Rafalca Calls An End to An Amazing Career as Jetsetting Celebrity–A Retrospective

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Jan Ebeling and Rafalca at what is likely to be their last competition, the US championships. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jan Ebeling and Rafalca at what is likely to be their last competition, the US championships. © 2014 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

AACHEN, Germany, July 13, 2014–Rafalca’s career as an international jetsetter that took her partner Jan Ebeling to the pinnacle of the sport at the Olympic Games in the glaring spotlight reserved for celebrities came to a virtual end Sunday when the 17-year-old mare was withdrawn from seeking a place on the American team at the world championships next month.

“An incredible journey,” was the way the 55-year-old Jan descrbed the Oldenburg mare he competed from 2006 until the United States championships last month where they placed third. Neither he nor the owners said specifically Rafalca would be retired, but Jan said he expects some sort of ceremony in California for fans to say farewell.

With complete agreement of the ownership group known as “The Three Amigos”–Beth Meyer, Ann Romney, wife of the 2012 Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States, and Amy Ebeling, Jan’s wife–the German-born rider felt it was time for Rafalca to rest on her laurels.

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
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’m very disappointed,” said Jan, of Moorpark, California, who felt what others including the judges at the national championships and Robert Dover, his longtime friend and now official leader of America’s high performance dressage, saw as some of Rafalca’s best rides.

“On the other hand, it has always been my goal to make sure we don’t compete until we know we should not. One of the most difficult steps for a rider, especially someone like me who is a pretty competitive person, is figuring out when things feel good to quit for the sake of the horse.”

After coming to Europe following the championshps in Gladstone, New Jersey Jan took every precaution to keep Rafalca fit and comfortable.

The horse passed the veterinary check at Fritzens, Austria the first of two shows that were required to select two combinations for the U.S. team at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France next month. Steffen Peters and Legolas and Laura Graves and Verdades had won two of four team spots by their placings in Gladstone.

“In Fritzens, I knew she wasn’t right,” Jan told dressage-news.com. “We took it easy and she was starting to feel better but not so I’d feel comfortable, especially in a competition like Aachen, the second mandatory outing. I just didn’t feel comfortable.

“I just had to make a choice.”

The year that Jan began competing Rafalca was 2006 at small tour after she was bought in Germany. She was moved up to international Grand Prix at the Pebble Beach, California CDI in July 2007.

Over the next seven years–an extraordinary length of time for a horse to be competitive at Grand Prix–Jan and Rafalca (Argentinius x Rubinstein) started 68 times at Grand Prix, including the storied premier events in the world–on the American Nations Cup team that won bronze at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany in 2013, World Cup Finals in Las Vegas in 2009, Leipzig, Germany in 2011 and ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands in 2012. Placing third in the 2012 and 2014 United States championships.

Jan Ebelong on Rafalca enjoying applause from the crowd at the Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany in 2013. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jan Ebelong on Rafalca enjoying applause from the crowd at the Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany in 2013. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The Olympics in 2012 brought fame to Rafalca and an audience way beyond the dressage community.

She became a staple of American television late night television, a feature of monologues by top comedians, front page reports in major mainstream newspapers and magazines. Most of it was straightforward or good natured fun poked at the pecularities of dressage. A tiny handful such as the influential New York Times painted a picture of elitism to score political points. Even the White House weighed in to try to paste a label of a sport reserved for the wealthy but quickly were forced to reverse their political jibe.

A celebrity was created, not by public relations spinmeisters but because of curiosity about a sport pursued by a high profile connections who had taken up dressage as therapy.

The dressage community in the United States helped by reacting in good humor, just glad of the exposure for a sport that rarely makes it to the back pages of newspapers in America and was suddenly in the spotlight thanks to Rafalca.

Equestrian journalists at the World Cup Final in the Netherlands a few months before the Olympics sought interviews with Jan at such a pace he had to limit them so he would have time to prepare Rafalca for competition.

The Olympics in London were a whole other story.

Jan Ebeling and Rafalca, one of the most famous dressage combinations in world because of the horse's connections. Ann Romney, wife of U.S. presidential candidate, a one-third owner, is expected to watch the team competition starting Thursday though her husband has a political campaign appearance scheduled at home. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jan Ebeling and Rafalca, one of the most famous dressage combinations in the world because of the horse’s connections. Ann Romney, wife of U.S. presidential candidate as an owner.  © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Jan and Rafalca were shielded from exposure to a probing global media.

So intense was the interest during the Olympics, this correspondent devoted hours every day to answering questions about Rafalca from television networks, newspapers and magazines–mostly American but many from elsewhere in the world. (For the record, dressage-news.com has no connection to any official U.S. equestrian organization [except as a dues paying member] but is known for its familiarity with Rafalca and her connections through coverage of dressage around the world.)

“The horse has done a lot for my career,” Jan said Sunday night.

“What we owe her is to make sure we’re not overdoing it.

“I think it would not have been right to continue on.”

His family has now canceled plans to come to Aachen, “despite the disappointment I feel I’ve done the right thing.

“As a rider and a horseman I’m in charge of her wellbeing.

“That’s the most important thing.”

Jan admitted that Rafalca not being in top form for competition “came as a bit of a shock as she has been going so well.

“I’m a little surprised at what happened. It wasn’t anything major but enough to make me think it was time to be careful.

“With the time constraints of these two shows of this magnitude left and having to go pedal to the metal I had to ask whether this is fair to the horse.

“Whether it’s Aachen, WEG or a little local show I came to the conclusion it would not be fair to the horse.

“I think I really want to try and hopefully get some baby foals out of her.

“I have this dream of Rafalca being in our pasture behind our house with a baby beside her.

“She should be at home and enjoy hanging out.

“It’s been an absolutely incredible journey with her. Not just the competitions but the people we met and the places we went.

“It’s been quite something.”