Before she flew to London in early July with her Olympic teammates, Rafalca, whose chartered jet made use of the full length of the runway to ensure a gentle takeoff, stayed at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, N.J. Once the 5,000-acre estate of the heir to a turn-of-the-century utility baron, the farm is now home to a private golf club and the U.S. Equestrian Team. Here, Rafalca, a 15-year-old German-born mare, lived under a vaulted, tile ceiling in a terrazzo-floored stable with brass fittings. She is one of the expertly trained and meticulously cared for horses representing the U.S. in dressage at the London 2012 Olympic Games. She is also the property of Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt.
As Rafalca pursues Olympic glory, she’s become a political punch line. Al Gore’s Current TV put together a comparison of the costs of raising a family and raising a dressage horse. (Family shelter, $16,352; horse, $28,800.) A Rafalca Romney Twitter account sprang up under the slogan, “I dance for Mitt Romney so you don’t have to.” In June, Stephen Colbert opened his show with a long Rafalca bit. “The image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today,” Colbert said, “because now Mitt is just your average blue-collar fan of dressage.” Colbert then donned a foam finger and trucker hat, chugged from a bottle of beer, and chanted, “Rafalca, No. 1!”
Whatever the election-year implications of Ann Romney’s high-end hobby, the microniche world of dressage couldn’t be happier for the attention. “We’re going to have fun with it,” says James Wolf, executive director of sports programs at the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF). “It’s a great platform for promoting dressage.” Wolf readily acknowledges the pursuit’s stuffy image. “We do a sport,” he says, “but we do it in a tailcoat.”
Probably the closest Olympic analog to dressage is figure skating. Horse and rider enter a 20-by-60-meter ring and perform a series of prescribed motions, or tests—such as trotting in place or pirouetting. At a later stage, there is a six-minute “freestyle” routine set to music. (At one competition, according to Dressage-News.com, Mitt himself picked songs from the soundtracks of Rain Man and The Mission.) A panel of judges looking for rhythm, ease, and precise gait scores the performance.
In Gladstone, the week before Rafalca departed for London, Wolf staged a response to a Colbert gag about dressage horses in speed-skating uniforms. Rafalca posed in a form-fitting compression suit made to aid muscle recovery. Rafalca’s German-born rider, Jan Ebeling—whose wife, Amy, co-owns the horse along with Romney and another friend, Beth Meyer—stood beside the mare wearing a trucker hat and holding a foam finger and a Bud. Wolf held the reins as the photographer snapped. “Point up,” he told Ebeling, who apparently didn’t know what to do with the foam finger.
Ebeling is Ann Romney’s guru in the horse world. The 53-year-old met the Romneys when Mitt headed the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee. Ann, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, came to the barn where Ebeling was working in Heber City, Utah, for a riding lesson. “She was very tired. She couldn’t really do much,” Ebeling says of those first encounters. “We would talk for several minutes, and then she would ride, like, two or three minutes.” Over the next few years, he says, she made “huge progress” despite the disease. Romney now competes in amateur dressage.
In 2006, Ebeling brokered the purchase of Rafalca. Neither he nor the Romneys will say what they paid, but Larissa Barilar, who breeds similar horses at High Point Hanoverians in Chestertown, Md., says a mare like Rafalca would have gone for at least $100,000. At 15, Rafalca is on the older side for dressage, though some top horses can be as old as 18. Rafalca is just now reaching her peak. “I hate to talk about a horse as a product,” says Ebeling inside the USEF offices, “but basically, Rafalca is the product. The plan is to have a horse do well. And then use it for breeding.” In 2010 the Romneys claimed a $77,000 loss on their share of the partnership that owns Rafalca. An Olympic medal should help recoup some of that, as buyers would likely be willing to pay more for her offspring.
Rafalca’s impact has rippled through this arcane segment of the horse industry. For Theault, a small French company trying to crack the U.S. market for horse transport with its $149,000 vans, Rafalca’s rise couldn’t have been better timed. “The level of inquiries have shot up,” says Kevin Blake, Theault’s head of global export, who just signed a sponsorship deal with the USEF. The exposure is a big boost for a company with a tiny marketing budget that makes 300 vans per year. “It’s a magnet,” he says of the Romney subplot.
George Williams, president of the U.S. Dressage Federation, wants people to know that the Romneys aren’t typical of the sport. “If anybody really looks at the horse industry,” he says, “there are people from all walks of life involved.” According to a 2008 survey, only 28 percent of the USDF’s 30,000 members had an annual income of $150,000 or more. “I have seen very high-end,” says Blake of his 11 years selling vans for Theault, “all the way down to—how do you describe it?—typical working-class.”
Olympic dressage, though, is by definition an elite pursuit. “We’re talking about the LeBron Jameses and Tom Bradys of the horse world here,” says James Hickey Jr., president of industry lobby group American Horse Council. “They are the rich, but they deserve to be rich,” he says. Ann Romney will be in London to see Rafalca go for the gold, as will Wolf, with a load of “Dressage #1” foam fingers to pass around. Mitt plans to attend the opening ceremonies but skip the competition.