Cognitive Dissonance in our Broken Community

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY SARA ZIMMERMAN

If you’re anything like me, cognitive dissonance is extremely uncomfortable. The holding of multiple, contrary beliefs or positions, that your brain can’t quite reconcile. The tension between the two gives rise to discomfort and uncertainty; to confusion and shame. But it also has a purpose.

On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Rob Gage died by suicide. If you’re wondering why it’s phrased as such, it’s because “died by suicide” is the correct way to refer to what has become a flip turn of phrase. You do not “commit” suicide. You die by suicide. Because suicide is so much more than the end result—it is about the circumstances, events and illnesses that grow and twist and evolve for years on end, until the end result is reached. So, Rob Gage died by suicide.

For better or for worse, social media spreads gossip faster than a Southern California wildfire. It took about two scrolls, a click, and a text for the rumors to coalesce into something that resembled truth. As soon as that truth began to sink in, I felt a chasm building within me. Cognitive dissonance, magnified. And as I continued to scroll and click and text, the chasm continued to grow. Pillars of the equestrian community equal parts sharing memories and spewing vitriol. Who to trust? Who to believe? Was I to rely on my own personal experiences and those of friends, or to rely on a February 2019 ruling declaring a lifetime ban? Cognitive dissonance, indeed.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

I do not have the answers, but I know one thing to be true: this sport is in a time of crisis, and the crisis is showing no signs of slowing down. The “me too” movement is no longer fringe, it’s a global phenomenon that’s perforated our often whispering equestrian community. Women, men, and children are finding the strength to speak up and let their voices be heard for the first time in 10, 20, or 30+ years. Strength in numbers, they say. Shame can only survive in silence.

I believe and support victims, but my upbringing, education, and career demand something else too: facts and evidence. I need findings and articulated reasons and logic. I need the absence of doubt. How, then, can both be true? How can I stand up for what I believe to my very core, while also standing tall for the systems I have been trained to respect?

We, as an equestrian community, are broken. Cognitive dissonance or not, I believe that statement to be true. I also believe it to be unobjectionable. Every member of the equestrian community deserves to feel safe in the sport, and find sanctuary in a barn that feels like home.

Every member of the equestrian community also deserves to be supported right back by those to whom they have given their lives. Circumstances and mental health struggles complicate, but they do not erase a lifetime of service and devotion to our sport.

Still, what happens when the machine breaks down? What happens when victims are too terrified to come forward, and then read on the internet about the passing of someone related to their trauma? What happens when the families and loved ones of an accused read of the same event?

We, as an equestrian community, are broken. We need to do better.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Instead of shunning and discarding those with demons too vicious to comprehend, the events leading to the creation of those demons need to be examined. Instead of patting survivors on their proverbial backs with trainings designed to “keep out” those demons and make the sport “safer,” we need to examine how best to support, uplift, and continue on. Instead of jumping immediately into two camps—of the accused and the accusers—we need to look to the circumstances that led to the need for the divide to begin with.

We must do better.

I do not have the answers. I will not even begin to pretend to have the answers. I am shocked and outraged. I am disgusted, and am grieving for the loss of another community member. I am both unbearably exhausted and entirely fired up.

I cannot tolerate this cognitive dissonance anymore. We cannot tolerate this cognitive dissonance anymore. We, as an equestrian community, are broken, but broken we do not have to remain.


Sara Zimmerman has lived in Southern California for over a decade, but still considers herself a Northern Californian. She takes great pride in being “that adult amateur” who runs out to the barn during her lunch hour just to give her horse a kiss.