Friday, 31 May 2013

Over the Hills: A Family's Odyssey of Healing in Mongolia

This is a rather personal review of a film I saw two nights ago, and am still thinking about.

Kristin Neff is a psychology professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. A few years ago she wrote and published ‘Self-Compassion’, a book (or to be precise, one of three books) which has recently changed my life – not in an instant, road-to-Damascus kind of way, but by gradually affecting how I see life, myself and other people. Like many others, I was brought up to have compassion for other people. I think I already understood that it was okay to have self-compassion as well – but not that it was so fundamental to health and well-being, or that there was so much research-based evidence for its effectiveness. Being given permission to love oneself is a wonderful thing. I don’t know if that sounds trite or not, but it’s how it feels to me.

Watching online interviews and listening to guided meditations by Kristin has deepened my admiration for her, and been a moving experience also. Now, seeing the film ‘The Horse Boy’, produced by Kristin’s husband Rupert Isaacson, has affected me in a different way but possibly just as deeply. Hence this movie review!

Kristin met Rupert, an English travel writer and human rights worker, in India while researching her PhD. They married and had a son called Rowan, who at the age of two was diagnosed with autism. Hearing this was, in Rupert’s words, “like being hit across the face with a baseball bat”. After years of suffering Rowan’s severe tantrums (neurological in cause, so he was unable to help it), and of encouraging him in vain to speak fully and to use the toilet, they suddenly discovered that his symptoms diminished greatly when he was with horses (Rupert has worked with horses all his life, and loves them). What was more, Rowan and his neighbour’s horse Betsy clearly had some kind of deep mutual understanding, on a non-verbal level. When he was placed on Betsy’s back, he spoke his first full sentence (he also said “I love you” for the first time, to Betsy). And there was something similar going on between Rowan and other kinds of animals, who would often let him play with them to an extent that they wouldn’t with neurotypical children. Watching these scenes in the film was very moving for me, and was the first challenge to my previous thinking about animals. I know that animals can communicate with humans, of course (all cat or dog lovers know that), and that they may experience love or something like it. But this was different. Rowan had a relationship with Betsy that his dad, a passionate horse lover, had never seen or experienced.

What Rupert eventually persuaded Kristin to do next was “something crazy”, as he put it. The family of three set off for Mongolia, and eventually Siberia, to see if the shamans of a remote tribe could help Rowan. They rode into the steppes and the mountains, on horseback. Rupert had encountered shamans in his human rights work with indigenous peoples around the world, but this was an adventure that very few people, if any, can have experienced. The resulting film, directed by Michel Orion Scott and narrated by Rupert, is ‘The Horse Boy’.

At all times, it’s very moving. It’s also warm, tender, upsetting and joyful by turns – and very beautiful to look at, despite the low-budget photography. Some of the rituals that Kristin and Rupert partake in are strange, some physically painful. At times Rowan seems to be regressing, and his parents’ concern and self-doubt are distressing to see. Ultimately the outcome is exhilarating and happy, however. I won’t give too much away, but suffice it that while Rowan by the end of the film is still autistic, he’s a changed boy. And Kristin and Rupert see that change before their eyes, in the middle of the Asian continent.

How to account for it? Rupert believes without much doubt that the shamans did it; Kristin is more sceptical but open to that as one of the explanations. The film’s main effect on me, apart from leaving me deeply moved, was to lead me to question my assumptions about traditional healers. I’m a sceptic in regard to methods that haven’t been tested and validated scientifically, and I have to admit that I admire this trait in myself and others. But after years of trying every Western medical treatment without success, something profound happened here in Mongolia and the Siberian mountains, and especially at the final stage of the journey. What was it? I’ve no idea, but although I’d like to keep that sceptical part of myself alive, I’m less dismissive now of the claims and methods used by other cultures, even if they do explain their success in terms of spirit worlds I find it hard to believe in.

Other aspects were baffling too, as well as deeply moving. I’ve mentioned Rowan’s relationships with horses as well as other animals. These scenes were delightful and mysterious too. What was going on? How did horses have this incredible ability to calm Rowan’s neurological tantrums, and how did he bring forth such gentleness in them? In certain moments, it’s as if we were seeing the animals through Rowan’s eyes, and I felt myself loving the horses, the reindeer and baby goats, and Rowan too. I feel as if I’d never realised on such a deep level how beautiful these animals are. The people were beautiful as well, from Kristin and Rupert to the descendants of the first people in the world ever to ride animals – the Siberian reindeer people, now reduced to a tribe of only two hundred. I felt in awe of the beauty of both animals and human beings – and simultaneously baffled by the apparent fact that the world is ruled by a handful of psychopaths. I didn’t know whether to have renewed faith in human nature, or despair at how civilisation is so thin despite so much goodness flowing from person to person, from person to animal and back again…

I was also struck by the beauty and fullness of Kristin and Rupert’s lives together, and with Rowan. A mysterious scene took place knee-deep in the waters of Lake Sharga, as the married couple reverently washed each other’s hair. It felt very solemn and deeply loving. Was it one of the rituals? I don’t think it was said, but it looked like it. Yet it also looked like a natural expression of a couple’s love.

