About thirty years ago, I was a victim of sexual misconduct by my horse trainer. It involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a trainer 20+ years my senior, and I was just one of a string of young women.
I was groomed over many years before it began. He told me things that would appeal to a teenager and made me feel very special. He said things like, “I’ve never felt this way before,” and made me believe that his feelings for me were unique, bigger than anything else, and that he would leave his wife for me. He acted like I was his favorite, with special privileges like being the one to go on errands with him and ride in the truck with him to the show. I thought it was "consensual."
I have spent the last thirty years feeling guilty, telling myself that I had been the bad one, that it was my fault. I blamed myself. “I knew what I was doing.”
But I didn’t.
I was young, and he took advantage of me. I know that now. I thought I had “dealt” with it; after all, it was decades ago. Sure I had to do the SafeSport training, and have heard all the #metoo stories, but somehow I didn't turn it inward. All that changed recently after reading an Eventing Nation article, and my narrative started to shift.
I spent hours on the phone talking to a friend (who was also a victim of the same person) about it, coming to terms with how much it had impacted our lives and weighed on us, letting go of the guilt. We had to work through this transition from feeling shame to realizing we were victims. Our conversations validated each other’s recollection of what happened.
Together, we realized that we were victims of sexual misconduct due to an imbalance of power. We had been groomed, set-up. This was something that had been done to us, and we were not responsible for causing it to happen. This was not an easy place to get to, and I don’t think either of us would have been able to reach it on our own.
Guilt turned to anger. We are angry not just at what happened, but that we had been living with ramifications for decades. We are angry that he continued (continues?) the behavior after us. We are angry thinking of all the others he has hurt.
Knowing that this sexual misconduct is still so prevalent in the world of equestrian sports and wanting to help hold perpetrators accountable to make others think twice before acting in the same way, we decided to file a SafeSport complaint. It was a tortuous decision, but after consulting with many friends, some in the business, many of whom have experienced or been around similar events, we decided it was the right thing to do even though it would be very uncomfortable. We reached out to people who had been around during the time this had happened and were shocked by how negatively it had impacted them as well, just being around it.
But still, even after all the years that had passed, even knowing it was the right decision, it was hard to come forward. There was still fear of being blamed, of being seen as guilty and morally wrong, of what kind of repercussions there might be. My abuser and his wife are still in the business, and his wife is a judge I may encounter.
Unfortunately, a few months into the process and many SafeSport interviews later, we learned that SafeSport can’t do anything if there was not a crime that may have involved law enforcement, essentially rape or involvement of a minor, or if there had not been a violation of existing organization rules at the time, and there were no rules about sexual misconduct in the 1980/90s.
So the case went nowhere, despite the fact that this could still be happening, and it would be punishable now under USEF rules. He was, however, issued a letter of admonishment, which meant a lot to me.
I want him to know that we know what he did was wrong. I want him to know that he is being watched. I want him to know that we aren’t staying silent anymore.
If we had not had each other for support and to make the SafeSport report together, we may never have done it, despite being thirty years out and being fairly well adjusted adults in our 50s. It was just a very hard thing to do. It is unimaginable how a teenager or young adult could have the courage to report an offense, but our hope is that they have a different understanding of this than we did many years ago, due in part to the ongoing conversation around this topic.
It is critical that we all take our roles as mandatory reporters seriously. This behavior is so pervasive in the industry, it will take all of us to put an end to it. But together, we will prevent more young people from becoming victims.
Ultimately, no matter the SafeSport outcome, it has been very healing for me to have this out in the open and speak about it, to stop hiding, and to feel the unity with other girls and women who have been through it. And if you are reading this, and you are questioning something that happened to you, if you are feeling scared or guilty or confused, please know this: you are not to blame for what happened, and you are not alone.
No matter how old you are, whether it happened yesterday or thirty years ago, you are a victim and you should not feel shame. Please talk to someone you feel safe with. Abusers want us to feel isolated, but we are not. We have each other. Reporting is the only way to stop this. Together, we can bring this ugliness in our industry to light.