August 1, 2012 -- Most Americans associate the Olympics with swimming and gymnastics and young, agile bodies, but at the Romney house, all the attention goes to a horse named Rafalca ridden by 53-year-old Ebeling wearing a top hat and tails.
She's part-owned by Ann Romney. And the sport is dressage.
"There will be sobbing and crying."
That's how foremost dressage expert Kenneth Braddick describes what the Olympic competition will be like for the 20,000-plus attendees. Those watching will be "awash in tears," he added, when they hear the patriotic music each rider dances to, and even "hard bitten guys in the horse business are literally sobbing away."
Although it is celebrating its 100th year as an Olympic sport, dressage, a.k.a. horse ballet, was until recently relatively unknown in the U.S. Not anymore. Stephen Colbert named dressage the "sport of the summer." The equestrian discipline gained more attention that any of its enthusiasts could have anticipated when Rafalca, made the Olympics cut in June.
It's rider Jan Ebeling's, as well as Rafalca's, first Olympics. Ebeling and Romney co-own the German-born 15-year-old Oldenburg mare with another woman, Beth Meyer. Ebeling, a German native, became a U.S. citizen in 1998. He is not letting anything shake his focus—not the campaign, not Mitt Romney's overseas trip gaffes, not the media attention.
Braddick says Team USA may be an underdog compared to Germany and Britain for the team medal, but says that the individual contest is wide open.
Keeping the Focus Off Politics and On Dressage
Braddick, a former war correspondent for UPI who now runs Dressage News, is impressed with how well Ebeling is handling the pressure. Braddick says Ebeling texts Ann Romney and the other owner, telling them, "I don't want to hear any stress, any emotion. I don't want anything to break my focus." They did not speak Thursday before the performance.
"Having that visibility is really adding something to the sport, and does it affect me? No," Ebeling said in an NBC News video. "Once I get into my zone, I don't see anything, I don't hear anything. Everything is shut out."
Braddick says this year's Team USA is "without a doubt one of the most close-knit, protective-of-themselves group I've ever seen." "They've had a lock down and nobody gets to go and interfere with their training camp. And it's worked," he added.
Dressage: The How-To Guide
Dressage is a series of intricate, detailed movements performed by the horse. The signature move is the piaffe, where the horse trots in place. A good performance means no forward movement during each move. Any irregularities will be marked down as well as any lack of symmetry or balance. Judges look for regularity, stability, and the placement of the movements. The horse and rider should end each move where he or she started.
Like a gymnast coming off the high beam or vault slightly off balance, a score will be marked down for the same. Scores will be deducted from 10 as irregularities in performance show up.
With a rider dressed in a top hat and tails on its back, the horse, which weighs around 1,200 to 1,500 lbs, lifts up its front legs to trot in place. We are not talking about a slight and svelte gymnast. Viewers watching should keep an eye on the horse's hind quarters to see if the animal stays in place.
"Also look for the horse's top line, the outline, the top between the ears…the plane of the horse's face should be vertical to the ground," Jim Wofford, an American equestrian and former Olympian, told ABC News. "Variations and paces are determined by the length of the horse's step or stride."
It's a discipline that jumper riders, polo players and other equestrians are in awe of because of the intricate movements.
The dressage test, says Braddick, is "about seven minutes of these unbelievable movements… [It's] the perfect harmony of human and horse completely, both mentally and physically."
Ebeling agrees. He told NBC News he knows Rafalca's "weaknesses and her fears. I think she knows my fears and—so we are like a couple, like an old married couple."
On Thursday and Friday, 10 teams plus the individuals will compete in the Grand Prix level. The top seven teams will continue on to the Grand Prix Special, the next phase, on Aug. 7. Team USA is expected to continue on and it will be a huge disappointment if they do not, Braddick notes. The individuals will perform again on Aug. 9. There are going to be 50 combinations of horses and riders in 10 teams and then about 20 individual riders.
"Even on a bad day the U.S. should finish certainly in the top six as a team," Braddick said.