I found myself tenderly regretting that I’d never had children. In years past I wouldn’t have been ready emotionally, for such a responsibility; now, with my chronic pain and anxiety, we wouldn’t be able to cope either practically or financially. But seeing Kristin and Rupert, so patient and gentle with Rowan despite being pushed to their limits both physically and emotionally, I felt a wistfulness that this aspect of life would not be part of mine. Not only had Kristin and Rupert had a child (another mystery: Rowan had been born premature, seven years to the hour since Rupert had first spoken to Kristin!), but they had come halfway around the world with an autistic boy, trekking on horseback through the wilderness (Kristin admits to never having been a horse girl!) in search of a healing which they couldn’t know for sure would even work. To call that a gamble is an understatement; no wonder it took Kristin so long to be persuaded in the first place.

That was another cause of my wistfulness: the fact that they were willing to take that slim chance. That they engaged with life to such a degree. Even when I was well, I was never like that. I tended to shy away from risk, like a nervous horse…

Ultimately, though, this is what makes ‘The Horse Boy’ such a joyful, life-affirming story. A story that began with sudden, premature agony and then turned to joy; followed by concern, worry and despair as Rowan’s strange behaviours led to a diagnosis; and then years of stress and often exhaustion as they battled to cope with Rowan’s affliction, sometimes before the eyes of misunderstanding strangers… A crazy adventure that would never have happened without this apparent ‘curse’ (Rupert admits to being a better father than he would have been if Rowan was a neurotypical child, because he was forced to listen to what his son needed)… The unearthly beauty of the mountains and the Siberian taiga… Rupert gently and humorously singing to Rowan as he held him on horseback: a traditional tune called ‘Over the Hills’, which I know from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and Roger Eno’s album ‘Swimming’… Meetings with beautiful people and animals, the beginning of Rowan’s first ever friendship with another child, and finally a shaman who ‘worked’ on Rowan without any grand gestures or showmanship, but simply said that Rowan would be better… And he was.

I was astonished and affected by the beauty of this film. Like a quiet hymn to the mysterious wonder of life, of animals, of people, and of a beautiful, gentle family. It left me questioning what autism really is, what was special about Rowan’s mind that, even when so afflicted, he had such direct and loving communication with animals. In fact, I’m questioning a whole lot of things. The world somehow seems a bigger place, with more mysterious workings that I’d previously realised.

I have many friends who love the work of Kristin Neff. She has brought them (and me) consolation in the midst of severe difficulty, and the realisation that we have the inborn capacity to give ourselves compassion through any suffering. I feel sure that they will all love this film. And anyone who knows anyone with autism, or is interested in relationships between people and animals, should certainly see it. But most of all, it’s just a wonderful film.

‘The Horse Boy’ is available online at There is also a book of the same title by Rupert Isaacson, available at the same website or from Amazon. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m just about to!

          Jockey was a Piper’s son,
          And fell in love when he was young;
          But the only tune that he could play,
          Was, Over the Hills, and far away.

          And I would love you all the day,
          Every night would kiss and play,
          If with me you’d fondly stray
          Over the Hills and far away. 

All photos are taken from the publicity materials on ‘The Horse Boy’ website. 


  1. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. I know I'm going to enjoy the film after reading this. I'm pretty weak atm, but I just wanted to let you know I read and enjoyed this.


    1. Thank you so much, Jane. I'm sorry you're so unwell at the moment, and hope you'll be feeling better again soon. When you are, I know you'll love the film!

      *hugs back!*


  2. Dear Michael,

    What a thought provoking review. I look forward to watching this movie, when I am feeling a bit better.

    I use to work with horses, as a young woman. I can honestly express, they are one of the gentlest animals to be around. The kind and gentle horses, I had the honor to care for -- were actually the ones that took care of me, during some of the darkest times in my life. I am forever filled with gratitude, respect, and deep love for these beautiful gifted majestic animals.

    gentle hugs,

  3. Norma, thank you for your lovely kind words. After seeing the film, I'm not surprised that horses have been healing for you in the past. I can well imagine you taking care of them, giving and receiving love with these beautiful, sensitive animals. I have always been somewhat scared of them, myself, but I feel differently after seeing this film.

    When you're well enough to see it, I'm sure the film will lift your heart!

    Thank you again.