Raising Brazilian boys has not been the easiest journey – especially since we don’t live in Brazil full-time. There are plenty of ups and downs, hardship, suffering and joy. Thankfully we were in Brazil in July 2015, and able to be there for our 16 year-old son Douglas when his sister got killed. We received the phone call three days before our open day, in which Douglas was going to be our main star, with his Arabian horse Yankee.
Orphaned at the age of one, Douglas had been raised in institutions ever since. We came into his life when he was nine years old and in early 2014, his grandma asked us to take him home with us. We brought him to our farm and took him into our family as a son.
The day the news came that his sister died was very hard. The agony that washed over Douglas was close to unbearable. The only family he had left was one brother (Hudson, who is 18 years old), one sister Thamaris, and her two children.
Both Douglas’ siblings were involved in taking and selling drugs, and had plenty of enemies. They lived in a city about 60 miles from our farm and so did Douglas’ grandma, who had given up her own daughter for adoption to a neighbour. When her daughter died, the three grandchildren went to an orphanage. A fourth sibling – Douglas’ brother – had died when he was little. Douglas grew up at Betel children’s home with Hudson. They were very close; all they had was each other. Thamaris lived there too, but left the orphanage as a teenager to live with her boy friend. She got pregnant and had two babies by the age of 17.
When Betel closed (which is another story in itself, as the herd of feral horses the boys had befriended through natural horsemanship all had to be abandoned), Douglas was one of the last boys to leave, because he had nowhere to go. He ended up being sent to his Grandma’s for two months. Then we found him and the Grandma asked us if we would take him. She had been worried he would follow the path of his older brother and get into drugs, and so wanted him as far from the city as possible. Our farm was a perfect fit.
Douglas has been fully integrated into our family ever since. He is a boy who loves Jesus and horses with a passion. He is an excellent horseman, a strong leader, very smart and highly motivated… with us. When we are there, everything goes great. He is extremely helpful, super fun and just great to be with. When we are not there, he is pushy, rebellious and does everything his own way. Because Douglas is an orphan, all his pain comes out with people who don’t have a strong leadership gift. Richard and I don’t get to see this side of him, because his love and respect for us is really high. Douglas and I connected through horses, because he was able to forget his past while I taught him. We were able to establish new grounds for communication and from there, build love, honour and trust.
But for the rest of the world it is a different story. At school he doesn’t obey and gets into fights. He often has to be picked up and gets suspended. He’s on his 4th warning, and usually after three incidents, they move the child to another school, or the government intervenes. Thankfully there has been grace on the part of the school that has them trying again with Douglas.
The day we got the tragic phone call about Thamaris’ death, we were practicing horsemanship for a demonstration on our open day. Douglas’s pain was intense. His sister had been killed by four bullets to the head. His brother was in a coma in intensive care, with two bullets in his belly. They had to remove his spleen and he was in critical condition. That day, we walked Douglas through the forgiveness process toward the murderers and stayed with him until he had cried himself to sleep. The following days, the emotions were still high, from grief and pain to anger and rage, and Douglas had to continuously choose to let it go and forgive the ones that hurt his family.
We told him that he didn’t need to do the demo and we could cancel the open day. We had Rogerio and Regynaldo, two of our Brazilian sons, who were able to show off the amazing progress our three horses had made. By now, everyone could walk, trot and canter bareback and bridleless, and Douglas was able to stand up on his Yankee in walk and in trot. Douglas said that he would try to do the demo. We told him it would be okay to stop anytime he feels he can’t go on.
The demo day came and another tragedy happened. Yankee, whom Douglas had trained since February, was lame. He had thrown a splint and there was no way he could do any more than walk during the show. We prayed for the horse and he stayed lame. I looked at Douglas and thought: Now he has every reason to completely break down and say life is unfair and he quits. I barely dared to ask him if he would be willing to demonstrate a little bit with our small horse Alegria. Douglas had just spent 8-10 hours per day practising with Yankee. To my surprise Douglas looked at me and said: “Yes, of course I will do it with Alegria. A leader never gives up.”
