The poised 15-year-old stepped into the arena Thursday as the crowd fell into a polite hush. For six minutes she pranced and pirouetted just as she’d trained, and when it was all over her team pronounced the performance a smashing Olympic debut.
The teenager in question is the horse Rafalca, the most famous American athlete on more than two legs at these Olympics. But her renown is due only partly to her prowess in the esoteric sport of dressage, best described for the unknowing as an intricate form of equine dancing.
In the stands at London’s Greenwich Park was Rafalca’s co-owner Ann Romney, the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose connection to the rarefied world of big-time equestrianism has prompted interest in the sport unlike anything American riders have seen before.
Ann Romney “was absolutely ecstatic” after the German-bred Rafalca placed 13th among 25 horses that appeared Thursday, said Kenneth Braddick, a family acquaintance who edits the website Dressage-news.com and attended the competition. Three more U.S. horses are set to go Friday, with the top seven national teams advancing to a final round Tuesday.
In an election campaign that’s focused on the economic woes of average Americans, the regal Rafalca, with her rich brown coat and white socks, has unwittingly provided plenty of fodder for Mitt Romney’s Democratic critics. Dressage looks, and sounds, like a sport for the 1 percent.
The origins of dressage – whose name comes from an old French word meaning “to train” – date to ancient Greece, but it was revived as an art form during the Renaissance in the courts of European kings.
Horses are expected to perform a series of delicate maneuvers set to music – trots, skips, turns and jaunty sashays – at the subtle direction of riders who wear top hats, white gloves and jackets with tails and brass buttons. The moves go by names such as “piaffes,” “passages” and “flying changes,” and at the sport’s highest form “the horse should look like he’s having a good time,” said Anne Buvik, the editor of Hestesport, a Norwegian horse publication.
World-class competition horses are valued in the millions of dollars, and the cost of housing and caring for them can run to more than $50,000 annually. (The Romneys reportedly spent $77,000 a year for Rafalca’s upkeep.)
It’s no surprise, then, that when Mitt Romney was asked on the eve of the Olympics whether he’d attend Rafalca’s performance with his wife, he sounded like any husband who was trying to get out of a night at the ballet.
“I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport,” Romney told NBC News last week. “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.”
The faux-Republican comedian Stephen Colbert declared dressage “the new American pastime” and suggested that the addition of huge foam fingers could help sell the sport to a mass audience.
Insiders say the sport is no more elitist than any other Olympic-level pursuit. Ann Romney has said she took up riding to help her cope with multiple sclerosis. Rafalca’s rider, Jan Ebeling, learned to ride as a youngster growing up in Germany. Another rider, Michal Rapcewicz, noted that in his native Poland a riding lesson is roughly the price of a movie ticket.
“Rafalca was not an inordinately expensive horse,” said Braddick, of Dressage-news.com. “When you look at young ice skaters whose families move to Colorado Springs . . . or Usain Bolt being massaged and chiropracted and all the rest of the stuff that happens to him every day ... it’s all pretty heavy going at that level.”
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s competition, the U.S. team remained more or less sequestered at a training facility outside London and tried to block out the record number of interview requests.
After Rafalca completed her routine, the crowd – packed into the arena to cheer on a favored British team – applauded warmly. (Spectators are advised not to clap too loudly at the start, lest it spook the horse.) There was no sign of ill will stemming from Mitt Romney’s pre-Olympic comments questioning whether London was prepared to host the games.
“There certainly was a lot of media attention going on, but I think it really ended up being a good thing for the sport,” said Ebeling, of Moorpark, Calif. “And I don’t really get distracted by these things. I have a pretty good way of focusing.”
Ebeling didn’t speak to Ann Romney before the competition but said, “Ann’s given me so many words of encouragement already. . . . She’ll be pleased.”
So, too, were Mitt Romney’s Democratic critics. Hours after Rafalca’s performance, the liberal group MoveOn.org said it would run 30-second ads in battleground states mocking the Romneys’ expensive hobby, featuring an English-accented Rafalca saying, “After Mitt Romney repeals health care and ships your jobs overseas, I daresay your life won’t be nearly as pampered as mine. After all, you’re not one of his horses.”