New allegations continue to surface daily in what has been labeled a “sexual assault epidemic” in America. More and more Silence Breakers are starting to feel like they have a safe space to share their own stories, with the #MeToo movement on social media playing a critical role in empowering those who once felt like they had no voice. It should come as no surprise that our equestrian community is not immune from the epidemic. Today we share an anonymous letter we hope will give others in our community the courage to find a voice. You are not alone.
Dear younger self,
I remember you. The horse-crazy kid who gets dropped off at the barn after school every day and loiters there from sunup to sundown all summer long. Mucking stalls, riding everything you can, bombing around bareback without a care in the world. You are eager to learn, to be the very best, and you hang on your trainer’s every word. You devour horse magazines cover to cover, cutting out photos of top riders and pinning them to your bedroom walls.
I remember you. The starry-eyed teenager with gold-plated Olympic dreams. Jumps are getting higher; things are getting serious; the sport of eventing has become your whole world. Your trainer takes a particular interest in you, gives you the ride on a nice horse that will take you to the next level. You are the star student and you thrive on the attention — it makes you feel special, even exceptional. It makes you feel seen.
You are also naive and impressionable, and so you feel confused when your trainer’s attention moves from verbal praise into the realm of the physical, the sexual.
Molestation is an ugly word, so you don’t use it — after all, it isn’t like you are kicking and screaming to get away. Another word you don’t use is “no,” and as a result you feel responsible for the blurring of boundaries. You feel complicit. Besides which, what if you tell someone and the nice horse gets taken away, or your parents take away horses altogether? None of these seem like risks worth taking, so it goes on, for years.
I remember when your secret begins wearing you down. How when you drive to and from the barn, you start to fantasize about stepping on the gas and veering off the road. It feels like your only option for escape. One bitter winter night you finally do it, but it doesn’t go as planned. Your car is wrecked but you are uninjured, and so the nightmare continues.
At 18 you finally make your getaway. You take a working student position several hours away, in a top-level barn with positive, healing energy. You start over with a young OTTB, who will eventually become your own self-made upper level horse. You are alive, healthy and happy again.
But acts of sexual predation are widespread, scaling all strata of equestrian sport — even the sacred iconography that adorned your childhood bedroom walls. Like the time you go out to dinner with a group of riders at a three-day event — you’re maybe 19 by now — and the big name rider sitting next to you begins rubbing your thigh. Under the table, with his wife sitting across from you. He doesn’t even know your name and he is groping you. You begin to realize that the powerful take what they want, when they want it. You sit stiffly and pick at your dinner, laughing it off later with friends.
Life goes on.
Your first trainer is still out there, teaching young girls and running summer camps. And, as you’ll eventually learn, you aren’t the last “star student.” Some years later, within the statute of limitations, you consider pressing charges but — more horse-poor than ever as a struggling young professional — you can’t afford a lawyer.
As for the big-name rider who thought it was OK to feel up a random teenager under the table? He went on to represent the U.S. on the world’s biggest stages.
So what happens to you? The good news is, you’ll be fine (with the help of some good therapists of both the horse and human variety). In fact, you’ll be amazing. You’ll grow smarter, stronger and more adventurous. You’ll keep riding, marry a wonderful man, surround yourself with great friends, and land your dream job. You may or may not make it to a four-star, but you’ll find a place for yourself within the sport that fulfills you. Moreover, you’ll find your voice. And you’ll use it to talk about things that have meaning. Like this.
Know this, younger self: You are not alone. You are neither the first nor the last victim of a rider, trainer, owner, sponsor, employer, auxiliary, etc. who has used their power and influence to involve themselves sexually with someone younger and more vulnerable than themselves. You’re not as isolated as you feel, and you have access to more support* than you know.
To be clear, this is not a one-size-fits-all conversation. The two anecdotes I have shared from my own life exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of intensity and duration, but it is the same spectrum. The common denominator is a lack of awareness of power dynamics — who has power, who does not, and how it can be abused. And that needs to change.
I am writing this letter as acknowledgement that my voice is, and always has been, worth listening to. And as a warning against allowing my sense of self-worth to become entangled with the value of my body. And to give myself permission to let go of the guilt, shame and pain I have carried around for so long, regarding not only these incidents but others that would accumulate in the years to follow. It has taken the emergence of a broader cultural conversation to say these things out loud, even if under the veil of an anonymous letter.
I wish I was braver, like others who have come forward with their stories in full transparency. But perhaps my story is more poignant with no names attached, no fingers pointed. Who am I? I could be anyone: your friend, your student, your daughter. A face in the cross country warm-up. The rider stabled next to you at an event. Perhaps my story resembles your own.
If this letter resonates with any of you reading it, then I am writing it for you, too.
I realize that by declining to name names, I’m not exactly ripping down the veil of silence. As individuals and as a sporting culture, we have historically protected abusers. We sweep stories like mine under the rug because they disrupt the narrative about our beloved sport that we wish to believe, a narrative that does not include the degradation of its most vulnerable athletes.
But this letter, my letter, isn’t about specific names. It’s about a deeply troubling dynamic of exploitation that has long permeated equestrian sport at every level. Surely, there is something I — we — can do to throw a wrench in its gears, for the sake of this and future generations of at-risk young riders to come. Hopefully this letter is a solid first step.
I remember you. Love,
*Editor’s Note: For support, information, advice or referrals, we recommend contacting the trained support specialists at RAINN, Safe Horizon and SafeSport, a function of the IOC dedicated to stopping child abuse in sport and creating a safe culture in sports programs across the country. You may also contact the author directly at [email protected].