On Oct. 30, 1982, Dawn Rose Tessier, now of Uxbridge, said she was raped for the first time by a man she had idolized – a riding instructor. She was 12 years old.
Ali Middleton, 41, of Charlton said she too was abused by a riding instructor. She was 7 at the time.
In 2013, in an unrelated case, Charles R. Leffler, 83, of Grafton was sentenced to two years in prison and probation for indecent assault and battery on a young riding student, Faith Muello, now 34 and living in Charlton. Mr. Leffler assaulted her beginning in 1994 when she was 13 and continued until she was 16.
Spending time with horses is many girls’ dream. But for some, the dream turns to a nightmare at the hands of a riding instructor who twists love for horses into a warped tool for sexual abuse.
A lack of legal oversight of riding instructors and their potential criminal histories in Massachusetts may be allowing predators to continue abusing children.
The number of children, largely girls, abused by riding instructors is under-reported, like all cases of child sexual abuse. Nearly 63,000 incidents of child sexual abuse were reported in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Although statistics vary, researchers estimate that only 12 percent to 30 percent of abuse cases are reported to authorities.
In the last few years, publicized cases in the region include Mr. Leffler’s conviction in 2013; a former Becker College equestrian coach who was sued for sexual harassment in federal court in 2009 by a former student who claimed he “offered preferred academic treatment and privileges as a quid pro quo for the plaintiff’s companionship, cohabitation and physical and sexual intimacy”; a Connecticut riding instructor convicted of molesting a 14-year-old student a decade ago, who violated probation and opened a new stable in Missouri in 2013; and a Swansea stable owner who was indicted in 2007 and 2008 on multiple counts of rape of a child, indecent assault and battery of a child under 14, posing a child in the nude, possession of child pornography and other charges.
Those are just the cases that were prosecuted, according to police. Grafton Police Detective James Crosby said that after news was reported about Mr. Leffler’s conviction, the department received several calls from people who said he did the same things to them.
Detective Crosby encouraged victims to come forward, regardless of the amount of time that has passed. Not only can police investigate and help with potential prosecution, but they can also refer people to resources for support.
Unlike in many other youth sports programs, such as soccer and figure skating, criminal background checks are not required on licensed riding instructors, leading some who are caught to continue their abuse.
Ms. Muello, the victim in the case that sent Mr. Leffler to jail, wants to change that. Now a domestic violence advocate, Ms. Muello and others are organizing a trail ride and are starting to bring concerns about lack of CORI requirements to state policymakers.
“When I was in that situation I kept quiet for 20 years. I thought no one would believe me,” Ms. Muello said. “When you’re in that mindset, you can’t get out. They have that control over you.”
She said riding instructors prey on the strong bond between the student and the horse. “Kids may fear if they say something they’ll be torn away from the one thing that means the most to them, which is in our case the horses,” she added in an email.
While Mr. Leffler did not have a criminal record and wouldn’t have turned up in a CORI background check, Ms. Muello said there are instructors who have repeated convictions for sex offenses.
“If we can save at least one little girl’s childhood, then all this planning is worth it,” Ms. Muello said. “The key is prevention – you’ve got to stop it before it starts.”
Ms. Tessier, 45, said she always had a passion for horses and went to a stable for pony rides when she was 11. The owner was charming to her and her parents.
“He approached my parents. He asked if I’d like to work off riding by cleaning stalls, feeding and brushing horses, taking trail rides out. It would all be free,” Ms. Tessier recalled. “We jumped at the chance. We thought it would be a great opportunity.”
Ms. Tessier continued: “He started bumping into me casually, rubbing my chest casually. He’d give me a leg up and touch me inappropriately. I didn’t know anything about sexual abuse or molestation. I came from a good family that sheltered us.”
He invited the young student to his home on the premises and offered back rubs.
“He started getting closer, spending more time with me,” she said. “He’d take me horseshoeing, take me to do pony rides. He really built me up – again that’s an M.O. He started picking me up at school.”
