As the mom of a survivor of sexual abuse, I am deeply passionate about increasing the awareness and prevention of sexual misconduct in sport. My daughter was riding and competing as a minor when she was groomed by her trainer and subjected to abuse. I know my family’s experience is not isolated. In just the past eight months, there have been eight arrests of coaches related to sexual misconduct in the equestrian community. More and more headlines are exposing this systemic issue to the world, as sports coaches from youth, college and elite levels across the globe are being investigated for sexual misconduct with athletes. Even more disturbing is that most of these cases involve minors.
It is shocking and appalling that these behaviors continue to occur, making sport an unhealthy environment for everyone. Sexual abuse of children is illegal. It is time to end the denial and resistance, and we must let go of outdated practices and assumptions. Yet, there has been so much push back over implementing changes that would solve the problem. Instead, the focus has been over SafeSport and how prosecution works rather than on how to prevent the abuse in the first place.
What’s the solution? It’s proactive prevention, a practice that we see implemented in other industries already. Whether it’s in our schools or in our offices, nearly every other environment that has a potential for power imbalance has put in place a culture and set of operating policies to protect all participants—be it the teacher and student, or the manager and employee. The sporting environment should be treated just the same, with safeguards between coach and athlete.
I understand firsthand that being an equestrian is a way of life. As an equestrian and a veteran horse show mom myself, I know it’s not uncommon for us to spend more time with our barn mates and coaches than many people spend with their families. We rely heavily on each other for guidance, training, animal care and friendship. Because of this, it’s easy for this sport to spill over into our personal lives. I also have learned that because of the close and often intense nature of these relationships, it becomes easy for boundaries between coaches and riders to get blurry.
When this happens, violations of trust, misconduct and abuse are more likely to occur. Just as we have barn safety rules everyone knows and follows (such as wearing a helmet), we need clear standards for relationship dynamics to keep everyone safe. Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of misconduct prevention. Everyone—coaches, athletes and parents—plays a role in eliminating sexual misconduct in sport.
The following best practices help create clear and firm boundaries that we can use to keep athletes, coaches, and our sport safe. I challenge everyone in the equestrian community to embrace the ideas laid out here and help eliminate sexual misconduct in our sport.
1. Take the Coach Athlete Pledge
The Coach Athlete Pledge, a commitment to maintaining healthy training environments, summarizes 10 best practices to ensure that future generations of athletes have safe and positive experiences. Similar to a new client liability waiver, the pledge can serve as a valuable onboarding document that helps ensure all parties—riders, parents and coaches—understand the expected standards of behavior.
2. Post and adhere to conduct rules at the barn and at horse shows
It’s not enough to simply map out rules of conduct. These rules must be easy to understand, widely distributed and consistently enforced. Just as helmet use and riding rules are posted outside the arena, behavioral rules and code of conduct requirements should be prominently displayed in high-visibility areas so that everyone is working from the same playbook.
#WeRideTogether offers Code of Conduct signs outlining the 10 best practices laid out in the Coach Athlete Pledge free of charge. Order one for your facility by emailing email@example.com.
3. Implement the “window rule” to keep everyone safe
We tend to think of misconduct as something that happens in dark rooms, after hours, but boundaries can also be crossed in broad daylight. That is why areas where riders prepare, practice and compete should always be accessible to supervision. Every adult’s interaction with a rider should be observable and easy to interrupt. If a conversation with a minor must be private, the “rule of three” requires that a third person must be present. This applies to online and phone communications too.
Does this mean a coach can’t walk a course with their student? Of course not. Course walking is a prime example of an interaction that is observable and easy to interrupt. A coach and young athlete having a private conversation in a tack room with a closed door and no windows, on the other hand, is neither easily observed nor interrupted. In this case the “rule of three” applies.
4. Learn about power imbalances
It is not appropriate for a coach to enter a love and/or sexual relationship with an athlete they train because of the inherent power imbalance that exists.
