I grew up on the countryside outside Stockholm, Sweden.
My parents had a big horse farm with 80 to 100 horses. It was a typical Swedish farm with the red houses and the white corners. We had a riding school and, during the summer, riding camps. We had a breeding operation and were buying and selling horses, both in Sweden and all the way to America. Every week, 350 students and customers would come through.
Everything was always neat and tidy, not a single weed. My dad wanted everything to look perfect and people liked to be there because you felt very welcome. Everyone was invited to be part of this barn community. You had this sense that you were part of something bigger when you were there, like you were in the know.
It was an idyllic place to grow up. I’ll never forget the night my parents brought my first pony home. I was sleeping in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and all of a sudden the door opened and in comes a little Shetland with my mom and dad. I was about seven years old. I remember sitting up and rubbing my eyes because I couldn’t believe it! Was I having the best dream ever?!
That was a typical day with my father.
He was adventurous and extreme in a good way, everything was funny. You never knew where you would end up. That was one of my best memories from childhood.
The pony lived in our garden. So every morning I woke up and I went out and kissed her on the nose, then I had breakfast and was off to school. From the outside, I had a very good life—and in so many ways.
As I got older, I had lots of ponies. Every weekend, we were off competing somewhere in Sweden. I’d come back Sunday evening and then go back to school. Life was an adventure.
My father was extremely good at his job, too. We were selling 100 to 200 horses every year and we became very well known for the quality of our ponies. They did great in shows and were being presented in the best possible way. People were willing to pay a lot of money, specifically for our ponies.
And then he got into buying and breaking horses as well. So it was a big industry.
I think it's important to share that because there were many parts of my childhood that were very good because I got to ride and be around these beautiful animals. I just loved being in the stable among like-minded people.
But there was a dark side to it as well, to my father.
Jerry was extremely charismatic and very smart. He could read people in an instant. If there were parents coming up with their daughter to buy a horse, he could tell immediately which one was going to pay for the horse, if they have money or not, if he can leverage them in any way, if he can convert them into becoming students of the stable.
And he invested a lot of time in the parents and their kids. It was, “I'm going to make her a great rider.” As a teenager or young kid, when someone acknowledges you and sees that you have talent, it feels empowering. Of course, it’s also something that's highly valuable for parents.
So he was extremely good at seeing people's potential and could spend hours and hours teaching them how to get better.
On the flip side, the charisma and cunning could also go down the rabbit hole in a destructive and dysfunctional way. The more he felt comfortable with people the more he could push their boundaries. He was very decisive and that made people very obedient. He’d become aggressive and make people work for him.
And we were working constantly. I felt sometimes like I was a slave in the stable because I was working 24 hours, barely eating. I barely slept. I was just doing whatever he was pointing out. I know a lot of other kids were as well. Even some parents he managed to get so involved and active in this business, and they were working for free and just letting him do his thing. No one was really questioning the fact that maybe he's gone a bit too far.
If they did, they’d quietly disappear. They’d come to the farm in the middle of the night when my father was sleeping and take their horse and we’d never hear from them again.
It happened a lot, it happened regularly.
After my father would say, “They're our enemies” and “There’s something wrong with them, they're never welcome back.” Then if we saw them at a competition, we were not supposed to look at them or acknowledge them because they are traitors. You were either in or you're out.
Looking back, it was like a cult. I think I grasp it more now than I did when I was in it.
I've always been very observant. I knew early on that something wasn’t right with my father's behavior, but I didn’t know the extent of it.
One day at school, I was maybe nine, one of my classmates said, “Oh, she has a father who is doing inappropriate things and has been in prison.” I remember that I got very sensitive about it because I didn't know that my father had been in prison. I felt like they were accusing me of something that wasn't right.
When I asked my mother, she denied it, but I could sense that she was hiding something.
And then I started to recognize specific behaviors from my father that were off. Like how he could become a different person, especially during the evenings. We’d be having dinner and it would start off sweetly. “Sophie, how do you go to school? How was that test? OK, well done.”
And then it could just turn and he’d be very aggressive, screaming at me or my mother or my siblings or the staff or even our dog.
So from a very early age I was aware he was doing things that normal parents wouldn’t do and I could also see that other kids were not behaving the way I was. I could tell, OK, my father, he's different. He's much more authoritarian, much more decisive, and he doesn't give me that kind of love I see in other fathers.
I later learned that he had in fact been in prison. When I was around five or six years old, he was convicted of sexual misconduct with five different girls and jailed for two years. After it all unfolded, it came out that there were many more victims, but there were five who testified against him.
We even went to visit him once while he was incarcerated, though at the time my mom told us he was “at work.” I remember it so specifically. He was like, “Hi Sophie, how are you?” And super sweet. Then I remember this bald man picking him up and telling him that, “OK, yeah, we need to go. It's lunchtime” or something.
My mother was extremely good at covering up for him.