It's a long break for Rafalca, Ebeling, and their teammates and opponents between the two competitions. One of the longer ones in modern Olympic history Braddick says, pointing out there is a good and a bad side to the wait time.
"There's more time to fix whatever mistakes might have been or improve up on them, but the bad side is it's never happened this way before," Braddick said, noting the competition is usually over two days and the "huge gap" there means plenty of time for "head games" and "sitting around getting tense." And just as Rafalca and Ebeling possibly try to improve over the gap, their competitors will as well.
"The worst thing you can do in a sport is overthink and this time they have a lot of time to think," Braddick says.
So Who's Rafalca's Competition?
Braddick says the "biggest competition" for Rafalca, Ebeling, and Team USA is "pretty much anybody in the field particularly Great Britain, Germany, and Denmark."
He specifically points to Great Britain's Valegro and rider Charlotte Dujardin, and America's Ravel and rider Steffen Peters as well as some of the young riders on Austria's team.
Germany has won every team dressage Olympics from 1984 on and Britain has never won any medal of any kind in 100 years. But this year is different. Braddick puts his chances on Great Britain's winning gold, Germany's snagging silver. Then the United States, Denmark , Spain and Sweden will all battle for bronze. That's for the team victories. Braddick stresses the individual medal is wide open.
"The most exciting thing is this is totally wide open, completely wide open," Braddick said. "It's not like you have Michael Phelps and the rest of the world. You have the rest of the world go battle it out."
In 2009, Ebeling and Rafalca had a poor performance at the 2009 Dressage World Cup in Las Vegas. Rafalca got spooked, but Braddick says Ebeling got "sports psychology help" for Rafalca, which has helped. Ebeling, along with his wife Amy, rides and trains at his facility, The Acres in Moorpark, California. It's also where he often trains Ann Romney, an amateur dressage rider.
Dressage's Most Famous Fan
The presumptive GOP nominee's wife has been vocal throughout the campaign about her love of riding and how it's helped relieve her of some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 1998.
In June at a therapeutic horse riding facility in Ocala, Romney explained why it helps, saying the "four step gait" of the horse mimics the crawling of a baby and is why it helps build core strength in patients weakened from MS.
Her husband jokes that her love of horses sometimes competes with the attention she pays to him. One Christmas their five sons gave him a box with the words, "Wear this and Mom will pay more attention to you" written on it. It was a horse mask.
They Get There How? And Veepstakes Watchers Turn to Dressage Ebeling has taken to Twitter to share details of his life with Rafalca while they prepare for the competition, everything from making vegetarian risotto for Team USA to the interesting way his now-famous horse got to London (Rafalca ate watermelons on the way).
"@JanEbeling @USEquestrian team packed up and horses are shipping out tonight on 0300 Fedex flight to London! Safe travels @RafalcaRomney#TeamUSA"
They have been flying horses since 1956, but the carriers, whether it be FedEx or another airline, does change.
Ann Romney will be on hand for all of Ebeling and Rafalca's performances for as long as they are competing. And as long as Mrs. Romney is in England, there is little chance the campaign will reveal their vice presidential pick. The image of Ann and Mitt Romney alongside his new number two, their spouse, and their family is a must-have photograph. And right now Ann only has eyes for Rafalca.
High Pricetag, Big Laughs
There's been some mild ridicule and teasing around Rafalca, most notably the great expense the sport costs. Both care and cost comes with a high price tag. Dressage horses cost in the six and seven figures, and that's before care and housing. In 2010, the Romneys reported a $77,000 loss on their tax returns. Ebeling has said he welcomes the media scrutiny of the sport because it shows it's not just for the extremely wealthy. There's also been humor. The entire team got a kick out of Colbert's naming dressage the "sport of the summer," and Ebeling enjoys it as well and says he thinks the man running for president finds it just as funny.
"These are tough times and we have to laugh," Ebeling told NBC News. "Knowing Mitt, he's probably the one who laughs the most."