Jan Ebeling on his Olympic Journey With Rafalca, What USA Needs Now

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Rafalca performing with Jan Ebeling at the Olympics in London. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Jan Ebeling dealt with months of almost unrelenting pressure in riding Rafalca, the mare in which prospective American First Lady Ann Romney is an owner without affecting peformance at the Olympics last month, but thinks the United States has “missed the boat” in producing the horses that are competitive enough to make the medals podium.

“We have to catch up in America,” he said in reflecting on riding at the London Games for his first U.S. Olympic team. “We don’t have the horse flesh that is needed to get the kind of scores we saw in the Olympics. I hope this is going to change. The smart thing is to buy younger horses and train them up.”

Jan, 53, a German migrant who has lived in the U.S.A more than half his lifetime and is based in Moorpark, California, with his wife, Amy, and soccer-playing son, Ben, was one of three combinations on the U.S. team. The other two were Tina Konyot of Palm City, Florida, and Calecto V and Steffen Peters of San Diego, California, and Ravel.

The media attention was intense from specialized equestrian media to the largest newspapers, magazines, television networks around the world plus Washington-based political Internet sites, some of whom made it clear their goal was to skewer the wife of the Republican presidential candidate for being involved in an “elitist” sport for the wealthy.

The scrutiny began in earnest when Jan took the 15-year-old Oldenburg mare (Argentinius x Raton x Rubinstein) to the Netherlands in April for their third World Cup Final, the others being Las Vegas in 2009 and Leipzig, Germany in 2011.

It reached new heights in June during the U.S. Olympic selection trials when comedy networks, late night TV talk show hosts and current affairs commentators of various political stripes found an audience in millions of American homes for jokes about the ballerina-like movements of dressage horses and the quirky outfits of the riders.

Media focus remained unrelenting when the U.S. squad moved to England ahead of the Games. It did not ease up until the U.S. finished sixth in the team competition and Jan and Rafalca did not move on to the individual medal competition.

As for the Oympics, though, Jan told dressage-news.com, “everything about it was big, huge, very overwhelming from all the meetings you go through to prepare you, for how you are expected to act, what to expect from media. There was so much information I cannot even rememeber it all.”

Much of it, though, he had dealt with well ahead of time, from working with a sport psychologist two years earlier to not watching or listening to the news on TV, radio or Internet.

And the so-called “three Amigos” of Ann Romney, Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling kept communication with Jan to occasional text messages, maintaining support while keeping distance from preparations and competition. The photos, socializing and relaxing came after the competition.

The "three Amigos" of Beth Meyer, Amy Ebeling and Ann Romney cheering on their horse Rafalca ridden by Jan Ebeling at the Olympics in London. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I think it was a really good way of handling a situation that was very stressful,” he said.

“There was a lot of pressure, certainly a lot of reporters. In a way it’s kind of nice to be in the limelight, but in other ways it’s kind of distracting. I stopped answering the phone. I needed to focus. I don’t think the pressure got to us.”

During the competition, “I felt I was on top of my game. I don’t think she could have gone any better.

Now, Rafalca is enjoying a “very well deserved vacation” with the future competition schedule uncertain. The Florida circuit next winter may be in the cards but a fourth World Cup Final effort unlikely.

The U.S., he said, has to look to the future and that means developing horses from youngsters to the top of the sport.

“We have the riders who have the technical know-how to make horses. We have done it before and we need to find those quality young horses again. It takes a lot of work.

“Beyond the horses we have to have the commitment of going to Europe, of making that a very big part of getting better in the sport. It’s not good enough that the judges in Europe come here. We need to be in the same sand box with the best riders in Europe.”

Jan cited Great Britain’s financial commitment as improving horse sports that led to team gold medals in both dressage–their first medal since dressage first began in the Olympics a century ago–and jumping, individual dressage gold and bronze as well as evening team silver.

Current U.S. financial aid programs are “certainly helpful but are a drop in the bucket and need to be done on a much larger scale. We have to be little bit craftier to come up with some ideas and money how we can help our athletes go to Europe.

“We need the horses and better funding on a much wider scale than we have.

“What we have is nice but it is not enough.”

Jan Ebeing and Rafalca at the Olympics in London. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com