Ann Romney talks openly about her love of horses. Ever since her multiple sclerosis was diagnosed more than a decade ago, the presidential candidate’s wife has turned to riding for therapy and relaxation. But her simple pastoral hobby has become more complicated as it has become more competitive, and she is less open about her involvement in dressage, a rarefied, ritualized sport often referred to as “horse ballet.”
She has competed in amateur rounds of major dressage tournaments. She has funded dressage horses and riders of Olympic caliber. She and her husband, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have at least part-ownership of four warmbloods (as the kind of horse often used for dressage is known), according to a campaign spokeswoman.
“My horses rejuvenate me like you can’t believe” she told Fox News last week. “They give me balance. They give me energy. I think it’s because I love them so much.”
Dressage demands agility and finesse — and money. Ann Romney’s involvement in the sport has allowed her access to the heady world of high-level competition, but it has also exposed her to horse dealing. Two years ago, it resulted in a lawsuit against her alleging fraud in the sale of one of her horses. And that lawsuit provided testimony in which she spoke in unusual detail about the benefits — and the costs — of riding.
Dressage, whose roots date to ancient Greece, got its name (and its pronunciation, dress-AHGE) from a French term that means “training.” According to the U.S. Dressage Federation, “its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.” Unlike other types of holdings, dressage horses are living investments whose value can tumble with the wrong turn of a hoof.
The Romneys, through a campaign aide, declined to tally how much they spend on dressage, saying, “We are not required to disclose this information.” But some of their animals cost more than $100,000, and the Romneys continue to sink tens of thousands of dollars into year-round training and feeding, plus veterinary bills.
Last year’s lawsuit, from which Ann Romney was eventually dropped as a defendant, led to a deposition during which she offered moving insights into her equestrian life. She had loved horses as a girl in Michigan, and she didn’t return to them until she turned 50. “It’s when I was diagnosed with M.S.,” she said. “And I was losing most of the function of my right side. And I decided I needed to go back and do what I loved, before I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Soon after she resumed riding, Romney enrolled in a clinic run by an accomplished trainer and German emigre named Jan Ebeling, owner of state-of-the-art stables north of Simi Valley at a ranch known as the Acres. Ebeling and his wife, Amy, hosted Romney often. “I would probably come out once a month to once every six weeks for about a week,” Romney recalled.
The Acres is home to a 40-stall barn, indoor arena, dressage ring and obstacle courses. There are steep and dusty trails on the state-owned acreage nearby. Trusted James Herriot-type veterinarians and farriers and a young German assistant tend to the animals and take them through their paces; other horses, nursing injuries or strains, are pampered in the barn.
In 2003, Romney enlisted Ebeling’s German contacts and discovered a young horse called Super Hit, an Oldenburg gelding, along with another promising specimen, Marco Polo, according to her deposition. She and the trainer traveled to Germany to examine the horses. Three German veterinarians determined that both animals were healthy and ready to compete. That judgment came despite one concern: Super Hit was found to have an exostosis, a small bone protrusion, somewhere in the left front foot. “There was a small abnormality in the radiograph that was not very serious,” Romney recalled in the deposition. Routine injections to the hoof were arranged to take care of it, according to several depositions. “We all have to take a chance with anything, and it’s not like there was a chance it would go lame.” She said she intended to train the horse for “upper-level dressage.”
At the Acres, Romney became fully versed in the sport’s arcana. “I was riding the Grand Prix half-passes,” she explained of her “schooling” of Super Hit, which she affectionately called Soupy. “I was doing full pirouettes.”
The gelding was one of many horses in Romney’s possession, at one time or another, in multiple barns across the country. She also mentioned Baron, which she has often ridden near the Romneys’ La Jolla residence; Rafalca, a mare that was once thought to be Olympics-bound and will head to World Cup finals in the Netherlands next month; Liberte, another top competitor; and Lestor, Sandrina, Breitan, Happy Day and Schone. In one harrowing episode, she recalled, Marco Polo, the other German horse, was in a container that tipped on an airport runway during transit.
