On a rainy day in late October 2018, I was handcuffed and shivering in the middle of an intersection in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Just down the street in the Hart Senate Building, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was testifying about the sexual assault she experienced as a teenager at the hands of then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
I was in town for meetings but left during a coffee break because I couldn’t take it. I made my way to the Hart atrium and joined hundreds of other sexual assault survivors in the heaviest, most painful silence imaginable to support Dr. Ford while she told her story. Some women were silently sobbing. Others were defiantly holding their fists in the air. I recognized some of my colleagues and allies from my advocacy work, but many of us were complete strangers. We didn’t have to ask why anyone was there; we just knew. We’d been re-traumatized by the horrifying commentary around Kavanaugh’s nomination, and we didn’t know what else to do. We were hurting, and we had to do something. So, we were there.
A few hours later, I sat in the street and refused police orders to move as an act of protest. I was arrested, along with around 25 other women. While we were standing in the intersection waiting to be processed and sent to the jail, the police officer searching my pockets thanked me for standing up for sexual assault victims. I didn’t have to ask her why she was thanking me; it was clear. We were all in so much pain that day. The weight of it all and the realization that it wasn’t going away anytime soon started to overwhelm me. I really didn’t want to have a panic attack—I was surrounded by television cameras, handcuffed and with my colleagues—so I looked for something to distract myself. There were some mounted police officers nearby, and I remember thinking, “I really just need to hug that horse for a minute.”
Fast-forward to today, in the thick of the pandemic, on the heels of the 2020 election and the terrifying events around the inauguration. My toddler son is in daycare, I’m working from home, and when I finish writing this essay I’m going to get in my car and drive an hour through the snow to hug my horse.
I’ve been turning to horses when I need to escape since I learned to crawl. Horses offer a consistency and reliability that can help people like me decompress, relax and heal. Unfortunately, with horses come horse people, and they aren’t so reliable or relaxing. Our sport has long been plagued by sexual abuse, bullying and racism. Since I re-entered the horse world after a several-year hiatus nine months ago, I’ve been watching with keen interest the dialogue and discourse around SafeSport and sexual assault within our sport.
One of the things that delayed my return to the sport for so long was my fear that I wouldn’t fit in. You see, I am a feminist to my core. My life revolves around my feminism, and my career is dedicated to helping women find safe spaces to talk about trauma and shared experiences. The part of me that was raped, the part of me that had an abortion, the part of me that was violently assaulted by my ex-husband—they don’t disappear when I put my breeches on and walk into the barn. For more than a decade, I worried that I wouldn’t find a barn or a trainer that allowed me to be myself. I was nervous that I would have to endure aggressive confrontations from other boarders or horse owners who might be critical of the #MeToo movement or want to pick fights about SafeSport suspensions.
While my heart is breaking for the young women who decide to speak up and share their stories of sexual assault within our industry, I’m routinely left speechless and in tears by the volume of support they receive from our peers. Yes, there are still many people who doubt and attack victims, and that’s incredibly hurtful and traumatizing, but there are many more people who step up to push back on that toxic behavior without hesitation. Wherever these exchanges are happening—Facebook comment threads, text chains or barn aisles—there are people everywhere who are committed to ridding our sport of sexual assault and are willing to have uncomfortable conversations to shift our culture and create safe spaces for victims.
To all of the keyboard warriors, the women whose eyebrows raise when they hear people say toxic things, and the parents fighting to give their daughters a different world—thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Please don’t stop. What you’re doing makes us feel welcome and safe. There are sexual assault victims everywhere—at least 1 in 6 women in the U.S.—and when we overhear insensitive or downright mean commentary about other sexual assault victims, it hurts. There’s no way to know how many people grooming their horses, trotting by in a lesson, or following a thread on Facebook have lived through that trauma. We spend time at the barn to feel safe and focus on ourselves, but overhearing someone mock victims or defend an abuser can send many of us into a tailspin that leaves us feeling anything but safe. When you speak up, you might not know that you’re speaking directly to us, but you are.
Mallory McMaster is the president and CEO of The Fairmount Group and a freelance writer based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She’s a big fan of confrontation, feminism and the eradication of abortion stigma. She’s currently losing her mind raising a 3.5-year-old human and a 4-year-old horse who both never stop wiggling or touching things.