Jan Ebeling & Rafalca Training in “Bubble” Away from Distractions of Politics, Media

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Jan Ebeling and Raflca. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com


LONDON, July 21–Rafalca, the horse that has become a pop icon because she is part-owned by Ann Romney, a prospective First Lady of the United States, has been brought to peak form by her rider Jan Ebeling, in a “bubble” isolated from a political controversy that swirled around the pair back home.

“I’m not even watching the news,” Jan told dressage-news.com which did not mention the nationally televised advertisements that featured Jan and Rafalca performing a dressage ride that was used to attack Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, husband of Ann. The equine partnership was used to charge the candidate with “dancing around the issues.”

“I don’t want to know what’s going on in the news,” he said from Layham Hall, a world class dressage center located in rural Suffolk, England, where the American dressage squad is based about 40 minutes from London’s Olympic Park.

He said he’s happy to be “in the bubble” that has shielded him and the American team from outside pressures.

“It’s really important not to be sideswept by all the media attention, not to get caught up in it.

“I’m just focusing on my riding. It’s really very private and closed here. All the media want to come and view the training sessions and conduct interviews. The TV cameras would drive me crazy and be a distraction for everyone.

“My job is to get Rafalca and myself to be the best we can so we perform our best for the team.”

Aside from Jan, the three-member team comprises three-time Olympian Steffen Peters of San Diego, California, and Ravel and Tina Konyot of Palm City, Florida, and Calecto V with Adrienne Lyle of Ketchum, Idaho, and Wizard entered as an individual combination.

This is the first Olympics for the 53-year-old Jan, who was born in Germany and trained in German classical methods before migrating to the United States half a lifetime ago and settling in Moorpark, California, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Rafalca is a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare (Argentinius x Ratine – Rubinstein) owned by three partners, Ann Romney, Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling, Jan’s wife.

The pair have competed at international Grand Prix level on both sides of the Atlantic since 2007 and have represented the United States in three World Cup Finals, in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

The connection to Ann Romney began when she took lessons from Jan, a soft-spoken and unassuming father of a soccer-playing 12-year-old boy, Ben, as therapy for multiple sclerosis that had become so crippling she sometimes could not get out of bed. So helpful was the riding for her health that Ann became a partner in the group that would help Jan achieve his goals of representing his adopted home on the world’s biggest sport stage, the Olympics.

Although dressage is this year celebrating 100 years as an Olympic sport, one of its quaint traditions of top hats and tail coats for the riders and the link to the wealthy Romney family made it the butt of jokes on America’s late night television talk shows, TV comedy sketches and the target of populist politicians, although dressage training is the foundation for many equestrian disciplines.

The latest controversy blew up this week when the Democratic National Committee supporting President Barack Obama ran advertisements on American television showing Jan and Rafalca performing dressage with the message that Mitt Romney was dancing around the issues.

An upset Ann Romney responded in a TV appearance. And there appeared to be a backlash from the public in general to using the horse and rider in a political campaign less than two weeks before the start of the Games in London.

Within hours, the ads were pulled with an official apology that, “Our use of the Romneys’ dressage horse was not meant to offend Mrs. Romney in any way, and we regret it if it did.”

Workers’ Voice, a political action committee run by organized labor groups announced that it would not run Rafalca ads that had been prepared to support President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Jan Ebeling and Rafalca joining in fans reaction to a television comedy spoof of dressage. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

In Europe, where dressage is a major sport and the media is not consumed by America’s overheated political campaign, mainstream newspapers, magazines and television have featured Jan and Rafalca and the ties to the Romneys in overhwelmingly positive reports.

Most European nations spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer and lottery funds every year supporting sports, unlike the United States where funding is from personal and corporate sources. Great Britain’s dressage program, for example, has gone from never winning an Olympic medal to become a serious contender for the gold medal at this year’s London Games, due in part to substantial financial support from the country’s lottery system.

Jan, however, is remaining totally under the radar along with his team mates, providing regular text updates to Rafalca’s owners but no personal phone calls.

“My horse is doing so great,” he said, “I’m absolutely thrilled. She’s peaking right now.”

Years of training with Wolfram Wittig, one of the Germany’s top coaches, and more recently California-based Christine Traurig are paying off.

Since arriving in Britain almost two weeks ago, Anne Gribbons, the U.S. team coach, has been working with the pair and Christine will join the squad next week as the riders prepare to move into the Olympic Park and the horses into Greenwich Park, the equestrian venue with a spectacular view of the London skyline. Wolfram is coaching Austria’s Victoria Max-Theurer and Augustin OLD at the Olympics.

“I think what I’ve done in the past few years is really paying off. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the little details. We have figured out our routines–what to do a week before a major competition, a month before, two months before.

“Rafalca’s doing great. She’s happy, she’s eating, looks great, is all muscled up.”

Jan said “I’m really lucky” to be able to spend all this time on his one horse, training, trail riding in the countryside around Layham Hall, created by American Linda Keenan, watching videos of rides, talking about what can be improved in preparation for the dressage team competition that starts Aug. 2.

“To be able to spend this much time on one horse is just great,” he said, “the horse is loving it, getting so much attention.

“There certainly is stress, but it’s the kind of pressure that makes you look forward to what you’re doing, that gets you pumped up.

“The whole environment of being here is realy something else, fantastic.”

The “bubble” has not excluded all outside influences.

The U.S. team accepted an invitation to watch the Brazilian gymnastics team in open training that ended up with all the athletes wishing each other well.

As the team prepares to move to London next Friday for the Olympics opening ceremony and meet up with their horses again in the competition venue at Greenwich Park, how is he handling the magnitude of the event riding in front of 23,000 people?

“It’s a show coming up,” he said, reflecting the sport psychology training he has undergone.

“It’s another sand box.

“There’s certainly more anxiety when you are getting ready for something like this. It’s all in a good way that adds to performance.”