Jan Ebeling, the 53-year-old who will be riding Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca in dressage at the London Olympics, said the elitist tag put on the sport is unfair.
Ann Romney’s part-ownership of the horse has been lampooned by critics of her husband, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as being symbolic of the family being out of touch with normal Americans. Dressage, which involves horses carrying out controlled movements, can be pursued on a “normal budget,” Ebeling said. He declined to put a figure on what “normal” might be.
“If you look at our team, there’s nobody who’s a millionaire,” Ebeling said today in an interview at the Olympic Park. “When I grew up we had no money. I worked my butt off. I cleaned stalls. People saw the talent and would let me ride their horses. Money is not something that defines dressage. It’s something you can do with a normal budget.”
Ebeling will ride the horse as part of the U.S. team at Greenwich Park in southeast London in competition starting Aug. 2. The team expects the gold to be won by Germany or Britain, with the U.S.’s best chance a bronze, squad members Ebeling, Tina Konyot and Steffen Peters told reporters at a briefing today.
“The only sport the Romneys could be involved in that would make them look wealthier than dressage would be gold-coin diving in their family safe,” Hadley Freeman, a columnist for the London-based Guardian newspaper, wrote on July 25.
The Olympic equestrian arena where Rafalca will perform is no stranger to wealth and privilege, with Prince Abdullah al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Alvaro Affonso de Miranda Neto, husband of Athina Onassis; Princess Nathalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein of Denmark and Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, among the riders competing across a range of disciplines.
“In every sport you have athletes and sponsors who may pay more money and the ones who don’t have so much money,” Ebeling said. “Riding lessons don’t have to cost much money and if you buy a young horse you don’t have to pay the seven digits that I have heard about. You can buy a foal for very cheap.”
Ebeling said he has shut out the controversy over his horse and its “high visibility” owner and the team benefited from banning the media from its training camp.
“I’ve worked over the years on perfecting my mental game,” he said. “I go into a bubble. I don’t listen to the news or listen to the radio. That for me is the way to deal with it. My horse is owned by three ladies so there’s a lot of pressure right there.”
Ann Romney will be at the venue to watch her horse in action, Ebeling said, though he said he didn’t know whether Mitt Romney will be in Greenwich to see the horse arrive from the training camp today.
There has been a benefit from all the attention, Ebeling said.
“For our sport of dressage it’s been absolutely wonderful to have this coverage from mainstream media. We love it,” he said.