The Romneys' Dancing Horse Competes Without Them

Couple skips dressage World Cup, avoids potential image problem.

ByABC News
April 18, 2012, 10:34 AM

April 18, 2012 — -- The World Cup finals for the elite sport of dancing horses, known as dressage, opened today in the Netherlands without the presence of two of its most prominent wealthy devotees, Mitt and Ann Romney. The Romneys' horse, Rafalca, will compete, however, performing to music personally selected by the Republican presidential candidate.

In the midst of her husband's race for president, Ann Romney has quietly climbed to the upper ranks of the equestrian sport of dressage -- not as a rider but as an owner and financial sponsor of a horse-and-rider team from California.

As Mrs. Romney has assumed a higher profile on the campaign trail in recent weeks, her devotion to dressage has garnered little attention, and that appears to be by design. Romney campaign officials told ABC News that Mrs. Romney will not fly to the Dutch town of 's-Hertogenbosch this week to watch Rafalca and the rider she sponsors, Jan Ebeling, represent the United States in the freestyle dressage World Cup Finals. Until recently, her presence at such an elite event would have been automatic -- followers of the sport describe her as a fixture in the stands on the global dressage circuit, and in past years she brought her husband Mitt Romney along with her.

While the rigors of the campaign trail are likely a major impediment this year, political analysts told ABC News another, more important factor may be behind the decision to downplay discussion of her pricey hobby: How it looks.

The rarefied sport of dressage is a sort of classical equestrian dance competition that comes with enormous expenses and rarely involves prize money. It is a sport of the rich and famous, populated with relatives of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Bruce Springsteen, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. Sponsors of world class teams shoulder an array of burdens that go well beyond buying the horses (The Romneys have owned, by some estimates, eight dressage horses, which can carry a six-figure price tag). The sponsors typically pay vet bills, insurance, help support the staffs that care for the animals, and help pay enormous transportation costs that come when horses and riders are shuttled to major competitions in Europe and around the U.S.

"It runs thousands of dollars a month to maintain," said Kenneth J. Braddick, a dressage enthusiast who publishes a website with news about the sport. "They have pretty much everything -- a farrier, a chiropractor, a vet, a masseuse for the horses. Just like any professional athlete at that level. That kind of infrastructure is massively expensive."

"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."