(Read the first part here
So I'm standing there, looking at this amazing, unfathomable communication passing between my son and this horse Betsy, and even then it takes a while for the penny to drop. I assumed he was unsafe around horses — even after years spent as a horse trainer myself. It took me a little while before his repeated visits to the horse pasture resulted in my finally thinking, Hmmm, maybe I should put him on.
We were standing there next to Betsy as she grazed, contentedly hanging out next to us despite having 10 green acres to roam on.
"Would you like to get up?" I asked Rowan.
"Up!" he said — it was the first lucid, directed speech he'd ever given me. So I put him up. And immediately he began to talk. At first, this new, astonishing language didn't translate away from Betsy. But after a couple of weeks or so, and by now I was actually riding with Rowan, he began bringing it home to the house. Asking for juice ("Want juice?") instead of just taking mine or Kristin's hand and leading us to the fridge, then melting down when we didn't immediately intuit what he wanted.
More than this, his tantrums — always close to his mood and ours, like a fist waiting to close at any moment around the heart — would end abruptly if I put him up on Betsy's broad, brown back. A calm would descend on him. He would stroke her soft coat. One day, completely spontaneously, he said, "I wuv you, Betsy."
He had never said it to either Kristin or I before. I didn't care. He had SAID it. Our time would surely come. And indeed, he had much cause to say it to Betsy. Unlike Kristin and I, who did sometimes lose our tempers and shout, Betsy never put a foot wrong. If he ran his little red wagon obsessively into her back legs while I was putting the saddle on, she didn't flinch, much less kick. If he yanked on her lip, ran under her and pulled her mare's udders — in short, did all the things absolutely guaranteed to completely p*** a horse off — she didn't move. Her eyes half-closed, that same blissful, almost trance-like state descending upon her whenever Rowan was near — she seemed to have accepted the role as his guardian.
We spent hours and hours in the saddle together, playing singing games, word games, spelling games, as we rode across the broad Texas pasturelands, through the wild pecan groves, through the oak and cactus scrub, sometimes surprising deer, coyotes, or snakes — Betsy never shying.
I had found my way into his world. At least a little.
That same year — 2004 — another amazing thing happened. I have this second career in human rights. My family is South African and Zimbabwean and very political. As a journalist it had been natural, over the years, to gravitate down there for my stories. To cut a long story short, I had followed a story — which eventually became a book, The Healing Land — about how I had found that my non-white family (my South African family is a real post colonial mish-mash) was related to the last group of San or Bushman hunter-gatherers living in South Africa. And this clan, reduced to just 30 people, had been kicked out of a national park back in the '70s and suddenly, post-Mandela, had got themselves a human rights lawyer and were asking for their entire hunting grounds back after some 25 years of living by the side of the road as beggars.
The story led me inevitably into human rights advocacy. I became active in their struggle and saw them win their land claim against the odds. Then another, larger clan up in the neighbouring country of Botswana got kicked off their land to make way for diamond mines. (Don't buy diamonds, people — way too much suffering involved even from those that come from African countries away from the classic war zones.) I said, "Uh, okay," and next thing I knew, I was having to escort a delegation of Bushmen across the USA, to speak at the United Nations and on Capitol Hill, to protest their cultural genocide.
Some of these Bushmen — from the Gana and Gwi clans of Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve — were trained healers, or shamans if you like, in their own culture. Rowan came along for part of the trip. They offered, rather casually, to do some work on Rowan. Kristin and I said, Why not? Can't hurt him.
The results were extraordinary. For about five days Rowan began to lose some of his autism symptoms — began stopping his obsessive behaviours, using complex language, showing his toys to people, pointing. When the Bushmen went back home at the end of the journey, he fell back into his autism again. I couldn't help but wonder: what if I were to take Rowan to a place that combined that kind of healing with horses? These, after all, were providing more radical and positive results than the more orthodox therapies we were trying. What if we were to do something crazy like that? Did such a place even exist?
I did some research. It did. Mongolia. The place where the horse as we know it — equus caballus — evolved. the place where humankind first got on a horse 6,000 years ago. And the one place on the planet, I found out, where shamanism (the word shaman is actually a South Siberian/Mongolian word meaning "he who knows") is actually the state religion alongside Buddhism.
What if we were to take Rowan there, riding from shaman to shaman? What if we were to do that?
No way, said Kristin, when I put the idea to her. Not just no, BLEEP no.
We fought about it for two years. In the end, in the summer of 2007, we found ourselves boarding a plane to Mongolia, setting out on the adventure of our lives.