By Rupert Isaacson, Founder – Horse Boy World
One father’s quest for help for his son turned into a worldwide movement.
I’m on horseback—sitting astride a bay quarter horse mare—walking through the Post Oak Savannah country of Central Texas, wide grassland studded like English parkland with stately trees. My three-year-old son, Rowan, sits in front of me in the saddle, leaning forward, pressing his belly into my forearm, lulled by the rhythmic steps of the good bay mare.
“Go faster,” he suddenly says, giggling, and I—obliging him—put heels to the mare’s flanks and next thing we are gliding effortlessly over the wide pasture, singing the Lion King songs that Rowan loves so well at the top of our lungs: “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”
Perfect happiness. Yet, this adventure did not start happy.
My son was diagnosed with autism a year before—non-verbal, incontinent, subject to terrifying tantrums that seemed to come from nowhere, during which he would self-harm, slamming his head into the floor with shocking violence.
By profession I am a journalist, trained to observe. Fortunately, I observed that my son did better and had fewer tantrums outside in nature. We live in the country, so I would simply follow him outside, where he did better.
An impulse leads to love
One day he ran—before I could stop him—through the underbrush, through my neighbor’s fence and into a horse pasture where my neighbor’s old mare, Betsy, and his four other horses lived. The connection between Rowan and Betsy was immediate; love at first sight for Rowan and an almost uncannily maternal reaction from the mare. I had grown up with horses, and knew the mare was quiet, so with my neighbor’s permission, I began to put Rowan up on her broad brown back.
First I simply laid him on her back, letting him use her like a big old couch as I kept a hand on him, ready to take him into my arms if she spooked. Immediately, all of Rowan’s “stimming”—the agitated rocking and flapping, which often happened shortly before a tantrum—just . . . stopped.
When I later put a Western saddle on Betsy and rode with Rowan seated in front of me, my non-verbal son began to speak! And his tantrums, which we now realized were a mix of neurological malfunction and terrible abdominal pain, could be turned off like a faucet when I rode with him, especially when Betsy and I kept the rhythms soft and steady.
When Rowan would lean his stomach into my arm, as we rode, his hips rocking, his pain would, for a while, just leave him. I had stumbled onto something that worked as no other therapy had (and believe me, we tried them all).
The answer: oxytocin
It worked so well I had to find out why. Luckily, Rowan’s mom is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, so we had access to scientists and neurologists. I showed them a video of Rowan and me riding the mare, and invited them out to see of what we were doing—no longer just with my son but also with other kids with the same condition, all of whom had the same response—and asked why? Why was this working? The answer was unanimous: oxytocin.
Prolonged rocking of the pelvis causes the body to produce the feel-good, happiness and communication hormone: oxytocin.
This is why we like to sit in rocking chairs, dance, and hug. It’s why we rock babies and why we rock back and forth when we are stressed—trying to produce oxytocin to cancel out the cortisol, or stress hormone. Combine the oxytocin with deep pressure and you get a double-whammy effect that doesn’t just affect mood—it addresses pain.
We began working with adults too, at first just informally with myself and the small team I was working with. We tried just lying on the horse as the kids did and found that it calmed us enormously. Then we put each other in the saddle and, driving each other with long reins rather than leading from the bridle (which could put the horse in the wrong balance), managed to emulate the same oxytocin effect we were giving the kids. It was euphoric.
And little by little, first parents—with bad backs, with neurological pain, chronic fatigue, anxiety—and then other adults who heard about us through the grapevine, began asking for sessions where we produced the same oxytocin effect. All reported amelioration of their condition.
The diaper shake
The only problem: horses are a bit of a niche thing, not really relevant to peoples’ lives in cities or suburbia. If this oxytocin thing could really help to alleviate pain or anxiety—anything neuro-psychiatric—then could we find ways to reproduce it in any environment? We had already done it to some degree ourselves by replacing all the chairs in our house with rocking chairs, even at the dinner table.
And we had started to find other ways to rock the pelvis that were deeply calming and pain-alleviating, in particular a technique shown to us by physiotherapists where you lie down on your tummy and have someone gently rock your sacrum, reducing you almost immediately to a blissful, happy toddler state. We christened this technique the “diaper shake.” Even people with spinal injuries, especially herniated or ruptured discs, responded amazingly well to this maneuver.
So now, in addition to our work with autism, we at the Horse Boy Foundation offer some simple techniques for alleviating pain and anxiety that go beyond the autism world. Movement Method, as it is known, is now in 13 countries and growing.
From that first day when my child wanted to get up on Betsy’s back and found relief from his terrible neurological and gastric distress, to now, has been a journey of 12 years that took us literally to the ends of the earth: We’ve worked with shamans and traditional healers in Mongolia, Africa, the rainforests of Australia, and here on the Navajo Reservation in the United States. That story is told in two of my books: The Horse Boy and The Long Ride Home, the second of which will be published in March 2016.
We work beyond the physical techniques now, by including probiotics and Chinese herbs for internal work, neuro-feedback to work more directly on the brain, and more. But the secret of oxytocin and deep pressure—showing people the magic of what they can achieve in their own living room, let alone out in nature—remain at the core of what we do. At the end of the day it’s about happiness, which, as all know, is the best healing.
About Rupert Isaacson
Rupert Isaacson was born in London in 1967 to Southern African parents. He currently lives in Austin, Texas. His books include The Healing Land, which chronicles his time spent living with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and his adventure helping them to win back their lost hunting grounds; The Wild Host, the History and Meaning of the Hunt; and The Horse Boy, which tells the story of his quest on horseback across Mongolia to find healing for his autistic son, Rowan. The Horse Boy has been translated into 30 languages.
For more information about Horse Boy World, visit www.horseboyworld.com
To pre-order The Long Ride Home, visit www.longridehomebook.com
Pull quote options:
“When he would lean his stomach into me, as we rode, his hips rocking, his pain would, for a while, just leave him.”
“Combine the oxytocin with deep pressure and you get a double-whammy effect that doesn’t just affect mood—it addresses pain.”
“Equine therapy can be an essential part of helping children cope with—and get beyond—pain. When done correctly (in rocking, steady rhythms), it causes the child to produce large amounts of oxytocin which counteracts pain more effectively than many drugs.”