Rafalca’s Horse Sense: What Dressage Can Teach Mitt Romney About Politics

If the Republican presidental candidate had watched his wife's horse Rafalca going through her paces in the dressage competition, he'd have acquired valuable wisdom.

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David Goldman / AP

Jan Ebeling of the U.S. rides Rafalca in the equestrian dressage competition at the London 2012 Summer Olympics on Aug. 2, 2012. Rafalca is co-owned by Ann Romney, the wife of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney‘s political nemesis is called Rafalca. She wears her black ponytail long and luxuriant, sports an immaculate brown coat and, despite being only 15 and born in Germany, far from U.S. soil, has already entered this fall’s U.S. presidential horse race. The Oldenburg mare, owned in part by Romney’s wife Ann, qualified for the Olympics in June.

As a living, breathing, clippety-cloppeting, velvet-nosed and liquid-eyed avatar of Romney’s extreme wealth, she’s given her uncle Mitt the kind of handicap his advisers fear might make his path to the White House heavy going. That may be why the Republican presidential hopeful betrays scant interest in his wife’s four-legged protégé. During Romney’s accident-prone sojourn in London in late July, he told NBC‘s Brian Williams that he didn’t even know when Rafalca would be appearing at the Games — “I have to tell you,” he said, “this is Ann’s sport.” And he left the U.K. the morning after the Games opened, missing by six days Rafalca’s Aug. 2 Olympic debut in the grand prix dressage test; she competed both for individual glory and as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, scoring 70.243 and finishing in 13th place out of 25 after the first of two days of such tests.

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Rafalca did make a few key errors. She seemed to lack a little oomph in the hindquarters; she fumbled a move known as a flying change, in which the horse swaps her lead leg midcanter. But Ann Romney, with justification, declared the steed she sponsors “consistent and elegant. She did not disappoint. She thrilled me to death.”

Consistency and elegance. Not disappointing. Thrilling someone to death. How many pols dream of inspiring such responses in voters? That’s why, among the mistakes Romney committed on his foreign tour, distancing himself from Rafalca may be the most serious. (Insulting Britons in the NBC interview by calling into question London’s readiness to host the Olympics surely still rankles. The British daily the Guardian hailed Rafalca’s performance with the following headline: “Ann Romney’s Horse Fails to Win Dressage but Avoids Offending British.”) Because if the former Massachusetts governor had watched Rafalca going through her paces in London, he’d have acquired valuable wisdom. There’s much that the political arena could learn from the equestrian one, especially from dressage.

Patience is a virtue exemplified by the sport, says Claudia Fassaert. The Belgian dressage star, riding Donnerfee, another Oldenburg mare, scored 71.793 to achieve seventh place. That means that, unlike Rafalca and her rider Jan Ebeling, Fassaert and Donnerfee have a good chance of ending the second day, Aug. 3, in the top 11 and qualifying for the next phase of the individual competition. The performances of the rest of the Belgian and U.S. teams will determine whether either makes it into the top seven and qualifies for the next phase of team competition.

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Fassaert, 42, has been perfecting her technique since she was 16 and has been working with Donnerfee for eight years. Strolling outside the arena after her impressive performance, she readily agrees that dressage provides a template for good politics, “especially the balance between doing what you want and not overdoing it, because if you overdo things you will ruin everything.” She says what is important is trust and relationship building. You can see it when a rider is trying to force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to, she adds: “The beauty gets out of it” when that happens. This is horse ballet, a display of creativity and technique, in which horse and rider aim to work in perfect harmony, trotting, pirouetting, smoothly transitioning from one gait to another. The horses arch their necks, prance, dance. Persuasion, not coercion; good communication; a sense of direction; accuracy; honesty: these are the bedrocks of dressage. Reining back, in a good way, is marked high.

It costs a lot to develop and maintain a great dressage horse, but in other respects, dressage is an equal-opportunity sport. Male and female riders, geldings, stallions and mares all compete on the same level. Veterans can hold their own against much younger participants, as seen with Japanese rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who, at 71, is the oldest Olympian to fight for a medal in London. Atop a gorgeous chestnut mare called Whisper, he scored 68.739 and ended the day in a respectable 17th place.

One mount — a gelding called Capital — was disqualified after exhibiting histrionics that may have been provoked by a sudden torrential downpour. As Capital failed, drenched spectators sympathized. The judges showed no mercy. Dressage is about avoiding mistakes where possible and handling them well when they happen. At the top of the table are two Britons, Carl Hester on Uthopia and his teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris, who displayed exactly these skills, leaving Britain and its riders in pole position to win the individual and team medals.

Rafalca, by contrast, is far from certain to make it through to the next rounds, on Aug. 7 and Aug. 9. Mitt Romney’s advisers may have breathed a sigh of relief at the thought that their boy wouldn’t be coming under pressure to return to London and risk being photographed next to his wife’s pricey hobby horse. Such a reaction would be, quite frankly, manure. No politician should resist the opportunity to acquire a bit of horse sense, and London 2012’s equestrian arena is the place to do just that.

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