by Shannon Brame
The boys’ eyes were wide with anticipation as the bags were opened and the Parelli equipment was presented. Two-star Licensed Parelli Professional Debbie Adcock had somehow managed to haul horse blankets, carrot sticks, telescoping poles, and various tack onto several planes, through four airports. After traveling for 2 days, everything had arrived safely. Their smiles were overwhelming. The cowboy hats that Debbie Lewis brought fit Douglas and Valdemir perfectly. Both boys stood tall and proud for photos. The other boys tried on and exchanged their new T-shirts and jeans. All of the sizes were just right. But for one boy, the new cowboy boots would be withheld for now. Once again, his behavior had gotten him into some trouble. There was still some work to be done. We had come to Brazil to work and assist in whatever ways we could to try and make a difference in the lives of these orphans. We could not have known upon our arrival that the greatest impact made in the next 2 weeks would be on our own hearts and lives.
Roosters crowing and cheerful voices singing joyful songs outside of our window awakened us the first morning on the farm. As we gathered around the table on the porch, the boys shared their stories, and we laughed, cried, and prayed together. It was hard to imagine that these were the same boys we had heard about, whose lives had been in such turmoil and difficulty. How could such sweet and loving people come from such horrific backgrounds? Ingela assigned chores, discussed what the focus would be for the horses each day, and who would make the beans and rice for lunch and dinner. Ingela Larsson Smith and her husband, Richard, were only there for a short time. They would be leaving soon to return to home in Canada and then to Switzerland and Germany for Ingela’s cancer treatments. It would be difficult for the boys to be without their parents for the next few months; there was so much to be done. A horsemanship demonstration was in the works, and there were only 2 weeks to prepare. Flyers and invitations were sent out to friends, neighbors, and the general public to introduce and explain the Horses for Orphans (H4O) project, as well as hopefully build support. They also needed a replacement for Filipe, an intern who finished ministry school and then assisted H4O in resolving problems with electricity outages, spotty Internet, teacher and school meetings, government issues, and grocery shopping. He would soon be taking a new job in the Amazon.
In the August 2011 edition of Savvy Times, Ingela wrote an article about her H4O project. This ministry serves to empower orphans and street children by teaching them natural horsemanship. Through this process, children have the opportunity to learn English, become responsible for horses, and develop skills to become trustworthy leaders as they grow in confidence, communication, and team building. Ingela credits Pat and Linda Parelli for introducing her to natural horsemanship. She was chosen as Pat’s personal apprentice in 2002. She went on tour with them and became a highly skilled Licensed Parelli Professional. In addition to training and teaching horses, students, and clients around the world, she has dedicated her life to the Christian mission field. Though she is no longer with the Parelli organization, she gratefully attributes Pat and Linda Parelli with giving her skills and a foundation on which she has built her horsemanship career.
As we made our way to the arena, we were surprised to see the boys running barefoot around the horses and wearing boardshorts (long surfer-style shorts)! They were playing at liberty with five donated horses: running beside them, then jumping on and off, riding, spinning around backwards, and standing Roman style on the horses with no halters, no saddles, and no bridles! They trotted, cantered, backed up, and jumped barrels on cue. All of the horses seemed to be relaxed, attentive, and playful.
Fabricio stood on Allegria’s back as she trotted along next to the rail. Every now and then, he would step off of the horse onto the fence. While balancing on the rail, he would run alongside her and then step back onto her back. He made it look so simple. How had this boy, who only a few years before had such anger, darkness, pain, and drug addiction in his life, developed such a relationship with this horse? He had been abandoned as a baby, thinking he never had a father, only to find out years later that his father was in prison for murder. How could he know anything about love or trust, both of which are so critical in building relationships? Yet his broad smile and laugh let us know the depths of his joy as he wrapped his arms around Allegria’s neck, burying his face in her mane.
Douglas was jumping barrels with Yankee, a gray Arabian gelding. Their connection was tight, and it looked as though they were one unit. He first played with one, then two, then three, and eventually, all five horses together at liberty. His patience and concentration were remarkable, but it was also evident that this boy had a gift! He spoke their language, as each horse waited patiently for instructions. He was strong, confident, and fearless. We were amazed, knowing of the losses he had suffered, through the brutal murders of his sister and then his brother. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world except to focus on becoming a better horseman.
Valdemir was the youngest and smallest of the boys. Yet he rode the tallest horse, Catagoric, who was a retired, elderly Thoroughbred. He stood on Catagoric’s back and jumped off, flipping backwards, landing on his feet. Valdemir had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and though school had always been difficult for him, his natural ability with horses was extraordinary! He was careful to keep his toes up so that the old horse was never uncomfortable, and their bond was undeniable.
Reginaldo was doing groundwork with one horse and playing with Chili, a little mixed-breed dog with a prominent underbite. It was unclear as to what, exactly, they were working on, but as Ingela instructed in both English and Portuguese, a somewhat cloudy picture started to develop. Although progress was slow with his learning differences, he was able to help teach Welder, the new “City Boy,” who was just beginning the program. His joyful singing and cheerful smile hid the truth of his home life. While there, he had witnessed his brother remove a knife from the hands of his abusive, alcoholic father so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone. Before coming here, he had been acting out and abusing drugs.
