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Dressage Enthusiasts Find Romney-Driven Attention A Mixed Blessing

Aug 6, 2012
Originally published on August 6, 2012 6:44 pm

When Rafalca, the horse co-owned by Ann Romney, was named to the U.S. Olympic team in June, the U.S. dressage community thought the publicity would help the little-known sport. But that's not quite how things turned out.

During the trials to select the Olympic team, comedian Stephen Colbert named dressage his "sport of the summer," clearly to poke fun at the involvement of Ann Romney's husband, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"The image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today," Colbert said in June. "Because now Mitt is just your average blue-collar fan of dressage. Of course, that word may sound highfalutin. But don't worry. It also goes by the street name 'horse ballet.' "

The dressage community decided to get in on the joke. For the final weekend of the selection trials, competition officials handed out beer and huge red foam fingers proclaiming dressage "#1."

Brian O'Connor, a longtime dressage announcer and the brother of equestrian Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor, said it was kind of a no-brainer.

Colbert's original spoof "actually really promoted the sport and what we were doing," said O'Connor, whose announcing resume includes the Olympics, the World Cup and the equestrian World Championships. "It just jumped the word 'dressage' all around the world instantly, and specifically here within the United States in a matter of seconds. ... I mean, he hit a home run for us; it was absolutely fantastic."

But while Colbert's ribbing was somewhat gentle, others have tried to use Romney's involvement in what is mostly viewed as an upper-crust sport as a bit more of a cudgel.

Among them is the liberal group MoveOn.org, which is running a 30-second ad featuring a talking horse pretending to be Rafalca.

"How do I pull off such grace and athleticism while looking so good?" asks the horse. "Maybe it's because the Romneys spent $77,000 a year on my upkeep. And after Mitt Romney repeals health care and ships your job overseas, I daresay your life will not be nearly as pampered as mine."

The $77,000 is a reference to a deduction on the Romneys' 2010 tax returns. It may help explain why candidate Romney has begun to back himself away from his wife's passion.

For example, when NBC's Brian Williams asked him to describe how the competition worked in an interview on the eve of the Olympics' opening ceremony, here's how he responded:

"I have to tell you, this is Ann's sport. I'm not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it; I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well."

Indeed, even comedian Colbert's edge got a little sharper as the competition drew nearer. Last week he responded to claims by Rafalca's rider, trainer and co-owner Jan Ebeling that dressage is not solely a sport for the very wealthy.

"It's something you can do with a normal budget. Yeah, it's really all about budgeting," Colbert said. "You cut out a couple of lattes a week. By the end of the month, you got yourself a $3 million Dutch warmblood."

But comments like those have started to irritate the thousands of Americans — full disclosure, I am one — who actually do participate in the sport of dressage without being independently wealthy.

While every sport at the Olympic level is backed by wealthy people, "you can be pretty humble and ride dressage," said Betty Thorpe, a dressage judge and past president of the Potomac Valley Dressage Association.

Indeed, a stroll around the grounds of the PVDA's schooling show this past weekend at Morgan Run Stables in Westminster, Md., turned up mostly people who were not members of the 1 percent or the royal family.

"Sadly no. I'm working on it," joked Celia Rozanski from astride Jasper, her Quarter Horse Paint gelding.

Rozanski, a college student studying neuroscience, said what's bothered her most about the publicity surrounding the Romneys and their Olympic horse is the idea that dressage is not all that difficult.

"It's a mistake to say that it's easy," she said. "It's not. It's really hard. It's one of the most challenging things I've ever done, I think, and I've done a couple different types of riding."

Jeanine Holtsburg was at the show with Miprieto, a retired racehorse. She said she wishes people could understand more of what the sport is really about.

"Dressage is not just for the rich, it should be for everyone," she said. "It is the basis for all of our riding disciplines, including barrel racing, stadium jumping, polo, and even racing. A lot of jockeys study dressage."

But what seems to have most disappointed dressage enthusiasts is Mitt Romney's sudden apparent lack of knowledge about the sport.

"I think he knows more than he says, and I wish he could be brave enough to own up to it," said PVDA judge Thorpe, who says she has seen both Romneys in person at major dressage competitions where Rafalca has competed. "Because there's plenty of people that enjoy it. It's not a huge sport, but we're very devoted."