I first learned my father was having extra marital affairs when I walked in on him. It was night. My mom went to pick up a horse somewhere outside Stockholm. I went to the kitchen to get to drink water before bed and I heard some weird noises coming from my parents’ bedroom. I looked in and my father was having sex with one of the stable riders.
I was in shock.
I had to look twice just to make sure that what I was seeing wasn’t actually my mom in the bed. I was very young and I panicked. I ran out to the stable and I called my mom from the stable phone. I felt so much shame and guilt for even saying the word sex.
And then I told her the name.
She was so calm. I was expecting her to freak out. But she said, “Yeah, OK. Mom will be home soon.”
I think if you live in chaos long enough, it becomes your normal and you just accept it. She couldn’t change the way he was. She tried for a while. She’d hunt him down, “Oh, I know where you're heading.” She tried to do damage control and make sure that he wouldn't be by himself with a girl in the stable. But, he could be very aggressive. When you have kids to protect, animals to protect and you fear for your own life, there comes a point where you give up. She wanted to protect this successful, well-established stud farm they were running. So she was covering up for him instead of trying to confront him.
And ultimately, she was a victim too.
My mother was 14 or 15 years old when she met my father. He was 29/30 years old at the time. So there was a big age gap. The relationship started when she was about 15 and my father was still married. She got pregnant with me at 19 and he moved her into the neighboring house. She went on to have four kids with him. I think she really believed that he loved her because he told her, “Anna, you're my everything and we're going to do this together. I love you.”
And he was an expert at gaslighting her. Even though she could see that he had been with someone else, he was very good at making people disbelieve their own feelings and their realities.
He did it to me as well. When I had this memory of seeing him with the rider from the stable, he made me think that I was making the whole story up. Maybe that was a dream. Maybe that wasn't actually the truth. Maybe it was only him in there.
The physical abuse started when I was nine.
I distinctly remember the first time he slapped my face. It was in the evening. We were in the kitchen and he made a whole big thing about it because he wanted to teach me a lesson. Me and my younger sister had been fighting about our riding boots or something and he was aggravated. He said, “You should be good friends and you're making a fool of yourself and it's embarrassing for our customers to see you two misbehaving.”
He sat down on his chair and asked me to approach him. And then he slapped me. I was in shock. Why does my father want to hurt me? I started crying and to shake.
He told me to stop it. “Don't do that. Strong girls don't cry. Only losers do.” Then he asked me to come back to where he was sitting. I was afraid that he would slap me again, but when I refused he started screaming so I did as he said and he slapped me a second time. After that I couldn't keep my tears back. I was crying and crying and crying.
From that day on, I felt fear for him. I was afraid of my father. That's also when I started to call him Jerry instead of “dad.”
Over time, the physical abuse escalated.
The better I got at riding the more he used the horses to take out his anger on me and my sister. The worst was when he’d come to our room in the middle of the night, wake us up and force us to go out and ride.
I mean, I loved riding. Don't get me wrong. But late in the middle of the night when I knew he'd been drinking and was angry, it was terrifying. He’d want us to ride a horse that maybe wasn't broke and would be challenging to break. It could be a horse that needed some more time on the ground before you would actually get on it. But he would be like, “OK, so now it's time to make a horse out of this horse” and he’d want me to get up in the saddle.
My legs would be shaking because I knew that if I got on this horse, I might not survive this. As a little kid on these big horses, I had no say. If they want to run, they will run away. What can I do? I'm like a glove on their back.
But he got something out of it, putting me in that kind of jeopardy. You could tell that he was almost feeling satisfaction out of it.
Physical abuse is horrible. And it’s something that I will always keep with me in some way.
But I think the psychological abuse is even worse.
When you’re around someone with a hair trigger temper, you’re constantly walking on eggshells. How is he feeling, what's his mood like? I could sense as soon as he woke up if he would be in a good mood, if I should serve him coffee, or if I should stay away because he had a bad night. I felt like I constantly had to bend myself to how he wanted me to be. If I could only do better and present myself in the way that I thought he wanted me to be, maybe he wouldn't snap.
But it was never enough.
We had a chalkboard in our kitchen. Every day, he wanted me to write down 10 things that I'd done wrong. That was my homework.
“Today, Sophie didn't do good on the test.”
“Today, Sophie didn't sell that horse.”
“Today, Sophie didn't serve my father coffee at the right time in the morning” or “wore the wrong clothes” or “ate the wrong food.”
It was this daily negative talk about myself. I was never good enough. I constantly had to improve myself and it didn't really matter if I won a competition or not, because at the end of day I would hear that I had done something else wrong.
With slapping or when he would physically hurt me, the mark eventually disappears. But the words, the things he told me, they still remain. And for me, that's something I still struggle with, the looping negativity. It’s very hard having a father that doesn't love you, or at least you don't think he loves you.
