There’s a shift happening in the world right now. From the Olympic down to the club level, we can no longer feign ignorance about the prevalence of sexual abuse in sport, and the resounding impact it can have on the lives of survivors. Horse sport is no exception.
Studies show that athletes are among the most susceptible to abuse—an astounding 40 to 50 percent will have experienced anything from mild sexual harassment to severe sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.
The true number is likely higher, says child protection advocate Les Nichols. In equestrian sport, it almost certainly is.
Abuse is more prevalent in sports where participants are predominantly female and working one-on-one with a trainer—as is the norm in horse sports. The fact that equestrian athletes most often compete as individuals, not as teammates, increases their risk still more—and that risk only grows as they advance. The more proficient the athlete becomes, the more likely he or she is to be singled out for additional one-on-one time with coaches and other adults, a key component in the grooming process.
There is reason to be hopeful, however.
“We’re hearing more and more about people and organizations discussing problem behaviors,” Nichols says. “Victims are also receiving more support than ever before and they are more likely to disclose their experiences, so the prevention strategies are working. It may make it seem like things are getting worse, but we're just defining the problem more broadly. That’s a good thing.”
Good news? Sure. But it’s just the start if we’re to create lasting change.
“It doesn't mean we don't have to do as much to protect young athletes,” Nichols says, “it means we need to be doing even more.”