I have never competed on the hunter/jumper circuit, yet even I can quote former Olympic trainer George Morris.
His clever quips and biting witticisms have a precision that is hard to forget. Even in his 80s, he is an icon, a John Elway of horses. As the New York Times put it, an “Equestrian Kingmaker.”
As I read the news that SafeSport had issued Morris a lifetime ban from the sport for sexual misconduct with a minor I felt the now familiar sensation of my heart sinking into my boots.
“Damn,” I thought, “There goes another one.”
When I told a friend the news, she sent me memes with his quotes and told me how she admired the way he seemed to put his horses’ well-being first. Together, we grieved for a hero who from a distance seemed trustworthy, but was now deemed a threat.
Neither of us were shocked. The two of us, and many others we know, have experienced sexual violence or intimidation both in and out of the horse world. We’re well acquainted with the statistics too. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in six women is raped in their lifetime while 44% of women experience some form of sexual violence. For men, rape is a reality for 2% and roughly 23% will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
Of all reported sexual assaults in the United States, only an estimated 2% to 10% are fabricated, and that statistic is believed to be inflated in the absence of standardized police terminology for the terms “false” or “unfounded.” Considering that roughly 90% of rapes and other forms of sexual violence go unreported, the percentage of false accusations drops lower still.
The case against Morris also has the messy add-in of homophobia. The accusers who have gone public are male and the incidents date back to the 1960s and 70s, a time when it was much more dangerous and career destroying to be out as LGBTQ. But homosexuality and sexual abuse are not the same thing. Many gay men were able to explore their sexuality during the “sexual revolution” without hurting others, without involving minors.
No, Morris’s alleged behavior is the product of the equestrian and American culture that put him there. A culture of silence. Every time we look away when we see abuse, or tell someone who reports abuse that they should, “keep their dirty laundry out of the barn,” we contribute to a system that enables abusers to continue abusing.
And we’re doing it even now. Morris remains a powerful figure in horse sport. He has the tools of social retaliation, privilege, access and a “don’t tell” culture at his disposal. The “I Stand with George” Facebook page, created to support Morris, already has more than 7,500 members. A “Safe Sport Reform Petition Advocacy for George Morris and all USEF members” started four days ago has over 2,400 signatures. Many of those who came forward to The New York Times refused to speak publicly because they feared it would damage their careers both in and out of the show ring.
Despite my grief, the ban has instilled in me a strange and persistent feeling of hope. Hope that maybe the equine industry and even the world at large is starting to change. That SafeSport can secure enough evidence and clout to ban someone with the social capital of George Morris suggests that we might be reaching toward a future safer for the vulnerable. Because when we address sexual violence committed by an icon what we are really doing is challenging power.
Holding even the most beloved accountable for actions that deeply harm others is one way we can prevent sexual abuse from happening again. If the powerful have a check rein like SafeSport, they are less likely to act with impunity and, when they do, are more likely to face consequences that then make room for rule abiders to tack in their place.
A quote from one of Morris’s accusers in the New York Times story has haunted me since I began writing this.
“There was an underlying hope that if I went along with this, I would get what I did not have, which was horses and an education,” said Jonathan Soresi.
While this man has his own set of skeletons—Sorsesi is a registered sex offender who has battled intravenous drug addiction—his words still represent many of us in the horse industry who have little, but still fight for a life in the saddle. Those who have scars and calluses and empty bank accounts, who will ride or train or make a career out of horses no matter what. We are vulnerable, but when we speak out and are believed, we are less so.
Let’s not let those who abuse their privilege use our dreams as snares. Instead let our dreams be the fire underneath us. A fire that drives us to speak up and create a better world both in and out of the paddock.
About the Author
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot, Horse Network and the Washington Independent Review of Booksand currently working on her first book. She Lives in Chicago, and is still a Colorado native. Find her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.