Each spring, the best team and individual riders in the country are crowned in hunter-seat and western competition during the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s National Championship.

As the cameras flash and the mounted winners pose proudly with their coaches and teammates—tri-color ribbons streaming—some are probably struck by a bittersweet recognition.

This moment, for many, marks the culmination of their college careers in equestrian, and the many hours of hard work, training, and competition it’s demanded. Like other college athletes reaching the pinnacle of junior competition in championship events all over the world, it can be a time that’s fraught with emotion.

These days, a credible argument can be made that, thanks to the rise of SafeSport and growing public awareness regarding abuse in sport, athletes “graduating” from junior athletic careers are far safer today than they were a decade ago. 

But for many rising college seniors, and others, it may already be too late.

The U.S. Department of Justice notes that children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 to 13—a time when many young athletes are making the jump from recreation to club-level teams, or, in the case of riders, from summer lesson programs to a competitive show barns. 

What’s more, many of these athletes will not have a framework in place to protect them during this potentially “dangerous” time. Despite the fact that 27 million children participate in sports in the U.S., SafeSport applies to less than half that number

Clearly, there is still much work left to be done in protecting young athletes. But so too is there in our understanding of misconduct in youth sports. 

A major 2020 study co-funded by the European Union and conducted by Child Abuse in Sport European Statistics (CASES) offers some surprising revelations about sexual abuse and violence against children in sport—most notably, who it affects, who perpetrates it, and how. 

Girl horse rider on the green field. Trees in the background. Equestrian theme.

Psychological violence is more common than sexual violence in sport

The CASES study looked at interpersonal violence in youth sports via surveys of current and former athletes 18–30 years old across six European countries. 

For the purposes of this study, the authors used the World Health Organization’s definition of violence, which includes physical, psychological, sexual, and deprivation/neglect. Sexual violence is further separated into contact and non-contact forms. Non-contact sexual violence to a child refers to things such as exposing or flashing, showing pornography and/or exposing a child to sexual acts, while contact sexual violence refers to physical acts of abuse, such as unwanted touching or attempted rape.

Of the more than 10,300 surveys conducted in the study, three quarters of respondents reported at least one experience of violence before the age of 18. 

Inside sport, psychological violence (65%) was the most common form identified by participants, followed by physical violence (44%); neglect (37%); non-contact sexual violence (35%); and contact sexual violence (20%).  

And while the scope of the study was limited to Europe, its implications are not.

“On the basis of our analysis, [interpersonal violence against children] in sport evidently persists in all countries involved in the study and there is no reason to believe that this is specific to these countries alone,” the CASES General Report states in its conclusion. 

It’s an assertion supported on this side of the pond by statistics from Childhelp, which finds that 80% of athletes experience at least one incident of psychological harm or neglect in youth sports, including 22% that say they were physically harmed.

Sport may not be the safe haven we imagine

Many of us operate under the assumption that sport activities are designed to provide a safe haven for children. But it may not provide the level of protection we think.

One of the most concerning findings of the CASES General Report was that 20% of participants said they had experienced some form of contact sexual violence in sport while 35% reported non-contact sexual violence inside sport. 

These numbers line up with U.S.-based Childhelp statistics, which found that 14% to 29% of child athletes report being the victim of one form of sexual violence before the age of 18.

Outside of sport, those stats are higher. Of those surveyed, contact sexual violence was reported by 41% and non-contact sexual violence by 52% outside of sport, which indicates that sport does provide some level of protection.

But the degree of security may be overstated. 

While young athletes are less likely to experience sexual violence than those in the general population, the risk is cut by less than half. That is, one quarter to one-third of young athletes will experience sexual violence in sport.

“This leads us to suggest that sport may not provide the protective, positive and healthy environment for children that is sometimes assumed and claimed,” the CASES General Report concludes. 

Children in elite sports are at higher risk

In 2021, Dr. Stéphane Berman, a physician, PhD, and Director of the Health & Science department at World Athletics co-authored another study on the prevalence of abuse on young, elite athletes around the globe.

“The main [finding of surprise was] to observe that the prevalence of all forms of abuse is not that different in young elite sports than in the general population of the same age,” Dr. Bermon said.

It’s a result that dovetails with the CASES General Report, which found that 75% of those in sport reported one experience of interpersonal violence (all forms), compared to 82% of those outside sport. 

However, the studies differed in the fact that Bermon’s examined only the experiences of elite athletes, while the CASES survey included young athletes who had participated at elite as well as club and recreational levels. Despite this, both revealed a similar pattern.

While CASES found that the prevalence of any form of interpersonal violence against children is 68% at the recreational level, it jumps to nearly 84% at the international (or elite) level. This includes those individuals who reported experiences with non-contact and contact sexual violence.

This is a scenario we’ve often seen in equestrian and other individualized sports, where the risk of sexual abuse of young athletes increases as the athletes’ level of participation rises. But location also seems to play a role in the CASES General Report, where sport clubs were, by far, the most frequent location for interpersonal violence against children (all forms).

