Opinion

The Inevitability of Sexual Abuse in Horse Sport

“If you tolerate it; you are condoning it,” reads a sign on the door of Murray Arena at the Okotoks Recreation Centre in Alberta.

The sign refers to abuse of hockey officials, but it could just as easily apply to sexual abuse in the horse industry: if you tolerate it, you are condoning it. And for a long time, as the recent spate of SafeSport cases involving high profile trainers reveals, the equestrian industry has been tolerating inexcusable behavior.

The case against George Morris for sexual misconduct with a minor is the latest to make SafeSport headlines. The show jumping icon’s lifetime ban was upheld last month after two accusers, one being former student Jonathan Soresi, testified at a US Center for SafeSport inquiry. He now joins a growing cast of SafeSport outcasts that counts famed horseman Jimmy Williams and well-liked trainer Robert Gage among them.

But, they are far from the exception. There are many others—prominent trainers, national team members, a whole cast of support staff—whose intimate relationships and inappropriate interactions with minors have been whispered about just as vociferously. Men whose secrets we’ve guarded like our own, locked away in Rubbermaid bins with the unused tack and a dismissive, what business is it of ours?

And that’s… odd. At best. At worst, it makes anyone with firsthand knowledge of such relationships culpable in the abuse.

The question we should be asking ourselves is why? As an industry, why have we tolerated, condoned even, illicit relationships in the shadows of barn aisles that we wouldn’t in any other situation? If a school teacher has an affair with their 16-year-old student, the response is outrage—it’s “an abuse of power!” They’re “manipulating a vulnerable population.” She’s “a victim.” When a well-regarded trainer does it, it’s…salacious gossip? Boys will be boys and Soresi knew what he was getting into, now didn’t he?

Les Nichols, a youth protection consultant, author, advocate, and expert witness, has an answer to that question. He’s spent the past 25 years helping youth-serving organizations to address issues, such as sexual abuse. But, it’s the lessons from the most famous sex abuse scandal in recent history—the Penn State scandal in 2011 that saw assistant coach Jerry Sandusky convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, spanning a 15-year period—that he says most clearly outline the cultural conditions that enable sex abuse to continue.

Spoiler: horse sport checks every box.

The Four Horsemen of Penn State

Following the charges against Sandusky, the Penn State Board of Trustees engaged the firm of Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan to investigate both the University’s failure to respond to and report sexual abuse to the proper authorities and the circumstances in which such abuse could occur. That investigation, led by the firm’s partner and former FBI Director, Louis Freeh, revealed important lessons that Nichols says could help any organization that serves youth avoid a similar fate:

“First, was a lack of concern or empathy by Penn State’s leadership for the fate of the victims of abuse. There are subcultures in our country that accept that an adult might become romantically involved with a teenager, thinking of the relationship as consensual, even beneficial to both parties. However, there are three things wrong with this: (1) a minor cannot legally consent to sexual relations with an adult, making the adult a criminal, (2) the adult invariably exercises emotional control over the outmatched minor, and (3) the negative psychological effects upon the victim can last a lifetime.”

In horse sport, the lack of empathy for Morris’s known accuser is well documented on social media. Many have cited Soresi’s own checkered past—he is a registered sex offender and recovering drug addict—in defense of Morris, though the tide of public opinion appears to be shifting. Particularly telling though is the response of the governing body tasked with enforcing Morris’s ban. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) has yet to issue a statement condemning his conduct or supporting victims. It’s a reaction in line with many of those close to Morris who privately, and for decades, swept aside his inappropriate relationships with young men as a personal failing of an otherwise impeccable professional.

George Morris’s lifetime ban for sexual misconduct with a minor was upheld following a U.S. Center for SafeSport inquiry in November.

The second of Freeh’s findings was the failure of Penn State’s leadership to exercise oversight and to inquire into events, continued Nichols.

“Sexual abuse is an upsetting topic for everyone, but an organization’s leaders must accept their responsibility to be impartial and make sure every concern, suspicion, or allegation of sexual misconduct is investigated. In some cases, the information will not reach the threshold of contacting authorities, so it is especially important that the organization’s leadership leaves no stone unturned,” he says.

In order to investigate such allegations, objective standards must exist to clearly define what behaviors are appropriate, inappropriate, and prohibited, he continues. In horse sport, those parameters have only very recently been established. As of June 1, 2019, SafeSport has policies in place for one-on-one interactions between coaches and minor athletes (e.g., must be observable and interruptible), massages and athletic training modalities, areas where athletes change, social media and electronic communications, as well as local and team travel. How well understood these policies are, however, remains a question in equestrian circles.

Freeh’s third finding was that the culture at Penn State discouraged questioning authority. Again, the comparison holds true. Horse culture at large is as insular as it is exclusive. Big Name Trainers, as they’re known colloquially, are held in high esteem; Morris, a figurative god among them. Their word, all but absolute.

