It is human nature to need heroes. Sport heroes inspire us to be better, to work harder, to strive for more. And we celebrate, admire, and even worship them in return.
It is also human nature to make allowances for those heroes and their failings. It’s why so many people continue to revere and make excuses for accomplished horsemen and women even after they’ve been exposed as predators. But just as no rider is above the rules on the field of play, they shouldn’t be in the barn either. When we hold everyone to the same standards of conduct, we prevent good people—our heroes—from doing bad things. And we stop bad people too in the process.
And that requires a cultural shift.
“Preventing sexual abuse is not a problem that can be fully addressed by laws,” says child protection advocate Les Nichols. Required police screening, for instance, only weeds out abusers with a criminal record, which accounts for a very small percentage. Reporting laws, while increasingly more strict, do not require reporting odd behavior—and not many people actually do report anyway.
What does affect meaningful change is when we collectively sync our moral compasses and clearly outline, as a community, what behaviors we will accept and which ones we will not.
“There’s an old saying,” says Nichols, “‘Where mores [community standards] exist, laws are unnecessary. Where mores are absent, laws are unenforceable.’”
States, he continues, have been slow to change mandated reporting laws to include ‘sexual misconduct’ and ‘grooming’ behaviors, which leaves a substantial gray area for a mandated reporter—or any person—to confidently report suspected sexual abuse of a minor. "It is up to the barns to help by establishing, displaying and promoting clear rules of conduct for their members—in or outside of their facility. And it’s up to everyone in those barns to embrace the rules and have the courage to enforce them," he says.
(See USEF Safe Sport Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies for conduct rules.)
It’s not as daunting as it might sound, either. People instinctively know right from wrong. You know right from wrong. We just need the tools to act on our instincts—and the accountability to follow through.