When it comes to sexual abuse, however, the findings were less predictable.

Young jockey walking with a horse out of a stable. Man leading equine out of barn. Male silhouette with stallion. Rear back view. Love for animal. Beautiful background.

Male athletes were significantly more likely to have experienced sexual violence

Men and women in the CASES study reported relatively similar levels of interpersonal psychological violence (68% of men compared to 61% of women), and non-contact sexual violence (38% of men compared to 32% of women). Their paths diverged slightly more dramatically when it comes to neglect, (44% of men compared to 32% of women).

But more statistically significant was the fact that 52% of males surveyed reported incidence of interpersonal physical violence compared to only 36% of women. 

This is a big discrepancy, though not altogether surprising. It fits with our understanding of the culture in many men’s sports as violent and aggressive, especially in combat-sports such as rugby and American football.

Yet the tables turn when it comes to contact sexual violence.

Men (at 26%) were almost twice as likely to have experienced abuse as women (at 14%) in the CASES study. Those stats challenge the status quo, which asserts that girls are the most common victims of abuse. (The Advocacy Center, for instance, found that 1 in 3 girls compared to 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.)

But the CASES results are not a one-off, at least when it comes to sporting environments. Dr. Bermon’s global study also found that sexual abuse, including touching or penetrative abuses, occurred significantly more frequently in male athletes (12%) compared to female athletes (7%). 

“High rates of sexual abuses in young males was rather unexpected, but it has been confirmed by others,” Dr. Bermon said—the CASES General Report included.

One potential explanation for this finding is the study model. Sexual abuse is underreported at large, particularly among male victims, due to social stigma and related barriers to reporting. Surveys can provide an anonymous place for male victims to disclose abuse without making a formal report, hence the higher reporting rates.

©Ivan Statkevych/Dreamstime.com

Friends are a significant risk factor in sexual and psychological abuse

Another perhaps surprising finding in the CASES General Report was who was abusing athletes. 

“Despite the media buzz, coaches are not the main abusers [of young elite athletes] in terms of frequency. So, the typical, ‘old male coach/young female athlete’ is probably a very simplified version of the problem,” Bermon continued. 

He adds that most abusers are not just known to victims but often part of their inner circle, including parents and ‘friends.’

That ‘friends’ aspect is particularly telling. 

While coaches and trainers were most likely to be the perpetrators of neglect and physical violence (the latter by a very small margin), peers were, by far, the greatest perpetrators of psychological and sexual violence. 

Only 21% of respondents indicated that coaches, trainers, or instructors were perpetrators of sexual violence (both contact and non-contact), compared to 64% peers for non-contact, and 59% peers for contact sexual violence. 

What’s more, against common expectations, those peers and other individuals who perpetrate violence—even some of the worst forms of sexual violence—aren’t always men and boys.

The CASES General Report found that, while males were most often represented as perpetrators of contact and non-contact sexual violence, females were significantly represented: 19% (non-contact) to 30% (contact) female perpetrators compared to 44% (contact) to 57% (non-contact) male perpetrators. 

It bears repeating that the highest volume of female perpetrators across all forms of violence—30%—was found in contact sexual violence. 

These findings highlight the necessity of continuing to both debunk myths and stereotypes about “typical” perpetrators and “ideal” victims and improve sports cultures to combat inter-athlete abuse and promote healthy relationship dynamics. 


It’s been seven years since the #MeToo movement caught fire in 2017 and international sport underwent its first major reckoning with sexual abuse following the trials of Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. Both helped to capture the public consciousness in an important way. 

In the years since, and with the help of organizations such as #WeRideTogether, that awareness has grown. And yet, if studies such as the CASES General Report show us anything, it is that there is still a lot of work to be done in our understanding of child abuse in sport. 

The high percentage of traditionally underrepresented male victims of interpersonal violence across all categories of sport, but especially sexual violence, is concerning and deserves further reflection and study. We need to better understand how boys experience these traumas and why they choose to disclose this information. Or, perhaps more often, why they do not. 

Of equal concern is that the perpetrators of abuse are most likely to be ‘friends’ or teammates of the victims involved. This could potentially indicate that hazing is not only alive and well in the U.S. but around the globe, as well.   

Continued scientific study is essential to further our comprehension of abuse in sport. According to the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute, 95% of sexual abuse is preventable through education and awareness. Speaking to our children early and often about abuse, in and out of sports, is a must. (The U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Parent and Guardian Handbook for Safer Sport includes age-appropriate talking tips for parents here.)

The good news? Of the thousands of survey-takers who participated in the CASES General Report, 85% rated their overall experience in athletics as either ‘good’ or ‘very good.’ Meaning that sports are not only a worthwhile pursuit for our children, they’re worth fighting for.  

Learn more about how to create healthy sports cultures for athletes and be an effective Active Bystander at weridetogether.today.