“Sports organizations are driven to win and quite naturally place successful coaches, trainers and athletes on a pedestal. It can be tempting to accept one set of rules of conduct for the highly successful and another for the rest of us,” says Nichols. “But in the area of sexual abuse prevention, the rules must be seen as we see sports rules, clear bright lines that are more important than any individual.”

Freeh’s fourth finding was the lack of awareness of child sexual abuse issues at Penn State. “Average people have a hard time accepting that adults they may know and like are sexually attracted to minors, nor do they understand that negative effects of sexual abuse on a minor can last a lifetime,” explains Nichols.

“To address this, organizations must educate their stakeholders—leaders, staff, parents and the youth—so that everyone is ready, willing and able to recognize and report risky situations.”

Prior to SafeSport’s introduction in March 2017 reports for sexual misconduct were made to an independent group within the USEF known as the Athlete Protection Team. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. A search of the federation’s website reveals little information on the department. If formal sexual abuse education wasn’t clearly established in horse sport, informal ones were all but non-existent.

Within the context of these cultural conditions, it’s not a shock that sexual misconduct occurs in horse sport. It’s a given. And, what’s more, we’re allowing it to happen by creating, albeit inadvertently, the ideal work setting for children to be groomed and cultivated for abuse.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“But our sport is different than football,” you might be thinking. Or, “You don’t understand what it takes to succeed.” And you’d be correct, in part. Horse sport is unique in that it is the only Olympic sport that uses an animal and in which men and women compete directly against one another. But when it comes to sexual abuse, it is exactly on par with every other sport with an endemic issue, says Nichols.

“No organization is exempt and whether we are talking about sports, camping, or mentoring, the patterns of sexual abuse across diverse organizations are remarkably similar. Success in minimizing abuse requires enough humility to accept that no culture is exempt from this threat, says Nichols.

Another argument often parroted in defense of Morris, and predators of generations past, is the claim that “times were different then.” That the culture of the 70s—the allegations levelled against Morris purportedly involved events that occurred between 1968 and 1972—was more amenable to such relationships.

But think about that. Was there ever a time when it was acceptable for middle-aged men (Morris was 30 at the time) to sleep with the 15-year olds they were hired to mentor? In 1957, a decade earlier, rising musician Jerry Lee Lewis (then 23) married his 13-year-old cousin and the backlash was instant. His British tour was canceled within days, radio stations stopped playing his songs, and former friends abandoned him.

The third, and most uncomfortable, justification for Morris and like is the idea that the minors preyed upon “got what they wanted,” that the trade for horses, training, and opportunity was a fair exchange between consenting parties. Here, the law is clear, says Nichols:

“A minor is not legally capable of giving consent for a sexual relationship with an adult,” he explains. “She may have fully cooperated with him, but that is not the same as giving legal consent.”

Legality aside, it doesn’t take a moralist to point out that sex is and should never be a required condition of anyone’s education, equestrian or otherwise.

Protecting the vulnerable

The premise of SafeSport is widely viewed as a long overdue in horse sport. Yet, its implementation has not been well received. Questions about the validity of the secretive investigation process abound and many see the rules limiting one-on-one interactions between coaches and minors as an onerous restriction; in horse sport, adults texting with minors and drinking at mixed age social events are as much part of the culture as revering the training wisdom of Morris. It’s a question complicated by the ongoing nature of horse care and the unpredictable schedules of horse shows—horse injuries and start list postings are not bound to regular business hours, after all.

A successful precedent for such rules already exists, however. Objective standards have long been clearly mapped out and well understood for one population in equestrian sport on both the national and international level—the horses.

Because of clearly defined USEF and FEI guidelines we know exactly how many times a horse may be struck with a whip in the ring, the tolerance level for spur marks in each discipline, and precisely which medications are and are not permitted in competition along with their acceptable titer levels. And what’s more, those rules are strictly enforced. The FEI blood rule, viewed by most horsemen as an arbitrary measure of abuse, has ended championship and Grand Prix bids of numerous high profile riders in recent history—Charlotte Dujardin (GBR), Bertram Allen (IRL), and Dawid Kubiak (POL) among them.

Comparatively speaking, protective measures for minor athletes are late to the table.

Ironically, it’s a situation that mirrors society at large. Protection laws for working animals were established over a decade before they ever existed for children. In fact, the world’s first organization devoted to child protection—the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—came into existence in 1875 and was founded, in part, by Henry Bergh, the animal protection advocate behind the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Image by Rebecca Schönbrodt-Rühl.

The path forward

So where do we go from here? We already know where the current culture of horse sport leads. We also know that the problem of sex abuse isn’t going to solve itself. Prevalence rates in sport are reported to be between 2% and 22%, and, what’s more, there’s no clear profile for a sex abuser to guard against.