“It’s like children,” she explained in the deposition when asked whether Super Hit was her favorite. “You don’t . . . like [to] say one is better than the other, but I loved him.”
The best gift her husband ever gave her was a horse, Ann Romney told the New York Times late last year. Her son Josh told another New York Times reporter in 2007 that he had given his dad a rubber horse mask so that if he wore it, “maybe Mom will pay as much attention to you as she does to the horses.” In other interviews, both she and Jan Ebeling have jokingly described her as “horse crazy.”
Should she become first lady, Romney told Parade magazine last fall, she would certainly bring horses to the White House lawn. She even “slipped away” on the day of the Michigan primary to ride, telling Fox News that “some people have lovers in every port. I have horses in every port.”
“I think that everyone in my life recognizes I can’t be off a horse for longer than about two to three weeks, because then they see me actually start to fade,” she told Parade. “It’s an interesting thing for me how much they feed my soul and feed the thing I need, which is to have the quiet time, the balancing time, the exercise and everything else that is part of my therapy for staying strong.”
She learned the subtle dressage motions that transmit to the horse what to do next, which direction to turn. Riders must master leg squeezes and weight shifts. In dressage events, competitors lose points if they use their voice. And unlike steeplechase and other contests, there are no jumps that would put Romney at risk. She and her horse must execute compulsory movements and careful turns, sometimes set to classical music that her husband has chosen.
Like others who suffer from a degenerative disease, Romney has found that riding has helped her summon and hone muscle strength in lasting ways. (A dressage competitor in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki who had been paralyzed by polio was rolled to her horse in a wheelchair. She took home the silver medal.) However, astride Super Hit, “I was getting back spasms,” she testified. “It was getting difficult for me to ride him.” Romney decided to sell the horse.
She sold it for $125,000 to a physical therapist named Catherine Norris, who continued to ride Super Hit at the Acres under Ebeling’s guidance. More than a year later, the horse, she said, “felt off.” Ebeling told Norris, a lifelong equestrienne, that her riding was to blame, she testified. She moved the horse to another training facility. Soon afterward, a new veterinarian declared the horse “mildly lame” and performed surgery.
Norris sued Ann Romney, the Ebelings and the veterinary team that examined Super Hit pre-purchase, claiming she had been sold a defective horse. If she had known fully about the horse’s medical history and ongoing injections, which did not continue at the new facility, she said in her complaint, she “would not have purchased Super Hit.” In addition, Norris learned that the horse’s left front hoof was not covered by Super Hit’s medical insurance.
The Romney campaign said that for more than a year after the sale, Norris “told Ann Romney that she was pleased with Super Hit.” The campaign communications director, Gail Gitcho, declined to make Ann or Mitt Romney available for comment on the case.
On the day the case opened for trial in fall 2011, lawyers worked to craft a last-minute settlement. Before that deal was announced, Catherine Norris formally released Ann Romney from the suit. Then she settled with the other defendants, including the Ebelings, under terms that remain confidential. Norris’s husband declined to comment; Norris could not be reached.
The vigorously litigated case was an unhappy interlude in an otherwise heady experience with Olympic goals. Jan Ebeling, riding Rafalca, was thought to be bound for the London Games until recent contests didn’t produce the right scores.
The Romneys’ confidence in the Ebelings seems firm; in addition to fees paid for horse-tending, the Romneys have lent between $250,000 and $500,000 to the Ebeling facility. The Acres has paid interest on the loan, according to a Romney spokeswoman, who said the loan predates the Norris lawsuit.
In late January, on a unpaved road that leads to a quarry, Jan Ebeling approached the black iron doors of an electronic gate. (The Acres is protected by fencing all around the property line, with video cameras monitoring its main entrance.)
Blond, compact and fit, sporting a plaid Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned with “USA,” Ebeling took a break from training a horse and rider — “Against him! Against him! Lean!” he called into a loudspeaker in a German accent — to decline an interview request.
Personable and polite, Ebeling said that it has been a while since Ann Romney has been to the Acres.
“They’re busy,” he said with a smile, and returned to his training ring.
Super Hit, still in Norris’s possession, has been put out to pasture.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.