A power imbalance occurs when one person in the relationship holds authority over the other. For example, coaches often have sole determination over whether a rider competes at a certain level, rides certain horses or participates in certain events. Having power over an athlete and their competitive future impacts that athlete’s capability and comfort in saying no. Consent is never possible when an athlete, regardless of age, does not feel they have a choice.
To learn more about power imbalances and consent visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
5. Call the Courage First Athlete Helpline
The Courage First Athlete Helpline is a free, confidential resource for athletes of all ages, former athletes, parents, coaches, administrators and anyone tangentially related to a sport community. Their counselors are former athletes who have been trained by sports abuse researchers to offer support and guidance on emotional, sexual or physical abuse in sport.
If you have witnessed or suspect abuse, you are in the unique position to intervene and prevent further harm. Silence is an abuser’s best friend. It’s in everyone’s best interests to err on the side of caution and talk through any concerns you may have. Whether you seek the courage to make a call for yourself, help another or continue healing as a survivor, counselors are available to support your journey every step of the way.
6. Explore the #WeRideTogether blog
There is no direct path to recovery for a survivor of sexual abuse. Everyone is different, and it can be difficult to understand and navigate the systems, the resources, and the fallout.
The #WeRideTogether Blog is intended to be a repository of information where someone who is coming through a sexual abuse or misconduct situation can read and explore to better understand all the systems at play, as well as a source of news and expert opinion. This blog represents the voices of counselors, prosecutorial law enforcement professionals, attorneys, public health professionals, child protection specialists, victims advocates, parents, survivors and other experts in all the areas of sexual misconduct and abuse.
7. Take time to think about your personal boundaries
Take a moment to think about your personal boundaries and who you consider to be trusted individuals in your life that you could go to if misconduct or abuse happened. It can be helpful to visualize situations ahead of time, determine your boundaries, and make a plan for how you may handle such events. This means considering what language, touch, and interactions are ok with you and not ok with you. Anyone crossing your boundaries without your consent is not acceptable. We have all rehearsed “stop, drop and roll” and mapping escape routes and meet-up locations in the event of a fire. We can also plan for these types of uncomfortable, tricky situations.
8. Believe, listen to and support yourself
It’s important to listen to your body and trust your gut. This means recognizing and responding to sensations in your body. When something is scary or not quite right, our bodies often start to tell us. For example, some people experience tightness in the chest, trouble taking deep breaths, headaches, an upset stomach, extra sweating and/or shakiness. Sometimes these feelings mean you are excited or that you are physically ill, but they can also mean that something is not OK with you socially, emotionally and/or with your environment—that you are experiencing discomfort and not feeling safe.
To learn more about listening to your body and trusting your intuition, visit Verywell Mind.
9. Support others if you observe misconduct
You can also make a positive impact in sticking up for others if you observe misconduct or abuse. This is called being an active bystander. Bystanders play a role in supporting survivors by directly or indirectly intervening when something inappropriate occurs. Serving as an active bystander, instead of showing indifference via inaction or passive permission, contributes to upholding a safe environment for everyone. If something you observe doesn’t sit quite right with you, there’s often a reason why.
Learn more about self-care for survivor supporters.
Learn more about what to say if a survivor discloses abuse to you.
Learn more about how we can work together to stop sexual misconduct from happening to the athletes in your life at www.weridetogether.today.
After a decade of working in human resources for tech start-ups and nonprofits, Carrie Kehring has spent the past 12 years driving up and down the West Coast attending horse shows with her daughters. She lives in California with her family, an abundance of horses, dogs and various other farm animals, including a pig named Waddles. Carrie is intimately acquainted with the enormous and multi-faceted difficulties faced by survivors and the personal toll sexual abuse takes on their loved ones. A passionate advocate for change, Carrie is committed to ending sexual misconduct in all youth sports via awareness, education and transparent discussion through her role as president and founder of #WeRideTogether. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.