DiAnn Langer’s personal account of her own abuse appears as a companion to “#MeToo: The Story Of A Trainer, A Trophy And An All-Too-Common Betrayal.”
If you want to know more about why the Chronicle decided to publish this story, please read President Beth Rasin’s Editor’s Letter.
Warning! The following article contains explicit content and descriptions of sexual assault.
I am writing this as a woman, an equestrian and a USEF chef d’equipe, in that order. That’s who I am. I love our sport and would never want to disparage it. I’m speaking up about my abuse because I don’t want to encourage a culture of silence, and I hope parents will listen so we can all protect our kids.
I am sharing the intimate details of my abuse, all of which will shock and upset you. Why? Because I want the horse world to wake up to the horrors of child sexual abuse and the abuse of power in our industry.
I was molested from the age of 13 by my trainer. He was married to a beautiful wife and had two children. He was approximately two decades older than me. He began grooming me and my family when I was 11. I trusted him, and my parents trusted him. He became a trusted family friend, shared our dinner table, and eventually would be responsible for taking me home after lessons.
His biggest gift to me was a small horse I named Spright. Spright was my world, which he then used against me to force me to conform to his wishes. Often he exercised his power by giving my horse to someone else to ride. To this day I can remember the hurt and sadness I felt when that would happen.
One day he said, “Let’s go on a trail ride,” and at one point he pulled up and said, “Get off your horse and take down your pants.” I was a very small girl and had a history of rheumatic fever, but with horses in my life I was growing strong and healthy. I don’t think I weighed more than 65 pounds.
He couldn’t penetrate me, so he told me to get back on my horse. I did exactly what he told me to do. This included not telling anyone what had just happened. He proceeded to keep doing that until he was successful. That was my experience with sex for the first time. He continued to rape me for six more years.
It wasn’t just sexual abuse. He would physically abuse me, pushing me around and pulling my hair if I didn’t do what he said. Because he often took me home after all the afternoon lessons were done, and he had me captive in the car, he expected oral sex and would pull over and push my head down on him.
The sexual abuse continued until he took an interest in a 14-year-old. I was 19 at the time and working for him. He fired me a few months later only to hire me back when he needed help with a particular horse. I agreed to return. He no longer abused me sexually, however clearly the psychological control continued.
People don’t understand the huge psychological effect that sexual abuse has on you. It’s like being a hostage. He abused his power, and mentally I was his puppet. No matter how many times I personally tried to move on, it was not possible. For me it was the isolation, the embarrassment, the shame. I couldn’t tell my mother. The shame and guilt of feeling that I alone had caused this horrific time in my life was overwhelming. I loved my mother so much that as an adult I still could not tell her. I know she would then have felt the same guilt and shame herself. At 13 I stopped really talking to my parents. I withdrew and became incredibly and painfully shy. I went from a happy young girl with friends who loved school, to hating school, having no friends, and not talking to my family. It was horrible.
It wasn’t until I was 45, after three failed marriages, that I was able to get the right help to be able to verbalize what took place, come to grips with it, and deal with it. Now I feel like I understand it very well, between therapy and reading on the topic. I’ve been able to move forward and have been married to the same wonderful man for 24 years and have many friends that I enjoy spending time with.
In deciding to come forward I felt I needed to bring my family and close friends into the conversation. They needed to know this story was going to happen and to understand that people could say horrible things or not believe me. Everyone I have spoken with is 100 percent in support and feels this conversation needs to happen.
As the USEF Youth Chef d’Equipe and Technical Advisor I’m very conscious of the word youth. I’m also a mom. I really care about the young people in our sport, and that’s why I felt I must say something. I don’t want to be the one who says, “Well, I guess I should have said something.” I understand it is much easier for me to say something because my perpetrator is dead. It will not be so easy for those whose predators are not. It will take strength and support for them to reach out and report sexual misconduct, physical misconduct or emotional misconduct, which includes bullying.
So often these are really powerful men, and I think we need to be conscious of that. Even if I had managed to come forward at 13, 14 or 15, I know I certainly would have been pushed out of the sport. We need to support survivors of sexual abuse or any type of abuse in every way we can. Part of that means we need to make it clear that we will not let anyone ostracize a victim who comes forward. That’s something I think is really important today, to change that part of our culture. Let’s put potential predators on notice that they will not be able to ridicule, shame or bully a victim who comes forward.
Predators are smart. Predators know what’s going on. Let’s face it: It’s a field day out there in the horse world for a straight man looking to victimize a young girl. It is equally dangerous for young boys; predators aren’t just straight men.
I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is it’s not as simple as saying, “It happened to me.” And the culture is obviously so different now. I was an unsophisticated little girl, and our culture was unsophisticated. We didn’t have instant communication. Today music, movies and TV are sexually explicit. I played with dolls—I don’t even know if you can buy dolls now! I watched Disney World on TV. When I look at the 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls with whom I work now I think, “How old are you!” because they’re so much more sophisticated and aware of the world around them.
All athletes feel pressure to be popular and successful, and I’ve heard about teenagers coming to winter circuits, getting fake IDs and going to bars. There older men, including well-known riders revered by these teenagers, have the opportunity to pick them up or take advantage of them. It’s cool to be hanging out with older, famous, powerful riders or professionals when you’re at that age, to post the photos of you together on Instagram. There’s potential for real abuse of power. It’s a different world than when I was a kid, yes, but a junior who has sex with a famous rider, who then drops them, will feel so special for the moment, then feel the same embarrassment, shame and isolation I did, only this time also from the harassment they will receive on the internet.
I especially worry for a young rider who has a limited budget, who is extremely ambitious and working his or her way up the sport pathway. That person is twice as vulnerable as someone who can come and go as they please. The potential for abuse of power in this type of situation is great.
My objective in this difficult conversation is to encourage parents and children to become educated on the SafeSport issue. To understand that misconduct of any type can happen to anyone’s child. To not just drop the kids off at the stable or show and say, “I’ll pick you up later,” or in some cases on Sunday. I want to ask them to stay involved, listen to the lessons, and ask hard questions of their professional. To know who is taking their child home or who they are staying with at an away competition. To keep an eye out for changes in behavior that are not explainable.
As a professional when choosing a professional to travel with my daughter, Kirsten [Coe], back east to finals I was very careful about whom I picked. I want to make sure that everyone who reads this article knows there are so many good people in our sport who understand the risk and the responsibility of providing a safe place for young equestrians to enjoy our great sport. That they should not be alarmed by the information coming forward on sports but educated and aware.
The new SafeSport program is encouraging and necessary, because it gives victims an independent path to report abuse, but it’s not a silver bullet. We as parents, coaches and equestrians must be vigilant to protect our most vulnerable and ostracize predators, not the victims. And we all must work to create a culture where abused individuals feel safe enough to come forward to stop the cycle and start to heal.
This article appeared in the April 9 & 16 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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