Brian Cahn / Zuma Press
Ann Romney's horse, Rafalca, under the sure-handed guidance of trainer Jan Ebeling, at the National Grand Prix Dressage Championship at the United States Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions on Friday.
It’s time to shine up those riding boots and break out the top hat — Ann Romney’s dressage horse will be competing in the London Olympics this summer.
Rafalca, Romney's 15-year-old Oldenburg mare that she co-owns, qualified for the U.S. Equestrian Team after placing well at the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Dressage Championships in Gladstone, N.J., over the weekend.
Rafalca placed third, securing one of five open spots on the team. She was ridden to victory by Ann Romney’s trainer Jan Ebeling, 53, who has been an active rider and trainer on the international dressage circuit since relocating to the United States from his native Germany in 1984. He owns Rafalca along with his wife Amy, Ann Romney and an additional owner, Beth Meyer.
Ann Romney attended the Championships in Gladstone and tweeted from the event, “It’s great to be part of the Olympics again. We are so proud of Jan and Team USA. Now let’s bring home the gold!”
The odds seem to be in Rafalca's favor. She placed high in the qualifying competition, scoring an overall 73.169% out of a possible 100, which put her nine slots ahead of her other teammates on the U.S. Equestrian Team.
While this isn’t the first time Ebeling has tried to get Rafalca to the Olympics, this is the first time the mare has qualified. In an article for Dressage Today earlier this year, Ebeling wrote that he attempted to qualify Rafalca for a spot on the team to compete at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Unfortunately, Rafalca sustained a severe injury that left her unable to compete, putting her training back a year.
Since then, Ebeling says Rafalca has “done a lot of growing up,” and that his journey with her has "been long and emotional with ups and downs and more than a few bumps along the way." A “bump” included a botched ride at a qualifying competition for the 2009 World Cup. Rafalca refused a command in the ring and Ebeling failed to qualify. Still, he finished the ride smiling. “That’s part of who I am,” he said. “I don’t quit.”
Perseverance is something Ann Romney and her trainer have in common. She began dressage as a way to treat her multiple scelerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 1998. What began as therapy became a hobby and then, as her husband Mitt Romney puts it, an “addiction.” He said recently, “She's convinced [dressage helped] her regenerate her strength and renew that vigor, and so she cares very deeply about this sport and about horses...I joke that I'm going to send her to Betty Ford for addiction to horses."
According to the U.S. Equestrian Federation, dressage requires the horse and rider to "combine the strength and agility of gymnastics with the elegance and beauty of ballet. The result is truly the best blend of sport and art."
Dressage horses are trained to respond to the slightest of gestures. Through the squeeze of a calf or the closing of fingers around the reins, horses can be commanded into pirouettes, a slow-motion trot, or into a series of "flying lead changes" where the horse appears to "skip" around the arena.
Ann Romney’s interest in dressage has been criticized as an elite sport for the wealthy that further separates the Romney family from regular Americans. Trainer Ebeling disagrees. In an interview with dressage-news.com, he said, “The visibility that Ann brings to the sport can be extremely positive, a real benefit for equestrian sport.” He called the partnership between the co-owners as something wonderful to share, with both joys as well as tears.
Like any good dressage horse, Rafalca has remained poised throughout all the media attention. “She doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Ebeling said. “I do, of course, so it’s up to me to remain focused on what we need to do, to go into the ring just like we do every day at home and ride the best we can…and to take care of her.”
Ann Romney's horse Rafalca has qualified for the London Olympics and will compete in the sport of dressage.
TODAY.com contributor Jillian Eugenios thinks that more animals should be taught how to skip.