Grooming Is an Inside Job

The majority of molestation cases involve seduction and deception, not forcible rape. In other words, they are ‘grooming, not grabbing.’ Athletes can be coerced into compliance because they trust, like, or even love their abusers, making the act of abuse seem consensual. It’s not.

“Grooming is an inside job,” explains child protection advocate Les Nichols. “The victims are coerced. They're fooled into collaborating with their exploiter.” 

The grooming process involves slowly cultivating the trust of an athlete, then systematically breaking down the interpersonal barriers between them over weeks, months or years. The athlete is often unaware that the relationship is gradually becoming unhealthier until it is too late.

“One of the hardest things for adults to grasp is that it is so common for the victims to make a trade off in their mind, to accept that this physical contact, which may eventually become sexual contact, is part of the price that they will pay to get the attention and the benefits they are going to receive from the aggressor,” says Nichols. 

“It doesn't in any way make them complicit. But it does make it difficult to prevent these kinds of crimes because the victim has the strong needs that only the aggressor can seem to fulfill.” 

In the case of horse sport, those needs are typically access to expertise and opportunities. Abusers build trust by offering the athlete tangible rewards—extra horses to ride, additional training opportunities, team selection prospects, and/or sponsorships. They may strike up a “peer-like” friendship outside the barn and offer one-on-one advice or mentorship. 

There are intangible rewards, too. Attention from coach can make the athlete feel special, even superior, which boosts their self-esteem and confidence. Abusers nurture those feelings to deepen and test the bond. They may set private meetings or give small gifts, then ask the athlete not to tell anyone “so the others don't feel jealous.” Or they may give the minor certain freedoms they may not have access to, such as access to drugs or alcohol.

Abusers can groom families as well. The coach is the ultimate authority inside the unquestioned “trust network” of a training program. Athletes don’t want to disappoint their coaches or their families, many of which have invested a great deal of time, money and resources to support their talented child. And parents often rely on and defer to the coach’s expertise. When the abuser holds “celebrity status” in the community, people may even defend their behavior—in spite of reports of abuse. 

As the grooming progresses, the abuser will gradually push the physical boundaries of the relationship, an area complicated by the physical nature of sport. It’s not uncommon for a coach to make a physical correction on an athlete. An abuser will leverage that contact as a “cover” for their actions—it may start with an accidental “excuse me” touch then progress into increasingly more familiar touching, such as hugs or shoulder rubbing. "The trap" is often inappropriate touching and withdrawal: It's “Sorry! I couldn’t help myself” followed by “You didn’t mind last time.”

At this stage, the abuser might start exercising their control over the athlete or attempt to cut them off from their support networks, creating a sense of isolation and reliance. They may attempt to entrap the athlete through previous sexual incidents or create feelings of obligations for repayment of gifts or opportunities. Or they may invoke guilt (You owe me), offer protection (It’s our little secret) or even make threats. All of these tools are used to ensure secrecy.

Grooming is a complicated and calculated process. It's "an inside job." And so is prevention. 

  1. If you see something, say something. Empower coaches, barn staff, athletes and their families to speak up by clearly defining the conduct rules at your barn and the expectation to report. Don’t dismiss questionable interactions or behavior.
  2. Follow up promptly and thoroughly. Barn managers must act quickly to investigate and address any claims to both prevent abuse before it occurs and stop it when it has.

Remember, grooming can happen to athletes of all levels. It’s never the victim’s fault.