By the time I was 15 or 16, I was in full blown survival mode. I just wanted the day to go by and to be able to go to bed and hopefully wake up alive the next day. So that's the mindset I had. I decided then that when I'm 18 years old, I'm a grown up and I can decide for myself. So I started to count the years, months, weeks and days until the day I turned 18.
And then on my birthday, I was out there. I took my bags and I moved off the farm and I stayed in the house a few kilometers away and I went to school, then I decided to move to London.
I often ask myself how did I get out?
What made me understand, because I was so young at the time, that what I'm going through is not my fault and see that there is something seriously wrong with my father?
I think what helped me is that I talked about it. I wanted to vent. I had friends and I told them everything. My mom and my sister didn't want to talk about what was happening in our home. We just kind of mutually agreed to not talk about him and to just let him do whatever. But for me, I had all these built up emotions and frustration and shame and sadness. I had to get it out somewhere.
So I vented to my friends. I think doing that, putting those emotions and feelings into words, helped me heal and is what made me realize that this situation is not right. This is not how it's supposed to be. And that I want to live a free life.
London was a big change for me, coming from a horse farm in Sweden to all of a sudden being in this big city.
I wasn't around horses anymore and, for me, horses were my safetynet. So it was the start of this journey to understand myself, realizing have I actually gone through this? And I made it out alive?
I was very happy that I escaped. I felt relieved. Finally, I'm out of this prison and for the first time, I could make choices for myself. I could go to the food court or the supermarket. I could order whatever I wanted to eat and I could talk to whoever I wanted to talk to. So I really enjoyed the freedom. London saved me.
But at the same time it was overwhelming. For my whole life, I had constantly been complying with who my father wanted me to be. I didn’t know any other existence and now I had to start to learn about myself. Who am I? What do I like to do? Am I an extrovert or am I an introvert? What do I like to eat? Why do some people make me feel uncomfortable?
And I was very concerned about my mom and my siblings and the horses because I knew that he could put them into jeopardy and could be very violent with them.
One by one, my siblings and my mom did make it out. Eventually. And in the end, he was very lonely.
My father is not alive anymore, he passed away three years ago. I think it was a way for all of us in the family to move on and become grownups and not be stuck on this battlefield with him. Because everything with him was a battle.
But even after I left, it took me years to relinquish the hold he had on me. I wanted to do things so that my father would validate me. It was, Oh, I have to become a model because I thought I was ugly. So I became a model. I wanted to study business and finance because my father told me I was stupid because I was horrible with numbers. So I decided to study finance. I didn't enjoy it, but I still forced myself to do all those lessons.
At the time, I thought I was doing it for myself. But the older you get, the more you learn about yourself and I realized, OK, who am I doing this for? I don't want to do that. I want to sing. I love singing. I want to be on stage and perform for people. I want to start my own business. I want to write a book (I did!). I realized that I have to put myself in the driver’s seat.
Even now, I’m a work in progress.
I’m very invested in growth and self-development and because I've been so curious about myself, it’s helped me learn about my triggers.
I’ve learned to listen to my emotions because for a long time I wasn't allowed to listen to my emotions.
I’ve learned that I am extremely negative towards myself. I told myself every day what I'm doing wrong and I felt shame around that. Now every time I have a negative thought, I try to think, OK, well, what did I just tell myself? Then I ask myself, Would I say that to my best friend? No, I would probably not. Now be your own best friend.
So I'm really working on my own thoughts because I want to be happy. Maybe it sounds cliché, but I think life should be happy and fun. That's something that I'm aiming for and part of what makes me happy is advocating for young people that are in similar situations that I grew up in.
I felt so alone throughout my childhood. But I wasn’t. One out of five kids have these problems in their family, parents that are abusive or are abusing alcohol or drugs. This topic needs to be brought up and we need to talk about being vulnerable and creating spaces for people to feel safe.
I believe that we need to ask difficult questions when we suspect something's not right. It doesn't have to be, “Sophie, are you having a tough childhood? Is your father abusing you?” It could have been, “Sophie, how are you? Tell me about your horse. Let's talk about something.” Just be there. Listen. Pay attention. Be a safe person to talk to.
I also think when it comes to the stables that parents should be more engaged. From what I've seen, a lot of parents drive their kids to the stable and leave them there until they pick them up. Or even let them stay over. They don't really know what's going on in stables. Show that you want to be involved. Start reading signals. Ask your child, “How did it go? What happened? Tell me, I want to hear more.”
It's important to bring these topics up and educate people about their rights.
For a long time, we’ve been dismissing abuse, in all its forms, as a problem that has no end. It’s time to start talking about how we can help.
Sophie Jahn is a human rights activist and an ambassador for Swedish fashion brand Equestrian Stockholm. For the month of June, Equestrian Stockholm is donating 5% of proceeds from the Wild Rose and Blue Stone collections to #WeRideTogether. Shop the collection at equestrianstockholm.com.