After discussing the equine side of horse sport and social license, attendees at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Annual Meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, turned their attention to addressing major issues on the human side of the sport Jan. 13, namely ensuring the physical and emotional safety of equestrians.
Ju’Riese Colón, CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, told attendees that the center is seeing positive progress in terms of abuse education and prevention in the equestrian community, but acknowledged the dynamics of the sport and many opportunities for unhealthy one-on-one interactions pose particular opportunities for abuse in horse sports.
“Riders spend a lot of time with trainers alone in barns,” said Colón. “In a lot of the cases we get from this community, we have minor athletes who have formed relationships with adults, mostly male coaches … We see that across all sports, but because of the one-on-one nature of your particular sport, there’s more opportunity to be alone with kids, more opportunity to groom athletes, more opportunity to isolate and more opportunity to spend time with them. When you couple [the] one-on-one nature of sport and add on the component of traveling to wherever you’re going for a competition, that further compounds risks.”
She touched on some disturbing statistics: Nearly half of athletes were aware of coaches developing sexual relationships with athletes; more than 90% of those who experienced unwanted sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact did not submit a formal report; more than half of athlete participants who indicated having unwanted sexual experiences said that some or all of the experiences happened before they were 18; and 18% of individuals who had unwanted sexual experiences also indicated that they were retaliated against.
Colón said that the center has been busy, fielding 5,700 reports in 2022, and that 40% of those had some component of emotional abuse to them. To date the center lists 1,800 individuals who have been suspended, permanently banned, declared ineligible or have temporary suspensions or restrictions in place while under investigation in its central disciplinary database from the sports it governs.
Despite the statistics, Colón had a hopeful tone.
“Of the thousands of reports we get every year, we’re starting to see reports for things that haven’t happened yet,” she said. “People are calling us to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem right. I think it’s against the rules, or this person might be in danger, can you help me with that?’ We’re starting to receive reports from people putting the education we’ve received in practice—the preventative focus we all want. The more we can focus on education and getting to red flag behavior before it escalates is what we see, and I personally see, as the ultimate goal for the center. The more that we educate folks and focus on this, I think we’ll get there.”
She also noted the level of engagement with SafeSport from the equestrian community: “When we conducted an athlete climate and culture survey, we reached out to every organization within Olympic and Paralympic movements. Can you guess which sport gave us the most responses? Yours. Your community helped us understand what the experiences are in sport.”
The center is developing a course for youth focusing on emotional abuse, as well as more resources for parents. They’re also creating a diversionary program for youth.
Incoming USEF board member and para-dressage athlete Ellie Brimmer asked about the balance of historic cases versus ongoing ones. Colón responded that because the center doesn’t have a statute of limitations, up until 2019 most cases involved people reporting past abuse, but now that’s changing.
“We still get a portion of those today,” she said. “We know from research that it takes time for people to come forward, and that’s the reason we chose not to have a statute of limitations, to give people that time. I wish we could say all the cases were from 30 years ago, but I can’t. I would say roughly about half the cases are things that happened yesterday. With emotional abuse cases, those are new. We’re not getting emotional abuse cases from the ’90s and beyond; we’re getting them from 2021, as a nation starting to recognize what emotional abuse looks like.”
USEF CEO Bill Moroney asked about concerns some had about the weaponization of SafeSport complaints and false reports, and Colón said that there are very few of those.
“With sexual abuse allegations, we don’t find that people tend to lie about that. We don’t get a lot of false reporting,” she said. “We do get a lot of reports where we don’t have a lot of information, and we can’t complete because we don’t know enough. One thing we got dinged on—and still do—is that cases take a long time to complete. One of the reasons is that we follow every lead. It’s important to us to be thorough.”
But Colón was unable to answer one major question: How many SafeSport complaints, proportionally, does equestrian get versus other sports?
“It’s hard to say,” she said. “Every sport is different based on what size your population is. Soccer is a huge organization with hundreds and thousands of people, really millions, who float in and out. Compare that size [to] curling. What I will say anecdotally: I’ve seen a shift in this community. There was a time when I was afraid to open The Chronicle of the Horse—I didn’t know what I’d see there—it could be rough in there! Now policies are in place, and the USEF has done a great job driving that home to each of the members.
