Judy Chicago, The Three Faces of Man from Power Play, 1985
On December 1, 2018, I most reluctantly moved off a stable yard where I had kept my beloved mare Boo, aka Queen Boodicca, for ten years. I loved the place. It was horsey heaven. Unlike many other local stable yards, the horses were allowed to go out in the pastures 365 days a year. Previously I’d kept my mare on a yard where they could only go out three days a week in winter, which was not at all good for horses’ physical or mental well-being. But here, on my dream yard, Boo was turned out in a 24 acre mares’ field with 360 degree panoramic views of the rugged East Lancashire landscape, including stunning views of Pendle Hill. Even the most traumatized, wound up horses chilled out in those big pastures. Our only worry was not letting them get too fat on the rich summer grass.
Queen Boodicca in action
I had nothing but respect for the older woman who owned the yard and ruled it like a matriarch, keeping prices low because she was more interested in accommodating suitable horse owners, regardless of their income, than in making a profit. The other women horse owners were wonderful and supportive. They was hardly any of the snobbery or competitiveness that can spoil other stable yards.
I also felt a deep spiritual connection to the numinous spirit of the land, steeped in the history of the Pendle Witches, which inspired my 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. The woodland surrounding the stable yard was carpeted in bluebells every spring. I regularly sighted deer, hare, foxes, and owls.
So why on earth did I move off such a wonderful stable yard where my horse and I had been so blissful for so many years? Because the whole environment was poisoned by toxic masculinity.
As the owner was getting older and no longer capable of doing the physical work required in running a yard, she allowed her handyman more and more power until he was living on site and running the place instead of her. Not content to stop at that, he began to bully the women on the yard—particularly the old guard of women who had been on the yard 40 years or more, who had known the owner since they were children. These women were his first targets.
The mark of an abuser is that he wants to separate his victim—in this case the elderly farm owner—from her long-time friends and support network. Many of us suspect that the elderly owner lives in fear of him and is too intimidated to fire him or make him leave her property.
This slow burning tragedy was unfolding before my eyes for years, but I didn’t want to see it. I was guilty of trying to pretend it would all work out, that there were difficult people and drama on every yard. My horse was so settled and happy and I didn’t want to move her to a yard where she wouldn’t have such a wonderful pasture.
I put up with this man for as long as I could bear. I tried ignoring him. I tried sympathizing with him and making excuses for him. He had a bad childhood. He was insecure. We’re supposed to feel compassion for all beings, right? Except I had to watch him bully women to the point of tears and it only got worse over time. When anyone stood up to him or complained to the owner, he threw her off the yard. The only way to survive was to keep your head down and pretend it wasn’t happening—exactly the dynamic you see in abusive families where family members allow the abuse to continue in hope that they won’t be the target.
Except even that didn’t work, because one day I was the target.
My “sin” had nothing to do with my behavior on the stable yard. I took part in the People’s Vote March in London in October 2018, along with about three-quarters-of a million other people. I made the “mistake” of posting about it on social media. The Toxic Male Yard Manager started stalking me online. He cornered me in the feed room when no one else was there to tell me how angry he was that I had demonstrated against Brexit. Feeling quite shaken by this, I blocked him and his family members on social media. When he discovered that I had blocked them, he and his wife both cornered me in the most intimidating way, again when I was alone on the yard. On my birthday, of all days. When that happened, I knew I had to move yards. I didn’t feel physically safe there anymore. And if he was capable of treating humans this way, what would he do to horses when no one was watching?
I left the yard December 1. Eight other women left the yard in the following months, because they also felt bullied and harassed. They came from all sides of the political spectrum, so it wasn’t necessarily their politics that attracted his wrath. Just the fact that they were females and he thought he could control them. He installed CCTV at various points on the yard, with the audio on, so he could eavesdrop on our every conversation. It seemed the thing he feared most was that we would criticize him and share our experience of his bullying with each other. Female support networks had to be crushed. It was like living in a totalitarian state.
Most of the vacated stalls remain empty, because word has gone around about this man. Everyone in the local horsey world knows each other. Most of those people are female. And our “gossip” is an essential support network. It’s female solidarity in action. The word “gossip” actually comes from the Old English “godsibb” or godmother–close female kinship and support networks.
The only thing that can counteract toxic masculinity and misogyny is the power of the female collective. It is imperative that we talk about our experiences. We need a whole new #MeToo movement to share our stories about these men. To name and call out their behavior for what it is. Abuse. Evil thrives in secrecy and flourishes when good people stand by and do nothing. The time for silence is over.
When not attending to her beautiful horse, Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write overlooked women back into history. Her novel, Ecstasy, about composer and life artist Alma Mahler is new from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website.