The people arrived and the show begun. It all went really well. Then it was Douglas’ turn on Alegria. He rode her bareback and with one rein in a halter. I shared with the spectators how we offer the horse an idea and we wait for the horse to follow; we don’t stop them from going the wrong way or making the wrong decisions. We show them love, honour, trust and leadership. We say: “Come and follow me, I have a great idea for your life,” but if the horse says: “No thank you, I go over here instead,” we stick with the horse wherever he goes and just keep offering him our idea. We do not block him or stop him when he chooses something that is contrary to what we are offering him.
Real love and real leadership involves a choice. Without a choice, you only have control. You never have the heart – be that of horse or man.
This is how I interpret the story of Adam and Eve with God. He didn’t stop them from sinning. He just told them what was good and what was not good and they made a choice. When they chose the opposite of what God had told them, God didn’t stop them from making that choice. He let them chose. We do the same with the horse.
While I was sharing, Alegria did nothing that Douglas asked her. Instead of walking and trotting calmly along the fence line, she was bucking all across the arena with her nose between her legs, doing completely the opposite of what Douglas had asked! Alegria is a very dominant mare. She questions every person who presents themselves to her, and asks if they are the leader that she needs. Douglas had spent very little time with her and only built a relationship with Yankee. So now, in front of this crowd, he had to prove what he could do with no preparation.
Douglas was perfect. He went with Alegria. He smiled. He offered her his idea, over and over again. And every time she said: “No!”
Douglas stayed calm and simply offered her his thought again without putting pressure on her or trying to force her to listen to him. It was incredible to watch. I told the spectators, “This is what I am looking for in a boy that I raise. Leadership quality, love that puts the other person or horse first. And for that you have to put your own desires aside. You have to be willing to look like a fool in front of everyone, because your horse is not following you. You can’t start using force and tell the horse: ‘We are in a demo, I want to look good, you better do what I tell you right now.’ If you would, then you never catch the horse’s heart.”
After about twenty minutes of Alegria acting like a wild horse, I started to doubt whether Douglas would be able to do this for very much longer without his anger coming up. His sister killed, his horse lame and this horse not listening – it’s too much for anyone! But to my surprise, the boy just kept going, offering the horse his idea again and again.
And all of a sudden in happened. Alegria’s eyes changed, they became all cute and her heart turned toward Douglas. It was visible to all. She fell in love with the boy. From being independent and disobedient, she changed her attitude completely. She looked at Douglas and it was as if we could read her thoughts: I love you Douglas. You are amazing. I will follow you wherever you lead me. You are brilliant and worthy to be my leader. Of course Douglas felt the change too and he reached forward and took the halter off. The horse tuned into his energy completely. She went when he went and stopped when he stopped and they were one. Through every turn and every gait, they were in perfect harmony. I had to stop talking on the microphone and wipe my tears.
In that moment, I knew that it had all been worth it. All the hardship, pressure and suffering, everything we laid down and everything we missed out on. It had been worth it all.
Right there before my eyes, I had an orphan boy who had overcome his terrible past, his painful present and become LOVE to a horse. Great love and great leadership flowing out of him, so the animal just couldn’t resist.
People were very touched by what they saw. At the end we invited the kids to come and to stroke the horses. Four little boys immediately climbed over the arena rails, ran into the arena with their dirty T-shirts, picked up the sticks and started to beat the ground very close to the horses. They were running and yelling and completely out of control.
Regynaldo, Douglas, Rogerio and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and, grinning, the boys said: “Oh Ingela, these kids are from an orphanage!” I asked, smiling: “How can you tell?” They replied: “Well, because they are just like we were six years ago when you first came.” We all laughed and with gratefulness in our hearts thought about how far we have come together. We invited the leadership from the orphanage to bring the children every Saturday to learn horsemanship. They gladly accepted and this is how we began with a new group of children.
Douglas is an extraordinary boy with extraordinary leadership qualities, but all this is for nothing if he wouldn’t be able overcome the pain of the past to become the leader he is destined to be.
We are very proud of him for how he walked through this painful process. His family has a history of paying others back: someone gets hurt, those around the victim repay with violence and therefore it never stops. Douglas was the first one who broke the cycle and chose not to pay back evil with evil, but evil with good. He extended forgiveness where none was deserved and even prayed for the murderers of his sister. This is the kind of heart we want to see in the boys we raise.