“It can be anyone,” says Nichols, “regardless of their station in life.”

There are, however, proven strategies we can implement immediately that will help create the cultural shift required to protect minor athletes and, paradoxically, these same strategies are often the last to be put in place, says Nichols.

The first is empowered oversight. That is, engaging people, such as parents, to be required observers at the barn and on show grounds. “In youth protection, that’s generally referred to as a rule of three. You can have two athletes and one adult; two adults and one athlete. But you try to have additional observers there,” says Nichols.

“If the parents can’t fill the role of additional observers, then the organization must find a way to provide them. For example, there are standards in recreational swimming where a single trained lifeguard should be supplemented by informal spotters, whose role is to help see and communicate potential problems that typically precede a drowning. The same concept applies to sexual abuse prevention, certain obvious problems, typically precede abuse.”

As importantly, he continues, those observers must have a built-in structure to report their observations to the programs and federations to which they belong, and higher if need be. Bystander hesitancy is a well-documented phenomenon and one that history shows is all too prevalent in horse sport.

“Studies, going back to the late 60s show that the average adult will not intervene to help another person unless they are convinced no one else will do it. Yet, even when people do believe they alone should intervene, only 85% will do it. This is why relying on reporting policies and campaigns like, ‘See something/Say something’ don’t always work to motivate people,” he explains.

The second piece of Nichols culture changing puzzle is “vigorous leadership.” “Protecting children from the ever-present threat of child sexual abuse requires that someone in the organization be the embodiment of protection,” says Nichols. “Someone in the organization must be tasked with encouraging good people to be vigilant and vocal, so that bad people are discouraged from trying.”

Whistleblowers, like American Olympian Anne Kursinski and USEF young rider chef d’equipe DiAnn Langer, set up the pass for vigorous leadership when they came forward with firsthand accounts against the trainers who sexually abused them in their youth. Soresi picked up the baton. The question now is who is going to run with it?

“Sports organizations need safety heroes as much as they need athletic heroes,” says Nichols. “Somebody has to keep the passion alive, the vision alive. Making sure we’re safe, making sure we’re protecting reputations, making sure that we’re serving the mission. It’s not just some checklist and then we’re done with it. Someone internally has to have the vision.”

Most will be looking to the USEF to fill that role. To date, the federation has not demonstrated a strong stance in advocating for victims or against sex abuse. The statement issued following Morris’s suspension was simply that the “USEF respected the decision” of the SafeSport arbitrator. By comparison, US Hunter Jumper Association president Mary Babick made a call to arms. In a letter to members, she wrote: “It is time to step up and no longer tolerate inappropriate behavior and to emerge as a safer and altogether more positive environment for our people and our horses. We should have zero tolerance for cruelty and abuse whether of horses or humans. Victim shaming and blaming is never acceptable.”

The third cultural shift in Nichols’s strategy is empowering athletes and individuals to have the confidence to speak out. “It is necessary for an organization to expand the idea of whistleblower protection (normally associated with corporate ethics) to child protection. That way, people feel confident that if they report something in good faith, they will be shielded from reprisal.”

It’s the same reason SafeSport inquiries are anonymous and also the one that has been the most contentious among critics. Anonymity protects victims, but it also breeds mistrust. Without it, those who do come forward publicly, Soresi included, are often revictimized in the court of public opinion. For a child athlete who feels their aspirations to be successful hinge upon keeping quiet, that pressure can be an insurmountable barrier and is one reason sexual abuse continues to be an under reported crime.

Be the change

It isn’t possible to pay lip service to “protecting children,” but protest when they take away predators because we hold their horsemanship skills in high esteem. A person can be immensely skilled and also a serial abuser (See: Michael Jackson).

Nor are the current measures in place enough to prevent sex abuse. SafeSport is a critical first step in the fight, but background checks and ongoing training alone will not right the cultural conditions that have allowed it to perpetuate in horse sport. For meaningful change to happen, we have to actually want it—or, cautions Nichols, people will find ways of undermining it (See: the “I Stand with George” Facebook group)—and, most importantly, we have to act upon it.

“In my opinion,” cautions Nichols, “[sexual abuse is] inevitable in a society unless people will do certain things to prevent it.”

Individuals like Soresi, Kursinski, and Langer have already taken the lead, shining a light on an uncomfortable truth in horse sport and forcing difficult conversations. As more survivors come forward, and more are, there’s reason to be hopeful that change is already afoot.

If you have a reasonable suspicion of sexual misconduct involving a child, make a report electronically to the U.S. Center for SafeSport or call (720) 531-0340.

Correction: the previous version of this story incorrectly identified Jimmy Williams as DiAnn Langer’s abuser. This story has been updated accordingly.