When I was 12 I rode my first horse, a white Arabian mare named Crystal that my sister and I found in the classified section of the local newspaper. As a lover of animals, it was an eye-opening experience for me and I didn’t want to do much else other than be around horses after that.
I did not receive professional training right away, but I did gravitate towards jumping lessons at the local riding stable in Modesto, CA soon after learning I could do so. I showed in my first Grand Prix by the age of 15 in Northern California on my trainer’s horse and went to Indio the following winter to experience the winter circuit as an “extra hand.” My parents were paying for some of my lessons and other lessons I was working off by doing chores at the local farm. This is defined as Child Labor.
While in Indio, I was recruited by a prominent trainer to come work for him in Orange County, CA. I smoked pot with him almost immediately during the week-long job interview and he made arrangements with my parents for me to come live with him and ride horses. At the time, I was euphoric about the opportunity to ride horses, learn about course designing and compete clients' horses at the shows as a junior. I didn’t returned home again until after my suicide attempt.
At that farm, I made progress as a rider so the efforts being made by my trainer to advance my career were legitimate. But, I was also privy to sexual conversation about how “I was gay. I just didn’t know it yet” and “how I could become a born again virgin” if I spent time with him and his boyfriend. After going through intense psychotherapy as an adult I have since learned that it’s inappropriate for an employer to smoke pot with a 16-year-old employee and discuss their sexual preferences.
After working with this trainer for about a year, I was eventually dubbed a “F*ck up” and moved to Florida. There, I was solicited by a big name trainer on the show grounds in Wellington and offered a beer. I was 17. Everybody told me to be careful of him because “he liked me” and if I wasn’t careful he would “take me in his tack room and have sex with me.” I was also told that it was the best way for me to advance my career. I did not ride with that trainer, but that experience taught me to steer clear of other predators at the horse show. And there were many.
That winter season, I was identified as a talented rider by Joe Fargis—he paid me a reasonable salary and provided me with horses to show as a junior while doing chores in his barn. This is not Child Labor. Joe never laid a finger on me and I quit smoking pot, primarily because he encouraged me to focus my mind on my technique and my work ethic rather than be distracted by anything that would impede my performance as an athlete. It was a method that worked.
At 18, I moved to Germany and worked with Sören von Rönne at Joe’s recommendation. I became a very skilled rider and was recommended to become a riding instructor in Bridgehampton, NY.
I was in over my head as a professional, though. At 19, I needed an education. Everything had happened so fast that I hadn’t developed socially yet as an adult and my experiences as a junior were part of the reason why. I was lost without my family and I missed my high school friends. I needed guidance. I scraped a few years of experience together teaching lessons and riding sales horses for Ralph Caristo, but my addictions returned and by the time I got back to California, I had two jobs in a year, got arrested for possession of marijuana, broke up with my girlfriend, and attempted suicide.
I was diagnosed as Bi-Polar after the attempt. It was a wake-up call. I realized I was in trouble.
Many people in my local community supported me through my recovery. I was encouraged to ride horses again while I struggled to adjust to my medications and the painstaking therapy that I now embrace as an important part of my treatment. My doctors told me it would take a long time to be in “full remission.” They were right.
I ended up taking a year off from riding and went to school where I got involved in theatre. That was an interesting experience. I realized sport is actually a type of theatre and, because theatre is a performing art, I was actually good at transferring my knowledge as a horse trainer to the stage.
But I missed the horses. I decided to go back to Florida and start riding again and was hired almost immediately to ride as an FEI groom. From the outset, I saw horses being treated in ways I had never seen before. Terrible ways. I was told, “if you tell the Stewards, you’ll never work in the business again.” Once during a training session, I even witnessed a dead horse in that big name trainer’s ring in Florida. I started getting suicidal again and decided to move back to Germany and start my own business selling horses. This was the first time I ever made any real money.
In Germany I was off the pot again and doing good business with the United States. My reputation was good because of my work with Joe, and because, as an FEI Groom, I had won an award at Hickstead, England. But I missed my friends in the U.S. and I started suffering from depression. My employer hired a therapist to come see me at the farm; ultimately, she decided I should return home.
Back in the U.S., I got excellent jobs working for World Champion Hunter Rider Scott Stewart and at Old Salem Farm, riding Grand Prix horses with Anne Kursinski. I had excellent recommendations from John French and Ralph Caristo and dated many of the girls at the horse show in my 20s. I have never had a relationship with a minor, but when I heard there were men who did, I looked the other way and accepted it as yet another part of the business I didn’t agree with. I’m really sorry I did that. It pains me still.
I eventually quit because I got tired of feeling like I was never getting ahead. I picked up theatre again, but not before going to school and having several other jobs that gave me the training I needed to understand what I had been through as a minor. I took classes about drug rehabilitation, mental health awareness and anger management. I was educated by corporate America about sexual harassment, violence prevention and ethics. I learned that if we stop the predatory behavior from its’ inception, often times the situation will not escalate, and if the actors are disciplined right away it could even help THEM from getting fired or removed from the situation because they will have the opportunity to correct their behavior.
I am a huge advocate for SafeSport, but I think we can do better. I think the overall performance of the entire U.S. Team, in every discipline, will be improved if we make sure the purpose of the horse shows is to compete with sportsmanship, horsemanship, animal welfare and ethics. Without the distractions of the predatory behavior, we will be able to focus on our jobs and on our horses’ performances. People can learn how to take care of themselves and others through horse sport and I’m an advocate for using methods that are safe and effective, not harmful to the animals or dangerous to the riders.
I believe my early experiences in the sport were dangerous for me as a junior and are the reason it has taken me so long for me to develop in to somebody who can now be identified as “stable, well adjusted and in full remission.”