Ann Romney's Olympic horse: A guide

The Week

The Romneys have a big stake in the London Olympics: A pricey pet competing in a high-falutin horse dancing event

When it comes to animals, Mitt and Ann Romney seem to have plenty of stories to share. Earlier this year, unrelenting media reports focused on the 1983 tale of Mitt locking Seamus the family dog in a cage on the roof of the car as the Romneys took a 12-hour road trip. Now, the focus has shifted to Rafalca, a horse co-owned by the Romneys, who will compete at the Olympic equestrian dressage event this week. In the lead-up to the little-understood event, questions have swirled over the horse's exact relation to the Romneys — not to mention what dressage actually is. The Democratic National Committee has even referenced Rafalca in an ad assailing Romney for "dancing around the issues" like his fancy, expensive Oldenburg mare does in competition. Here, a guide to the Romneys' equine hobby:

How does dressage work?
Dressage (pronounced dress-AHGE) is essentially horse ballet — a highly choreographed exercise between horse and rider. In the event, "the dandily coiffed horse and top-hat-wearing rider negotiate a set of complex choreographed steps and jumps" set to music, says Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones. (Watch a video of the Romneys' horse below.) Carl Hester of Great Britain's dressage team describes the sport as "gymnastics for horses." The rider steers through the movements, "making the horse look like it's doing it on its own," Hester says. "You have to have a lot of power, but you also have to have a lot of relaxation."

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So who is the Romneys' dressage horse? 
Rafalca is a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare that the Romneys co-own with trainer Jan Ebeling. Rafalca placed third in the dressage qualifying round, so she'll be competing this week at the Olympics with the U.S. equestrian team. Rafalca is one of three horses that the Romneys co-own, but the only one competing in London.

Why do the Romneys own these horses?
Ann says horses are more than just a hobby for her. In a recent interview discussing her struggles with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating autoimmune disorder, Ann shared that she has taken up horseback riding as an alternative therapy.

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But Ann won't ride Rafalca in the Olympics, right?
Right. That honor goes to trainer and equestrian Jan Ebeling, who has reportedly played a big part in Ann Romney's horse-buying, and has also pushed her "to excel in high-level amateur shows," says Trip Gabriel at The New York Times. According to financial statements, the Romneys even loaned $250,000 to $500,000 to Ebeling and his wife for their California horse farm.

So dressage is pretty expensive, isn't it?
Indeed. In general, dressage horses cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to buy in the first place — sometimes as much as six figures. Saddles cost around $1,000, and in Rafalca's case, annual shelter costs runs to about $28,000.

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Is Mitt a fan of dressage?
If he is, he's hiding it pretty well. Speaking in London with NBC's Brian Williams last week, the Republican said, "I have to tell you, this is Ann's sport. I'm not even sure which day the sport goes on.... I will not be watching the event." Clearly, says Amber Porter at ABC News, Romney is eager to put a "horse-sized distance between himself and dressage."

Does Rafalca stand a chance at winning gold?
Not if the Netherlands' Edward Gal and his 11-year-old horse Glock's Undercover have anything to say about it. "In the land of dancing horses, [Glock's Undercover] is LeBron James," says Jack Moore at BuzzFeed. At the 2010 dressage World Equestrian Games, Gal became the first rider in history to win gold in all three dressage categories: Team, individual special, and individual freestyle. A win for Rafalca? Mother Jones' Weinstein advises, "Don't bet on it."  

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Sources: ABC News (2, 3), BusinessweekBuzzFeed, The Guardian, Mother Jones, The New York Times (2), Washington Post

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