A Horse Is A Horse, Unless Of Course It's Ann Romney's Dressage Champ : It's All Politics Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare, and her rider qualified for the Olympics this weekend. The Romneys' involvement in dressage, often considered the snobbiest of the horse sports, has brought the event considerable attention of late — including mocking from Stephen Colbert.

A Horse Is A Horse, Unless Of Course It's Ann Romney's Dressage Champ

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A Romney will take part in this summer's Olympics, or at least a half Romney. This weekend, Rafalca, a horse co-owned by Ann Romney, won a spot on the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team.

Dressage. It's considered the ultimate test of communication between rider and horse and the most artistic of the equestrian sports. To the untrained eye, it looks like a kind of horse dancing.

We wanted to know more. And guess what, we didn't have to go very far to find someone to talk with about this sport. We just went upstairs. It turns out that our health care correspondent, Julie Rovner, has been competing at lower level dressage for more than two decades and she's currently doing so with her quarter horse, Impressive Star Man, aka Hopper. Hi, Julie.


SIEGEL: You're here to shed some light on what some people refer to as horse ballet. And, Julie, how do horse and rider actually compete in this sport?

ROVNER: Well, they're - it's a prescribed test. So, a horse and rider will enter the ring. There will be judges actually at several different places. And the horse does a set of movements.

SIEGEL: But this is different from jumping. Say, this is not about that at all.

ROVNER: That's right.

SIEGEL: This is turning left in a circle, turning right in a circle?

ROVNER: Yes. Although it's...

SIEGEL: Throw in a little mambo move.

ROVNER: It's more than that. These horses are doing really extraordinarily difficult movement. And it looks to the unpracticed eye like the rider is doing almost nothing. They're not allowed to talk to the horse. The movements on the rider's part are imperceptible. That's why the training is so exquisite.

I can tell you, as one who does it, it's really, really hard.

SIEGEL: But there is a kind of freestyle component to this?

ROVNER: That's right. There are three events, two actual tests where you do prescribed movements. Everyone...

SIEGEL: School figures.

ROVNER: Everyone will do the same movements, right. Like school figures and figure skating. The last one is a freestyle to music, as in figure skating, that everybody gets to go and then you get to sort of make up your own test, showing off what your horse does particularly well. If your horse does great cantor pirouettes, you'll have several cantor pirouettes. If your horse does the flying changes of lead, which is very exciting. It looks like the horse is skipping. You'll have several of those.

SIEGEL: This feels like a very 19th century kind of sport. What's its history?

ROVNER: It actually dates all the way back, really, to the Greeks. This started out as a military sport for military horses who needed to be obedient and maneuverable. That's - you know, basically, dressage is all about getting a horse to move with a rider on its back the way it moves without a rider on its back.

It began in the Olympics 100 years ago. This is the 100th anniversary of it, but only men - only military people - were allowed to ride until 1952. That's when the first women were permitted to ride in the equestrian events. And since then, women and men have competed on equal footing.

SIEGEL: And a medalist in Olympic dressage - it's the rider or it's the horse?

ROVNER: It's both. It's always been both.

SIEGEL: Now, which one gets the medal around the neck?

ROVNER: The rider gets the medal and the horse gets a ribbon, I believe.


SIEGEL: OK. Now, it's time to handicap the field for us since we know nothing about this sport. Who are the stars? Who's Ann Romney's horse up against?

ROVNER: Well, the Germans have dominated dressage, really, the way the U.S. used to dominate basketball. In recent years, though, the Dutch have come up. And, in fact, the individual gold medalist for the last three Olympics has been a Dutch rider, Anky van Grunsven. The Dutch have had another really breakout star, Edward Gal, who won the world championship two years ago, although he lost his horse. It got sold by his sponsor. But he apparently has two other horses. So, it's really the Germans and the Dutch who everybody will be watching.

SIEGEL: So we're not talking about a cheap sport here.

ROVNER: We are not talking about a cheap sport here. This is - at this level, it's hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. At my level, it's not quite that expensive. I don't make that much money. But, no, it is not a sport for the faint of pocketbook.


SIEGEL: Julie Rovner, thanks for introducing us to dressage.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: NPR health care correspondent and dressage devotee and competitor, Julie Rovner.



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