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January 3, 2008

Dressage Makes Ann Romney's Soul Sing

Photo by Terri Miller/www.terrimiller.com.

Every adult amateur knows how tough it can be to fit riding into a busy lifestyle. But the demands of Ann Romney’s schedule would make her fellow competitors’ collective heads spin.

She’s raised five boys, doted after 11 grandchildren, managed charity programs at both state and national levels and played an increasingly active role in her husband Mitt Romney three—first Senate, then gubernatorial and now presidential—political campaigns.

Along the way she’s beaten back multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that, nine years ago, left her bed-ridden and in despair.

In the rarefied world of upper-level dressage, Romney has achieved goals many amateurs only dream of. Riding her beloved Baron, a 19-year-old, Austrian Warmblood gelding, and coached by her long-time trainer and friend Jan Ebeling, Romney earned her U.S. Dressage Federation silver and gold medals in 2006. That same year, she was the New England Dressage Association Adult Amateur Champion at Grand Prix level, on a score of 63.33 percent.
 
“I’m just like any other crazy horse person,” she said. “You find a way to make the time to ride. If I have to get up at 5 a.m. to fly to California and then ride until 10 p.m. at night, because that’ll be my only chance to ride for a month, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Even the intense demands of her husband’s presidential campaign haven’t kept Ann out of the saddle. “I laid down the law after Mitt announced that, I’d have to ride once a week, or else,” she explained. “The crazy breakneck pace of my life is not a natural rhythm for me. It’s the soothing rhythm of horses and riding that sings to my soul.”

Life Changes On The Road To Utah

Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Ann had ridden as a girl, “in a backyard, for-fun sort of way,” she recalled. As a young teen, she saw the Lipizzaner stallions perform on tour, an experience she would never forget.

“I knew there was some magical, special connection between horse and rider,” she explained.

But marriage, motherhood, and the busy lifestyle prompted by Mitt’s burgeoning business career in Boston, Mass., left not a moment free for riding.

Finally, in 1998, when her children were older, Ann found time to take two riding lessons at a local stable near her Belmont, Mass., home, the image of those white stallions still firmly implanted in her psyche.

“I thought, ‘I’m too old to jump now, so why don’t I learn to ride like that?’ ” Ann recalled. “I really thought that I’d get it in a couple of lessons. My goodness, I couldn’t even learn my diagonals—I had to learn to ride all over again.”

Then suddenly, and dramatically, Ann’s life changed.

Mitt accepted the position as CEO for the Salt Lake City Olympics, necessitating a temporary move to Utah. Then one fall morning, Ann woke up with numbness on her right side and suffered exhaustion, symptoms that were quickly diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

“I had raised five boys, juggled everything at once, and suddenly I couldn’t take care of myself,” Ann remembered. “It was devastating.”

Her condition worsened rapidly; she found herself in a hospital and began intravenous steroid treatment, which ultimately stalled the progression of her disease. Ann also used alternative therapies—reflexology, acupuncture, yoga and meditation—to manage her condition.

She insisted upon following Mitt to Salt Lake City in the spring of 1999 and, fearing that her disease might soon incapacitate her, began riding again. To her and her doctors’ amazement, she discovered that
“riding was the best possible physical and emotional therapy for me.”

“Riding exhilarated me; it gave me a joy and a purpose. It jump-started my healing,” Ann said. “When I was so fatigued that I couldn’t move, the excitement of going to the barn and getting my foot in the stirrup would make me crawl out of bed.”

Dressage As Medicine

Seeking out dressage training, Ann signed on with Margo Gogan in Salt Lake City. “Margo was so patient with me,” Romney recounted. “I’d trot around the ring once, then take a break and try again. The riding helped me gain back core strength and balance.”

Gogan routinely participated in Utah-based clinics, given by renowned dressage trainer Ebeling. Ann routinely observed these clinics, captivated by what she saw.

“I would watch Margo and Jan ride and think, ‘I want to do that myself,’ ” Romney recalled. “My mind was much more educated than my body. But I thought, ‘Maybe if I can keep pushing, I can get there.’ ”

Soon Ann was riding in Ebeling’s clinics too; then she and Gogan started traveling to Ebeling’s farm, The Acres, in Moorpark, Calif., for further training. Over time Ann formed a training bond and a strong friendship with Jan and his wife, Amy.

“She was a teacher’s dream,” Ebeling recalled of his early days coaching Ann. “She was so determined to ride and do it correctly. She never made an excuse. She always said, ‘I think I can do it, let me try one more time.’

“She was easily fatigued back then, so she’d have to quit early,” Ebeling continued. “But then she’d stick around just watching, talking about and absorbing everything she could possibly learn about dressage.”

By 2000, Ann was competing at first level on borrowed horses; by the next year, she reached fourth level. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, skipping levels the way I did,” she admitted. “But I was just so impatient.”

That year Gogan and Ebeling traveled to Europe and found Ann the perfect schoolmaster and the equine love of her life—Baron, then 12. Ann’s meteoric rise through the dressage ranks had everything to do with the partnership she forged with the horse, whom she calls “My best friend, my wonderful companion, my best boy.”

Ann competed Baron successfully at fourth level in 2001, capping off her season with the reserve fourth level adult amateur championship at the ABIC/USDF Region 5 Championships. They moved up to Prix St. Georges in December 2001.

