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August 21, 2012

The Day Colbert Learned To Piaffe

When producers at The Colbert Report decided that host Stephen Colbert should take a lesson in dressage—part of highlighting his “sport of the summer”—they gave the U.S. Equestrian Federation a call. The USEF had just one recommendation for the perfect trainer: Michael Barisone. He had the qualifications—and the right personality.

“USEF called and asked if I wanted to do it,” said Barisone, who was the travelling alternate for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. “I said, ‘Sure.’ I thought the whole thing was fantastic. If you’ve been watching the network coverage of the Olympics, you’ve seen swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball, but dressage doesn’t get any national exposure really. This has been the biggest thing to happen to dressage in probably 50 years. I thought, ‘Great. Bring it on.’ ”

Colbert chose dressage as his sport of the summer thanks to Rafalca, an Olympic contender partially owned by Ann Romney, wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Producers set up several phone meetings and came out to Long Valley, N.J., for two site visits. Then they set the date for the lesson and for filming.

“We have a big operation with lots of amateur clients, 25 or 30 people come to ride their horses every day,” said Barisone. “They all got wind of the taping and wanted to come. We would have had 400 people there by the time everyone heard about it, so we had to tell all the clients—who were awesome about it—that the barn had to be closed on that Saturday. The first Colbert producer rolled in at 8 a.m., and she didn’t roll out until 6:30 p.m.”

For his new student, Barisone had to select the perfect horse. He chose Conchita, a 16-year-old Hanoverian (Condor M—SPS Argrandess, Argentan) mare owned by Mike Oyson.

“This horse is the most wonderful jewel of a horse on the face of this earth,” said Barisone. “She has no ego and no temper, and she’s kind. I asked Mike about using her, and he said, ‘That would be great.’ I don’t know another horse who would have done what she did.”

Though Colbert—who rode in a shadbelly, helmet, breeches and boots sent to him by SmartPak—had only ridden a few times as a child, he quickly got into the groove and tricked some viewers into thinking he’d been taking lessons previously. When Conchita briefly spooked because of the cameras and light-reflecting umbrellas, he sat it out. Colbert even got to ride a few moments of piaffe while Barisone encouraged Conchita from the ground.

“The producer said, ‘Everything Stephen Colbert does, he’s good at. He’s a natural at everything.’ He got right on, and his hands were up and his heels were down. He sat up nicely. I told him if he came four times that I could teach him to walk, trot and canter. He’s clearly a brilliant guy,” said Barisone.

Almost eight hours of filming was condensed to two nearly seven-minute pieces that ran July 30 and 31 on Comedy Central.

Colbert wanted all the footage to run before Rafalca cantered down centerline at the Olympic Games, and Barisone had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“We were blown away when we watched it,” he said. “They could have spun this any way they wanted. They could have made everyone look like dummies, but it was light, and it was funny and interesting, and it made everyone involved look really good. Stephen looked like he had some skill at being able to do this. It made me look like a real professional, and they made the farm look great. If they were going to paint a picture of dressage within the bounds of a comedy show, they couldn’t have done a better job.”

 

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Stephen's Dressage Training Pt. 2
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Colbert and Barisone weren’t given scripts, and Barisone wasn’t even given instructions about how to act. One of the funnier parts of the show, where Colbert spies a tiara that Barisone won in a Grand Prix, wasn’t planned either.

“We have this really beautiful club room in the stables, and there’s a trophy case in there with these two tiaras. He saw those tiaras, and that was it. It turned into this whole thing, a story that had a beginning and an end,” said Barisone.

While Colbert asked Barisone some ridiculous questions, Barisone worked hard to maintain a serious persona through the interview.

“If it was someone I knew, I would be much more likely to be joking back,” said Barisone. “I figured, they’re here, and you know it’s a comedy show, but it’s our one opportunity to get dressage where a couple of million people will see it. It was a funny thing, but it doesn’t matter how we got to this point. We’re on national television, and I don’t want to be some buffoon who makes a mockery of the sport. At the end of it, the producers said they thought I handled it perfectly. I just thought it was the right way to handle a moment we might not get again for another 50 years.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "The Day Colbert Learned To Piaffe" ran in the August 20, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

 

 
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