Monday, September 17, 2012

Book Review: The Horse Boy

The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son
by Rupert Isaacson

I've had this book on the shelf for ages, having been keenly interested in the subject matter. The first barn I ever rode at was also a therapeutic riding center, and I've heard about the incredible strides that autistic children are sometimes able to make on horseback.

I gather from the many thousands of reviews on GoodReads that this was a hugely controversial book. I don't know enough about autism to really analyze the book from that perspective. Was Rowan "healed"? Is it even fair to say that an autistic child can or should be cured? Were the shamanic experiences that Isaacson sought part of Rowan's incredible gains, or is that simply correlation without cause? Certainly the way Isaacson structures the narrative and tells the story means that he wants us to believe, as he believes, that this journey is what helped his son. I gave my copy of the book to a friend who is currently doing graduate work in special education and has a wealth of experience with severely autistic children; I'll be interested to hear his opinion if/when he gets around to reading it.

What I can comment on with some knowledge are the horse bits in the book, and they are...not good. Isaacson first discovers that his son, Rowan, responds to horses when Rowan escapes and sprints between the legs of a neighbor's mare, Betsy. Rowan sprints up to a lot of horses during this book, and Isaacson's theory is that there is some instinctive communication going on between the autistic boy and the horses. Specifically, he describes the horses' reactions as submissive. Here's a typical passage:
And there it was again, the horse's head going down, the licking and chewing, the voluntary submission. At least Rowan would be safe with the horse. (Chapter 9: Fits and Starts)
Okay: to my knowledge, no equine behavior expert has yet pinned down the licking and chewing reflex specifically to submission. It is displayed in tandem with other submissive behavior, yes. That doesn't necessarily directly mean anything. I've observed it in other distinctly non-submissive situations. My best understanding of it is that it means the horse is thinking about something and processing. I do tend to interpret it as a positive signal when I'm working with a horse on the ground, but the pure submissive/dominant interpretation of horse relationships frustrates me.

Isaacson claims a wealth of equestrian experiences - foxhunting, dude ranching, and he seems to have the basics of dressage down - but he often talks about horses in a way that make him sound like a complete idiot. Case in point:
Even so, when I did have enough money, it was only enough to buy something cheap. The horse had to be athletic enough to hunt and do shows, but at the meager price I could afford the only such horse would be a failed racehorse off the track. And these, as all horse people know, come with one fatal flaw - they are complete lunatics. (Chapter 5: The Adventure Begins)
No they aren't, jackass.  I'm not even going to bother to deconstruct this one. He's flat-out wrong, that's all.

Isaacson displays questionable horsemanship in several other situations - riding Betsy into a "lather" repeatedly by galloping her endlessly just to please his son, for example. He never once, in the entire book, mentions wearing a helmet. For that matter, since his journey with Rowan, he has started a therapeutic riding center for autistic children, and in one photograph that accompanies the book, has three kids piled bareback on a saintly-looking bay gelding that he's using a dressage whip what, exactly? Encourage into some kind of Spanish walk? The kids aren't wearing helmets. One of them is wearing Crocs. In short, it's a photo right out of an illiterate Craigslist ad.

Not all the horse stuff is bad. Some of it is just there, in the background. For every horse person there are at least two opinions on the right way to do something, and there were plenty of things that I didn't agree with but weren't disastrous. Overall, it really was a good, thought-provoking and occasionally touching read, and I actually would recommend it - just so long as you turn a blind eye to his horsemanship from time to time.

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