“I was so excited to put on a shadbelly,” she recalled. “I remember riding up center line for Axel Steiner and wondering if he thought, ‘What is she doing in my ring?’ ”

Reaching the FEI levels, although a huge accomplishment for Ann, also made her realize how much work lay in front of her.

“That’s where the rubber hit the road,” she said. “I was frustrated. I pushed myself beyond my ability level, and I knew that I didn’t really know how to put a horse together.”

Sights Set On Grand Prix

After the success of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002, Ann returned home to Massachusetts, where her husband campaigned successfully and was elected Governor in November.

Although she would still fly to California to work with Ebeling, she also began working with Boston dressage trainer Maria Harrington. For the next two years, Ann went back to basics.

“Maria took my position apart, then put it back together again,” Ann said. “I learned to sit correctly, improved the effectiveness of my aids and finally began to understand what a true connection with my horse was all about.”

Competing in New England from 2003-2005, her Prix St. Georges scores on Baron regularly hit the mid 60s, and she posted a personal best Intermediaire I score of 64.37 percent at the Connecticut Dressage Association spring competition in June 2005.

One final challenge remained for Ann—the Grand Prix ring. “I knew it would take blood, sweat and tears to get me there, but Baron was getting older and people were already talking about Mitt as a presidential contender for ’08,” she said. “ I knew it was now or never.”

Ann moved her horses back to Ebeling’s California farm and committed to flying out to train with him as much as her schedule allowed. Competing in several California shows during the spring of 2006, she fulfilled her dream of competing at Grand Prix.

“I was a little overwhelmed the first time out at the new level [scoring 51.66%] but then I thought, ‘OK, next time I’m just going to go out there and ride,’ ” she recounted.

Her score jumped to 64.58 percent in only her second Grand Prix attempt with Baron at Dressage at White Birch (Calif.) in March 2006.

Ann remembered being thrilled when she looked up after one test and saw one of her own equestrian idols—Debbie McDonald—applauding her.

She Supports Others

Ann put her competitive riding on hold when Mitt’s presidential bid began in earnest in late 2006. Her next potential Grand Prix star—Sandrina—will wait in the wings until her life settles. For now her horses remain at Ebeling’s farm—all except Baron, that is—and she flies out to ride whenever her schedule allows.

“She recharges, both mentally and physically, when she comes out here,” said Ebeling. “She rides, spends time with the horses and just hangs out at the barn. She loves the whole scene.”

“Ann supports everybody in her life in everything that they do; she is so generous,” said Amy Ebeling. “She’s been a tremendous inspiration to me. She’s shown me that you can balance your life, take care of everyone else and still make room for your own passions and goals. We made her a promise that if Mitt decided to run, we would look after her horses, so she wouldn’t have to worry.”

Over the years Ann has bought other horses with Ebeling and has remained a staunch supporter of his flourishing career. In 2003, Ebeling qualified for the Pan American Games aboard Liberte, one of Ann’s horses, although he eventually competed there as the highest-placed member of the U.S. gold-medal team, finishing an individual fifth on the stallion Feleciano.

“I had to choose between the two horses, and the decision came down to the last possible moment. Not one time did Ann ever—not even a hint—urge me to take her horse instead,” Ebeling recalled.

Ann currently owns one of Ebeling’s top horses—Sandrina, a 10-year-old, Oldenburg mare. She also co-owns Ebeling’s hope for the 2008 Olympics, the 11-year-old Oldenburg mare Rafalca, with Amy Ebeling and two other partners.

“I’m 58, and there’s no way I’m going to compete at the elite level,” said Ann. “But I enjoy being closely associated with this level of the sport. I’m grateful to Jan and all the help he’s given me.”

Ann warms up Sandrina for Jan when she visits the Ebelings, but she won’t do anything more than walk Rafalca. “I don’t want to mess this one up,” she quipped.

Life On The Campaign Trail

After years in the public spotlight, Ann is used to the media’s constant presence in her life. But trying to explain dressage to journalists has not been easy, and Ann can only laugh at some of the inaccuracies that have found their way into print.

“Let’s see, one article had me buying and selling horses for profit,” Ann remarked. “Another time, I read about how I won the gold medal for the United States—I sure enjoyed that! Ninety percent of whatever I say about horses gets reported wrong, but by now I just take it with a grain of salt.”

The horses do provide interesting fodder for the campaign tour, however. At a Mitt Romney event last June in Dubuque, Iowa, Ann stumbled as she stepped off  the stage she shared with her husband. She recovered quickly and told reporters that she was bucked off a horse earlier in the week and this was nothing compared to that.

However hectic Ann’s life gets, Baron is never far away. “Baron goes wherever I am,” she explained. “Even if that means he’s only a trail horse in New Hampshire [where the Romneys have a summer home] for now.”

Once in a rare while, Mitt will steal away from the campaign and join her for a trail ride on one of three Missouri Fox Trotters she keeps for guests to ride. She hopes her grandchildren may take up riding someday too.
 
In May of 2007, Ann’s entire family—all of the kids and grandchildren—met in California for the first presidential debate at the Reagan library. Afterwards they traveled to Ebeling’s farm to watch her ride.

“Everyone in her family adores her, and they all cheered her on,” Amy said. “It was a very special moment to see Ann share her love for her horses with her entire family.”

And although duty most often dictates Ann’s schedule, she has already carved out one day on the ’08 calendar—the opening day of the Beijing Olympics.

“If Jan goes up the centerline in the Olympics on Rafalca, you had better believe I will be there, no matter what I have to do to make it happen,” she explained.

Annie Eldridge

 
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