I’ve been considering whether to write this for months now, and I know what I’m about to say is likely to be wildly unpopular. However, the time has come that I feel the need to say it.
The general revolt against SafeSport is breathtaking, and I am profoundly disappointed in our sport.
We live at a time where the voices on social media are strong. Where outrage is contagious, emotional arguments carry the day, and narratives are easy to repeat. We also live in a time where previously marginalized voices are becoming heard. We’ve seen the steady rise in movements that have validated the stories of abuse victims. Public rejection of abusers is at an all-time high—and yet our sport, when congressionally mandated to do so, has faced a shocking backlash against a structure and policies designed to eliminate offenders in our midst. The outrage and derision that follows any movement made towards cleaning up our sport and bringing it in line with modern social values is outrageous.
Let me be perfectly clear of my stance here: Abusers have no place in our sport. Our intolerance for animal abuse is enshrined in every passage of our rule book. However, our standards for the abuse of humans require reconsideration. Working conditions, personal relations and sexual harassment in our sport will need to modernize to keep pace with the times or be left behind to face scrutiny as an antiquity. The insular society of elite horse shows has thus far been spared the intense glare of public scrutiny. But our time is coming, and if we don’t bring ourselves into line with modern standards we too will find ourselves on the wrong side of history.
I’m frequently dismayed by the things I hear around me in my workspace as a professional in-gate manager.
People whom I respect and who are known to me to be nothing but professional will crack a casual joke at the in-gate. These small comments speak volumes about how seriously they value supporting victims and commitment to a change that would benefit us all. We should all be held to a higher standard, every single one of us, because what we do is a privilege. Being a member of your national federation is a privilege. It’s a club to which no one is owed membership. We shouldn’t accept anyone who doesn’t conform to our highest ethical standards, because we owe it not only to our animals, our children or our staff, but also to our own humanity.
In the wider world, in any instance where abuse is identified, best practice dictates that when the allegations are found to be credible, the accused should be suspended pending an investigation. This is neither cruel nor unusual. This is standard in any number of other professional fields. For the protection of all parties and the liability of the governing body, it would be seen as negligent not to do so. And yet, when this practice is applied to horse shows the squeals of injustice and malfeasance drown out the voices of rational comment and good judgment.
This opinion piece is not intended as a full-throated endorsement of a government initiative, but rather a call for common sense. My intent is not to dive into specific cases, but rather to appeal to the humanity in all of us. My comments are specifically vague because I don’t wish to get mired in specifics when the overall problem has yet to be addressed.
But we need to do better. Let me say it louder, and one more time for the people in the back row.
WE NEED TO DO BETTER.
We are not our best selves right now. But we can be.
We could be a shining star for gender equality in sports. We have the unique distinction of being one of the few that sees men and women compete on equal grounds. We could be a beacon for progressive sport, at a time when the international profile of equestrian events desperately needs a boost. The opportunity lies before us. Whether we take it or not depends on our willingness to embrace a new direction.
We must begin by embracing our past, which means knowing it. Ignorance will serve no one here. We must look with wide eyes and open hearts at our failures, and then learn from them. This may be uncomfortable, and even hurtful to some, but it’s necessary. Regardless of whether an individual is a titan of our industry or a local scion, we must be open to recognizing the problematic behavior that has led us to our current dialogue.
One part of learning to detect abuse is recognizing that “bad guys” don’t always look like they’re bad. They don’t have horns, nor do they have a tail. They can be friendly, well respected, well spoken and charming. They can be accredited, well educated and well recommended. They may have nice horses, beautiful barns, many staff and an A+ show record. None of these things preclude one from being an offender.
The other thing about offenders is that they don’t offend against everyone. You may very well have had positive experiences with that person, done business with them, or looked up to them. That doesn’t mean that an individual is incapable of committing heinous acts against others. We must be willing to hear the stories of those brave enough to come forward because in being brave there is no incentive—so little to be gained and much to be lost.
It will be difficult for us to reflect, and many an uncomfortable conversation remains to be had. These things will take time, but we must do better. We are capable of more.
We are capable of extraordinary feats of human and animal achievement. We are capable of being better to one another. The time to make the change is now. We must only be brave enough to hear the call.
Avery Gahagan, 29, Ottawa, Ontario, is a professional in-gate and horse show staffer working primarily in the Canadian hunter/jumper industry. With more than 15 years experience on the job, she’s worked in-gates at many grand prix and FEI classes for major Canadian tournaments and worn other hats such as rider, groom, working student, barn manager instructor, trainer, night security and braider.