“Grooming” was a key part of her predator’s approach. “They groom the kids to accept them as the end-all, be-all. And they groom the parents to trust them at the same time,” she said.
Ms. Tessier felt like she was in a fog for the first few years the instructor repeatedly had sex with her, which continued until she was 18. He even gave her a wedding ring when she was 14 and told her she couldn’t be with other boys.
“They build you up, they make you feel special and give you all this attention,” she said. “You don’t want to say no to him. He drilled that into me, that I would do anything he asked me to do if I really loved him.”
During that time, although she wanted the abuse to stop, she was terrified of telling her parents.
Ms. Tessier said, “He carries a gun. He made it very clear that if I told my parents, either he’d shoot my father if he came over or my father would get sent to jail for hurting him.”
She finally broke free when she was 18 and got into counseling. She learned that two other young girls were living with the man and she contacted what was then the state Department of Social Services.
Ms. Tessier recalled DSS asked if she would press charges but she said she couldn’t bear having to face her alleged abuser in court.
“It’s so prevalent in the riding community,” Ms. Tessier said. “I’m a riding instructor and I hate that there are so few places where you can send your kid to ride that are safe. Any place you send your kid where they’re going to be one-on-one, they’re at risk.”
Ms. Tessier reported the events to police years later, but at the time it was outside the statute of limitations for prosecution.
Timothy J. Connolly, spokesman for District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., said the statute of limitations laws have been amended several times since the 1990s. There is no statute of limitations on indecent assault and battery on a child, although after 27 years independent corroborating evidence would be needed for criminal prosecution. The statute applies differently for type of sex crime and circumstances.
Ms. Middleton also never reported her abuse.
“It was just supposed to be a pony ride. My entire dream was to have a horse. I feel that it was used against me,” she said. “I’ve come to terms with it a long time ago. I’m just so mad at him.”
“I think a lot of people aren’t aware that this is a possible issue,” said Dale Perkins, a licensed riding instructor and owner of Mesa Farm in Rutland. “For my own protection as well, I try to maintain that I never have unsupervised contact with students alone. Just because you’re innocent doesn’t mean someone might not accuse you.”
Mr. Perkins also serves as board president of a volunteer-run nonprofit, City to Saddle, which works with stables to bring low-income students, including several groups from Worcester, to riding programs. He supported strong precautions in City to Saddle’s partnership agreements, including requirements for charter member host facilities that any adult having unsupervised involvement with children must submit to a background/criminal check.
The largest national riding instructor certification organization, Certified Horsemanship Association, encourages but does not require background checks, according to CEO Christy Landwehr.
The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has argued that certification by private third parties is better able to protect students and state oversight isn’t needed, according to its president, A. Richard Bonanno. The group is behind Senate bill 460, filed by state Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Westport, which would remove the requirement that the commissioner of agriculture license riding instructors.
State Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, a co-sponsor of S. 460, said, “We’re trying to reduce unnecessary burdens on people … but that should not put kids in jeopardy.”
Although he just recently learned of the need for background checks for riding instructors, Mr. Moore said if such legislation moved forward he “would be fully supportive of that.”
“If it’s on the wall and it’s from the state, it’s a standard thing. It could be done without too much hassle,” Mr. Perkins said.
Whatever can be done to protect children from sexual predators would be a step forward, according to survivors and advocates who say the issue is far too often swept under the rug.
“To me, one is one too many,” said Marcia Szymanski, executive director of New Hope Inc. “I think it’s an area where there is some vulnerability. We have an opportunity to do something here.”
Local survivors are holding a trail ride Saturday to raise awareness of sexual abuse in the equestrian community and to raise money for New Hope’s domestic and sexual violence prevention outreach programs. The three-mile Take Care-Be Aware Ride begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 26 at Upton State Forest.
For more information on the ride, go to www.TakeCareBeAwareRide.org, find it on Facebook, or call (508) 263-0153.