hearts and Horses Therapeutic Riding Center near Loveland, CO for only about six months. He’s become a well-loved therapist for the mentally and physically challenged riders at the non-profit center, begun in 1997. A NARHA Premier Accredited Center, Hearts and Horses serves children and adults in need. They also work with wounded military personnel and war veterans. Their mission is to promote the physical, cognitive, emotional and social well-being of people with special needs through equine-assisted therapy and hippotherapy. Pilot is a star. His large size, unflappable temperament and willing demeanor make him ideal for work with the disabled. Standing somewhere over 16 hands, Pilot is one of the largest horses at the ranch, one of the few able to carry the heavier adult riders.

“I’m confident to put any rider on him. A lot of horses aren’t as finely trained as him,” says Holly Johnson, equine manager of the therapeutic riding center.
“He’s got a very kind personality. You can just look in his eyes and you can tell he’s willing to try and do whatever I ask,” says Cliff Uber, who has cerebral palsy.

Now this star needs help. On Dec. 27, 2008, Pilot suffered a bout of colic and had to be taken to Colorado State University’s veterinary clinic. There the vets discovered that his colon was displaced. To survive, he needed immediate and costly surgery. As a non-profit, Hearts and Horses runs on a narrow financial margin. Though they didn’t have the money on hand, they chose the surgery to save Pilot. “We didn’t want the reason to be money as to why this horse couldn’t survive,” Johnson said.

The surgery was successful and Pilot is recovering back at Hearts and Horses.

Hearts and Horses needs help in paying the $8,000 hospital bill. It’s extraordinarily had to get funding for programs like this. The families of the people served by this kind of non-profit often do not have the resources to help out. For those not in a position to need the services, it doesn’t seem all that urgent. But the money has to come from somewhere.

That’s where horse people with hearts come in. Please. Hearts and Horses are asking the horse community to to help pay back Colorado State University’s veterinary clinic.

“I think he’s going to help many people,” Uber said of the horse. “And I think with having horses like him, many people will benefit from it. I know I have.”
Johnson agreed.

If you would like to help Pilot, please contact HeartsandHorses.org and make a secure donation online or call 970/663-4200. You can also email info@heartsandhorse.org, or write to Hearts and Horses, 163 N. County Rd. 29, P.O. Box 2675, Loveland, CO 80539.

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