Medical narratives often depict ordinary people who turn to alternative healing methods when traditional Western health care fails. Seldom can you find families that go to the lengths of Rupert Isaacson and Kristen Neff, who traveled from Austin, Texas, to the steppes of Mongolia with the hopes of improving their son Rowan’s autistic condition.
Narrating the documentary The Horse Boy, Isaacson justifies the trip early in the film. At his worst, 5-year-old Rowan’s cognitive problems make him the equivalent of “a giant 18-month-old” with poor social skills, incomplete toilet training, and seemingly endless, inexplicable tantrums. Isaacson’s research into shamanism and Rowan’s affinity for animals, especially horses, inspire the father to see if the two in combination could have therapeutic value. He discovers that Mongolia combines shamanic traditions with horsemanship, so he, Neff and Rowan embark on a journey a world away.
Documentary director Michel Orion Scott crosscuts between the family’s travels, expert interviews, and scenes of Rowan’s medical treatments as an autistic boy. Rowan makes developmental improvements when, for instance, he plays with the tour guide’s son, but also experiences disappointing setbacks. “I’ve never seen him reject a horse before,” Isaacson sighs after one promising ceremony fails to show long-term effects. Isaacson’s and Neff’s emotional highs and lows on their adventure offer an allegory for raising a special-needs child, which can involve triumphs and disappointments most parents never imagine. In discussing their wishes for the trip, Isaacson hopes Rowan will learn to ride a horse by himself, while Neff simply wants him to start pooping in the toilet. Neff shows more skepticism toward the native spiritualism and suffers more indignities on the trip, including a kick from a horse and some undignified washing rituals.
Given the subject matter, The Horse Boy inevitably sets a somewhat pokey pace and involves plenty of introspective talk from the parents. Rowan, of course, can’t really speak for himself. The Mongolian landscapes offer gorgeous vistas (Neff isn’t hard on the eyes, either, frankly) and The Horse Boy builds to an inspirational outcome that doesn’t gloss over autism’s challenges. The Horse Boy doesn’t mention that publisher Little, Brown & Co. paid the family a $1 million advance for a book about the experience before they’d even left, but it’s difficult to envision Isaacson and Neff as child-exploiters like, say, the Balloon Boy parents. At least they didn’t call it The Boy Whisperer.