Meanwhile, Rafalca actually did well in her Olympic debut last week. But this is an Olympics full of superstar dressage horses, and her chances for winning a medal are considered a long shot at best. Bad publicity or not, however, dressage fans in the U.S. will be cheering her on Tuesday.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to the Olympics, and the sport that normally doesn't get a lot of attention here in the U.S. - dressage. Tomorrow, medals will be awarded in dressage ad the U.S. team currently sits in fifth place. The team includes Rafalca, a horse co-owned by the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. When Rafalca was named to the team back in June, the small dressage community in the U.S. thought the publicity would help their sport.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, that's not quite how things have turned out.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: During the trials to select the Olympic team, comedian Stephen Colbert named dressage his, quote, "sport of the summer, for people who use the word summer as a verb." He was clearly poking fun at Mitt Romney's involvement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW)

STEPHEN COLBERT: But folks, the image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today, because now Mitt is just your average blue-collar fan of dressage. Of course that word may sound highfalutin. But don't worry, it also goes by the street name horse ballet.

ROVNER: The dressage community decided to get in on the joke. For the final weekend of the selection trials, they handed out beer and huge red foam fingers proclaiming Dressage Number One.

Brian O'Connor is a longtime dressage announcer and the brother of David O'Connor, who won an equestrian gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

BRIAN O'CONNOR: It just jumped the word dressage all around the world instantly, and specifically here within the United States in a matter of seconds. I mean, it was just a great, huge - I mean he hit a homerun for us. It was absolutely fantastic.

ROVNER: But while Colbert's ribbing was somewhat gentle, others have tried to use Romney's involvement in what's mostly viewed as an upper crust sport, as a bit more of a cudgel. Take this ad from the liberal group MoveOn.org, for example. It features a talking horse pretending to be Rafalca.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Rafalca) How do I pull off such grace and athleticism while looking so good? Maybe it's because the Romneys spent $77,000 a year on my upkeep. And after Mitt Romney repeals health care and ships your job overseas, I daresay your life will not be nearly as pampered as mine.

ROVNER: The $77,000 is a reference to deduction on the Romney's 2010 tax returns. It may help explain why candidate Romney has begun to back himself away from his wife's passion. When NBC's Brian Williams asked him to describe how the competition worked, in an interview on the eve of the Olympics' opening ceremony, here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MITT ROMNEY: I have to tell you, this is Ann's sport. I'm not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well. But just...

ROVNER: Indeed, even comedian Colbert's edge got a little sharper as the competition drew nearer. Last week, he responded to claims by Rafalca's trainer and co-owner that dressage is not solely a sport for the very wealthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW)

COLBERT: It's something you can do with a normal budget. Yeah, it's really all about budgeting. You cut out a couple of lattes a week. By the end of the month, you got yourself a $3 million Dutch Warmblood.

ROVNER: But it's comments like those that are starting to irritate the thousands of Americans - full disclosure, I am one - who actually do participate in the sport of dressage without being independently wealthy.

Tell me your name.

STACY MALMEISTER: It's Stacy Malmeister.

ROVNER: And where are you from?

MALMEISTER: I am originally from Albany, New York, but I live in Baltimore now.

ROVNER: And who is this?

MALMEISTER: This is Big Max.

ROVNER: I found Stacy and Max warming up at a horse show Saturday sponsored by the Potomac Valley Dressage Association. She's a college student. She doesn't even own Max. He belongs to the Morgan Run Stable in Westminster, Maryland, where the show was being held. Malmeister says she's definitely not part of the 1 percent.

MALMEISTER: You know, I'm trying to ride and scrape together in horse show.

ROVNER: Neither, for that matter, is Celia Rozanski. She's riding Jasper. He's a quarter horse paint, not a fancy warm blood, and she's not a member of the royal family, even though a few of them are competing in these Olympic games.

CELIA ROZANSKI: Sadly, no. I'm working on it.

ROVNER: Actually, Rozanski, who's a college student studying neuroscience, says what bothers her most about all the media attention is the perception that dressage isn't all that difficult.

ROZANSKI: It's a mistake to say that it's easy. It's not. It's really hard. It's one of the most challenging things I've ever done, I think, and I've done a couple of different types of riding.

ROVNER: Ann Romney's horse actually did well in her Olympic debut last week, but this is an Olympics full of superstar dressage horses and her chances for winning a medal are considered a long shot, at best. And bad publicity or not, dressage fans in the U.S. will be cheering her on tomorrow.

Julie Rovner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.