Ann Romney first took an interest in the sport of dressage in the late 1990s when she began struggling with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and found that riding horses helped her combat their effects. Within a few years, she began taking instruction in dressage from Ebeling, who operates a ranch called The Acres in Moorpark, a rural community set among orange groves about an hour north of Los Angeles. She became such a regular visitor at The Acres that she has leased a guest house on the property.
She told "Nightline"'s Cynthia McFadden in an interview that, in helping her combat her illness, the horses were "magic."
"The biggest magic of all," she said. "I love horses."
In the ensuing years, her involvement in the sport moved well beyond her own riding. Mrs. Romney and three partners (including Ebeling's wife Amy) formed a corporation, Rob Rom Enterprises, Inc., that owns horses in various stages of competition. The Romneys' share of the financial burden is unclear, though there are hints in Mitt Romney's tax and disclosure documents that suggest it is significant. Romney's 2010 tax return indicates that Rob Rom Enterprises incurred more than $77,000 in losses that year. Gov. Romney's 2010 financial disclosure form lists the Romney stake in Rob Rom at between $250,000 and $500,000. The Romneys also reported loaning between $250,000 and $500,000 to The Acres, through The Acres' ownership group, ACR Enterprises.
ACR Enterprises also has served as a broker for the purchase and sale of Mrs. Romney's horses. In one instance, she was named in a lawsuit by an unsatisfied buyer -- a woman who paid ACR Enterprises $125,000 for one of Romney's dressage horses that allegedly turned up lame. (Campaign officials said Romney disputed that claim, arguing the horse in question was "not worthless or lame -- the horse is and was a beautiful, top-notch horse.") Romney was eventually dropped from the suit, which was settled out of court. During a deposition, Mrs. Romney described her ambitions for Ebeling, with whom she has a signed sponsorship agreement.
Her sponsorship, she said, "gives Jan an opportunity to present my horses at upper level dressage." Asked if she hoped for his success in international competition, she replied, "It's always the hope."
Outsiders from both parties believe her involvement in the sport has created a challenge for Romney's campaign staff, which already spent a long Republican primary season grappling with questions about whether the former Massachusetts governor can, despite his immense personal fortune, understand the struggles that face most Americans.
"Dressage sounds like a very upper class activity, and I think the campaign doesn't want to do anything to remind people that he lives a life very different than most in this country," said Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign consultant who at times faced a similar challenge when helping advise Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president. The image of Kerry windsurfing became an enduring problem for Kerry during that contest.
The lifestyle and "relatibility" issue has surfaced repeatedly during this campaign cycle. There was Romney's infamous "$10,000 bet," offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate, his off-the-cuff remark about being friends with NASCAR team owners; and, as ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer asked the couple about earlier this week, his plans to include a mechanical lift in the garage of his new La Jolla home, to fit more cars inside.
"We asked for questions online at Yahoo and … a number of them came in basically asking are you too rich to relate?" Sawyer asked the Romneys.
"You know, we don't divide America based upon success and wealth and other dimensions of that nature," Gov. Romney responded. "This is a campaign about getting a president that can get America on track again, make sure our kids have a bright future and we stop spending money we don't have. But I know that there will be some who try to make about -- make it about anything else but that."