Upon our arrival in Goiania a few days before, Richard collected us from the airport in a borrowed truck and trailer and brought us up to speed on the latest news about the boys. We felt that we knew them since first hearing their stories less than a year before. When Richard and Ingela began this project at Fazenda Lar Betel, a children’s home near Cocalzinho, Brasilia, it had been a privately funded organization housing 85−200 orphaned, abandoned, or at-risk children. But that place had become corrupt and been abruptly shut down, sending the children back out to dysfunctional homes, onto the streets, or to other desperate and dangerous situations. These boys had been witness to and impacted by gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, and worse. It had taken a very long time for Ingela and Richard to find and reconnect with the children who were involved in the program. They searched from town to town for months until they found Valdemir, knowing only that he had told them he was at a white school with blue writing on the wall. Miraculously, they located the school and Valdemir, for whom they were able to become legal guardians. Through him, they were able to find Douglas. To him, Ingela and Richard had always been parents. He had been with his grandma, but after hearing this, she “gave” him to them. By now, they had acquired a farm of their own, through generous gifts from benefactors.
They now had several nice horses to work with, all having been donated, and the boys had immediately connected with them and were now working with them on demo preparations. While at the orphanage, they had begun their study of natural horsemanship with Ingela on horses that were broken down, abused, or abandoned. The similarities between the horses and boys had brought them together and initiated their communication. Through love, language, and leadership, their mutual trust had grown.
While in Brazil, Debbie Adcock arranged visits from two of her former exchange students who studied equine veterinary medicine in Texas. Valcir Sgarbi works for the Brazilian government in agriculture and does custom rawhide braiding and leather work, and he brought the boys some tools for working with leather. While he taught them how to braid rawhide for horse tack, his wife brought in groceries and cooked for all of us. Rodrigo Florentino, who practices equine dentistry and whose father has a large equine vet practice in Brazil, came to see the boys practice their horsemanship and returned a few days later with his truck and two assistants. He brought his computer and x-ray machine and taught the boys about equine dentistry. Then he worked on all five horses, floated their teeth, and even pulled a bad tooth. He had the boys’ undivided attention as he worked, teaching them and letting them assist. They were grateful for his time and talent and asked many questions. Late that night, as he prepared to leave, with a shaky voice and tears in his eyes, he made a commitment to help them in any way that he could. He told them to call him any time they needed anything, and they knew that they had made a new friend and could depend on this successful man for advice and guidance. True to his word, he has recently hired Fabricio to work for him in his practice!
While we worked on the farm and helped with logistics, Ingela continued to practice with the boys. Anticipation was building for “Demo Day.” There would be volunteers, guests, live music, and food. Would they be ready? Would the program come together in time? Debbie Adcock and Debbie Lewis worked with the boys late into the night, under a dim street lamp, hoping everyone would remember their places and timing. The horses seemed ready, and the boys were confident, but as our excitement was growing, so were the reminders that we would be leaving the following day. We would have to prepare our hearts to say goodbye.
On the morning of the demo, the boys took guests on tours of the farm, proudly showing their homemade gym, the garden, fruit trees, and stables. The crowd grew larger as everyone made their way to the arena for the horsemanship demonstration. Ingela introduced the program, and Debbie Lewis started the music. As Debbie Adcock cued the boys to begin, I was having difficulty getting the video camera to focus. My eyes were filled with tears as the boys rode bareback and bridleless to Amanda Marshall’s “I Believe in You.” Steffany Gretzinger’s “No Fear in Love” played as the boys circled the horses while doing handstands, each horse standing perfectly still. Kristine DeMarco sang “Break Every Chain” as the boys worked their way around the arena, exhibiting their skills and partnerships. The crowd cheered with amazement as the horses jumped barrels with the boys standing on their backs. Tina Turner’s version of “He Lives in You” rang out as Douglas helped Simba, the new Arabian, rear up, resting his front legs on Fabricio’s shoulders. Their emotions were hard to contain as they prepared for their grand finale. Mark Knopfler’s “Storybook Love” played softly as Douglas led all five horses together at liberty. As he brought Yankee and Allegria to the center of the arena and laid them down side by side, the other boys joined him and circled around them, petting them gently. Finally, Reginaldo brought Chili, their funny little dog, out to join the rest. He hopped onto Yankee’s side and sat up tall and pawed the air. And as he jumped back down, Douglas had the two horses sit up on their back sides, bowing their heads.
The demo was over, and the crowd was astonished. There were photos, hugs, laughter, and tears. That evening we went out for pizza with some of the volunteers and celebrated Fabricio’s birthday. It was time to relax and enjoy the success of the day. Richard and Ingela still had meetings and visits with potential assistants for the H4O project, and they stayed at the restaurant until long after midnight. We had a few hours left to pack and prepare for the trip home. We were fortunate to have family, friends, horses, and homes for which to return. That, however, did not slow or lessen the tears that came with our departure. We hugged, cried, took photos, and exchanged contact information.
We are grateful to know these inspirational boys. They are now a permanent part of our lives. Not a single day has passed since our return that we haven’t been in contact with one boy or another—sharing photos, asking questions, and discussing life, language, and leadership, which we share through our love of natural horsemanship.
We appreciate those involved in the Parelli program and Ingela Larsson Smith and all that they do to make the world a better place for horses, especially for the humans who love them.
If you are interested in learning more, please go to www.horsesfororphans.com