Though I enjoy watching equestrian events, I don’t go out of my way to find them. It was a pleasant surprise this morning to find coverage of the individual dressage event on MSNBC. It also turned into one of those mornings when I wanted to take the entire American media to the woodshed for a good whipping.
Rafalca, the 15-year-old mare competing with the American team, has been described as “Ann Romney’s horse.” The commentators at the dressage event provided the full story behind this beautiful dancing animal.
When Mrs. Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was recommended that she try dressage as a therapy. She went to trainer Jan Ebering for that purpose. Dressage involves a great deal of muscle control on the part of the rider. Commands are conveyed to the horse through minute pressures applied through the feet, calves and thighs of the rider, as well as tiny adjustments in the reins. It is a very good way to exercise fine motor control, as opposed to the gross motor exercise of most physical fitness programs. The event commentators used the term “remission” to describe Mrs. Romney’s condition, but a more accurate version might be that she has the form of MS called “benign” – the least damaging of the four forms and the one with the longest periods of stability between bouts of deterioration.
During the course of Mrs. Romney’s therapy training, it was decided that the Romney’s would invest in the horse, buying a share of it. Race and show horses, being very expensive things to maintain and support, are sold in this manner, like shares in a company. Rafalca has four owners, trainer Jan Ebering and his wife, Beth Meyers and Mrs. Romney.
Mrs. Romney does not train Rafalca to compete or ride her in competition. Her riding of this or any other horse that Ebering trains was for her benefit, not the horse’s. Using a competition horse for therapy poses some risks to the horse. Competition training involves teaching the horse to respond properly to very slight commands. Allowing an amateur to ride the horse risks confusing it with clumsy commands. Where race horses peak before the age of four, dressage horses aren’t ready for competition until they are usually over 10 years old. The horses at the Olympics are between 14 and 19 years old. There is a point in dressage training where the only person who mounts that horse is the person who will ride it in competition. They must work as a flawless team to reach competition level.
The facts behind Ann Romney and the horse are not what the media has portrayed. Mrs. Romney did not use the horse for therapy, she used the expertise of Jan Ebering. She does not “own” the horse, she is a shareholder in the horse. Unlike racehorses, who have a long-shot potential of making back the investment, equestrian horses are money pits. Even the Olympic honorarium of $25,000 for a gold medalist doesn’t come close to the cost of keeping up the horse. From a business perspective, a dressage horse is a tax deduction, in Rafalca’s case, a $78,000 a year tax deduction on a quarter-share. It’s a net-loss investment, what the rest of us refer to as a “tax write-off.”
The Romney campaign has stressed Rafalca as Mrs. Romney’s savior in her battle against MS. I have no doubt her dressage training was very therapeutic. The media has treated Rafalca as an elitist sports figure and an interesting item on the Romney tax return. The truth is more mundane. Horses are used in MS and other motor disease therapies. Going for a competition-level dressage horse for therapy is pretty elitist, but probably reflects more on the narrowness of the Romney’s world than snobbery. Investing in Rafalca was a business decision, not a woman-horse love story, though she no doubt loves the horse. Someone equally rich but from a different world than the Romney’s might have invested in a NASCAR team. Rafalca is evidence of how narrow the Romney’s world view really is, not evidence of how much money they have.