Romney horse fuss a headache for "elitist" dressage


  • Other Sport
  • Wednesday, 01 Aug 2012

LONDON (Reuters) - When a horse part-owned by Mitt Romney's wife Ann was selected for the Olympics, the sport of dressage was pushed out of the sand arena and into the political one.

The Democrats brandished Rafalca - and Ann's role as patron and pupil of dressage rider Jan Ebeling, who will ride the mare in London - as more evidence the U.S. Republican presidential candidate is out of touch with the common man.

Satirists mocked her as a "dancing horse", derided dressage as elitist and questioned if it should really be a sport at all.

ABC News theorised if Rafalca gets into the final, it could delay the announcement of Romney's running mate, prompting Vanity Fair to quip: "There continues to be nothing not completely hilarious about Rafalca Romney, wealthy horse."

With an equine competitor linked to the White House race and royal Olympian Zara Phillips taking home a team eventing silver on Tuesday, equestrian sports have never attracted so much attention from the mainstream media.

The horsey press have had to jostle for space in the Greenwich Park media centre as political and celebrity watchers pour in to brush up on all things equine.

Those bent on the serious business of Thursday's dressage kick-off dismiss the Rafalca kerfuffle as a sideshow to the pitched battle between the leading British and German teams scheduled for this week and next.

"No, not here," said Trond Asmyr, Director of Dressage and Para-equestrian Dressage at equestrian sport governing body the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), when asked if the focus on Rafalca had been a distraction.

Nor has it worried Rafalca's rider, Ebeling, who has been keeping his preparation of the horse under wraps.

"I've been talking to the rider and I have no doubt that he's able to concentrate and to participate in the Olympics," Asmyr said.

NO SILVER SPOONS

One idea the equestrian world does vehemently dispute is that dressage is the exclusive province of the breedy and the rich.

While it's true the sponsors and horse owners who help riders get to the top are often - like Ann Romney - wealthy, having the entire sport tarred with the elitism brush could be damaging to the FEI mission to promote equestrianism across the globe.

"If you look at the background of any of the riders here, it completely blows out of the water any allegations that this is an elitist sport," British Olympic equestrian team head Will Connell told Reuters.

"You look at Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester, two of our superstars. They were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. No, quite the opposite. They have worked hard and their talent has got them where they are."

Dujardin, who burst onto the international dressage scene just last year and, with horse Valegro, achieved a record high score for a grand prix special in April, left school at 16 to show ponies and worked her way up.

Her mentor, employer and trainer Carl Hester, a member of the first British team ever to win the European Championships, grew up on the car-free British Channel island of Sark and began his riding career on a donkey.

Like many Sark children, the current world number five would drive carriages for local tourists to earn money, and then train up the carriage horses to ride them in shows.

"It's the most extraordinary thing that he can do it. He's very talented and he works so hard," said Catherine Austen, Olympics correspondent for Horse and Hound magazine.

Together with teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer, they form the most talented British dressage squad in history - one with a chance of besting the mighty Germans, reigning Olympic champions and historically the dominant nation in the sport.

All are in the global top five, and with the withdrawal of number three Matthias Rath and his legendary horse Totilas from the Olympics, they are seen as having a very good shot at gold.

VERY, VERY EXPENSIVE

However humble the roots of their riders, there's no denying that Olympic-level horses are expensive, costing in the hundreds of thousands of whatever currency you want to name. Thousands more each year go into feeding, training, care and transport.

But equestrian boosters point out that funding is important in any sport - competing on a global level takes money and it is the most talented who get the most financial help.

Whereas participants in the early years - it has been an Olympic sport since 1912 - came almost exclusively from military or the leisured class, the inclusion of professionals since the late 1970s and the growing sophistication of the industry means there are a myriad ways that a great but not wealthy rider can make it onto those oh-so-costly backs.

"Many good riders get good horses even if they don't have the personal financial situation to buy a horse on an Olympic level," said Asmyr.

That includes attracting sponsors - family members, owners like Ann Romney who want their horses shown at levels they cannot reach themselves, and corporations, who see inclusion in the name of a top horse as a branding boon.

There are also stables that hire talented riders to show horses they plan to sell for a profit.

While that may not help the Romneys convince voters back in the United States that they can relate to the financial woes of the average American, equestrians hope greater exposure means a greater understanding and appreciation of the sport.

"To get to the top, you need to be a great athlete, a great rider, you have to want to win, you have to know how to win, you've got to work hard," said Connell.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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