“Again, half the people in that culture climate survey were from [the equestrian] community,” she continued. “We’re having this conversation; we’re having the dialog that is necessary. If I had to rank sports as far as effort level being put in for culture change as a top priority, I’d put equestrian high on the list.”
Increasing Human Safety In Equestrian
One of the big safety headlines in 2022 was the release of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab’s STAR ratings, research funded in part by USEF. Helmet Lab representative Sydney Moriarty spoke at the meeting about the ongoing research involving helmets and body protectors.
Out of the 30 million annual equestrian rides in the United States, there is, on average, one emergency room visit per 600 rides, and most are head injuries, she said. But as many as 14% of all equestrian injuries are spinal cord injuries, so looking at body protectors and air vests is important too.
After providing context on how helmet culture and safety standards have evolved over the years, she turned to body protection. She summarized four studies of body protectors and air vests that didn’t come to any consensus. One study of U.S. Pony Clubbers found that wearing a body protector on the flat or in show jumping didn’t affect the rate at which participants were injured, but wearing one cross-country reduced injuries. But another study using FEI data showed that wearing a body protector and air vest together was associated with increased risk of injury. In short: More research is needed on the effects of body protectors.
Moriarty had some practical suggestions to increase safety among riders: online training for concussion recognition in equestrian athletes, trainers and barn managers; ImPACT testing education; SCAT5 testing for riders at shows by on-site medical staff to identify concussions; and transparent post-concussion protocol for equestrians.
USEF Chief of Sport David O’Connor, who served as master of ceremonies for the event, pointed out that while eventing leads the way in tracking accidents, many other sports don’t track falls well enough, which is an important part of gathering evidence that could contribute to future research.
Melissa Moore, who hails from the Saddlebred and roadster world, offered a differing perspective on helmets, saying she wasn’t sure helmets were necessary for her sports.
“We show on the flat or driving a Hackney pony creeping along,” she said. “I’d love to see individual data research on each discipline if they need helmets or not. That’s the concern from our organizations.”
Social Media Savvy
Sarah Hamilton, a social media and crisis management expert who works for consulting firm Kivvit, led a session on social media that focused on recognizing the power of the medium and wielding that power with care.
“Social media is a great opportunity for all of us as individuals and all of you as equestrians and the equestrian sport community as a whole,” she said. “With the good comes the bad. The idea about social license as it relates to social media goes hand in hand.”
Just as another presenter had while discussing social license the previous day, Hamilton used the example of football player Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse and reactions to it. Sports columnist Skip Bayless posted a tone-deaf tweet—while a collapsed Hamlin was still being treated on the field—in which he questioned the NFL postponing the remainder of the game as the outcome was too important to the sport. The tweet received plenty of backlash and sent the commentator backpedaling. The lesson, according to Hamilton? If a crisis happens, set criticism aside and be empathetic and human.
She urged the horse world to come together and not cannibalize each other by publicly criticizing other horsemen.
“You can work from within to repair the tears in the fabric and make sure they don’t get bigger and deeper,” Hamilton said. “I follow [equestrian social media] at a cursory level. It seems like there’s more community building than infighting. Just looking at the Chronicle of the Horse, it’s better than it was years ago, but it can still be better than it is now.”
At the end of the day, attendees came together in groups with representatives of diverse breeds and disciplines to discuss the presentations and lessons learned.
Many emphasized the need for horse sports to gather more data to identify and address internal problems, as well as the need for accountability and transparency during that process. Others discussed creating unity within the horse world across sports so they can work together to thrive and grow.
U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Mary Knowlton, for one, said that each must give their sport an honest, hard look, accepting feedback from scientists and “critical friends,” as well as those within the sport to improve it from within. She referred to the USEF sportsman’s charter then spoke optimistically about the future and changing the status quo within horse sport.
“We lead by example. We walk the walk. No longer should we have to say, ‘I love my sport, but I hate my industry,’ ” she said.