I’m worried. I’m worried for the athletes who are victims of abuse but haven’t come forward. I’m worried for those who have. I’m worried that it will never stop, that these headlines become so common that people will no longer pay attention. I’m worried that we have become numb.
When will it finally be enough? When will we stop hearing:
“Well, maybe she wanted it.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t wearing that.”
“I know [insert name here]; he would never do that.”
“Guilty, until proven innocent!”
“This is what happens at the highest level—deal with it.”
Lies. All of them.
She didn’t “want it.” In fact, everything in her was screaming no. The law says no. Nothing permits grown adults to have sex with minors under the age of consent. That is called rape.
And what she was wearing? Well, that outfit used to make her feel beautiful, but now it has been tarnished with that memory. As for you knowing the perpetrator? You’re lucky enough never to have seen the real side of him, but she will be forced to for the rest of her life. And, no, he is not guilty until proven innocent. The U.S. Center for SafeSport hires top investigators, many of whom are ex-law enforcement, FBI officers or other highly educated people. If you think you know more about an investigation than these people, I strongly suggest contacting SafeSport with your information. They are not reading your Facebook comments.
But the last excuse—“this is what happens at the highest level—deal with it”—gets to me every time. This is exactly what I am concerned about.
It has become accepted for abuse to occur; it is even expected at some levels. Does no one else see how problematic this has become?
I’m sick of holding my keys in between my fingers at horse shows when I’m walking to my car after the sun has set. I’m tired of scanning every inch of my car through the windows before I unlock it and get in. I’m distressed by the number of barns I have to skip over when giving people recommendations due to proven misconduct. I’m fed up with limiting myself to female-only trainers because I don’t know who I can trust.
I want to meet new people in the industry and not have the voice in the back of my head warning me to keep my guard up. I want to feel safe at the barn and at shows, regardless of the time of day or who is around me. I want to snuggle with my horse and feed her cookies and scratch her withers. This experience has been ruined for too many already.
The concept of grooming is familiar in athletics. For many years, it was an accepted side effect of competing in top-level sports. Those in charge turned a blind eye, and parents and children were unaware of the indications of the beginnings of abuse. Thanks to programs like SafeSport training, we have been able to better educate the adults involved in the industry. SafeSport has allowed clear boundaries to be established, allowing kids, parents, trainers and other members to better identify grooming before it becomes too late.
Nonetheless, grooming can be easy to miss. It can be dismissed simply as nice gestures from an adult toward a child, or misinterpreted as an adult’s recognition of a young rider’s talent. Abusers are experts at blurring the line between grooming and kindness. This is where SafeSport steps in; its rules explicitly prohibit one-on-one interaction without parental consent or another adult present, thus stopping the chain of events that allow abusers to continue to prey on their victims. Despite all of its contributions to abuse prevention, many continue to ridicule SafeSport, and fail to see how necessary it is, given the state of the horse industry as a whole.
I’ve seen many top female riders come forward in support of programs like SafeSport or #WeRideTogether. This has been hugely influential and very helpful. I have to ask, though, where are the men? Do they think they have no part in this, just because they aren’t perpetrators? We need as much support for these people as possible. I certainly hope the lack of endorsement isn’t rooted in a worry that they will be sanctioned due to prior actions, but I know for some that it may be possible.
Our national organizations and most influential figures have been quiet on the issue, both in the past and present. Ignoring it has sheltered a former chef d’equipe, an Olympian, multiple top grand prix riders and countless coaches from the repercussions they deserve. It does not matter if it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago, or if it occurred when the perpetrator was a drug addict or alcoholic.
Stop supporting businesses and barns that protect or provide income for abusers. Stop making excuses for them. Stop idolizing them. It does not matter the circumstances; these behaviors have been proven to repeat, time and time again.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 51% of alleged rapists have been convicted of rape at least once prior to their most recent arrest, and 59% of suspected rapists who are released before trial go on to commit rape again. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) has found that sex offenders are four times more likely to recommit a sexual crime compared to the overall population of convicted criminals, and that 42.9% of sex offenders go on to commit violent crimes, while 56.6% continue to commit other crimes.
“Researchers widely agree that observed recidivism rates are underestimates of the true re-offense rates of sex offenders,” according to SMART.
These statistics should alarm you. It is time for the entirety of our industry to stand up and speak out against sexual abuse. There is no excuse to stay silent.
And to all the survivors, I stand with you.
Hazel Hamilton is a junior rider from Portland, Oregon. She began riding at age 9, and she now competes up and down the West Coast on her two horses, Carpalo’s Boy and Dragonfly M.