By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Rarely has an Olympic dressage horse received as much attention as Rafalca.
The 15-year-old, German-bred mare is part-owned by Mitt Romney's wife and has been the source of political jokes questioning how the Republican presidential candidate can claim to know the problems of ordinary Americans when he inhabits the rarified world of dressage.
The sport, which is better known in Europe than the U.S., is the equine equivalent of ballet. Horse and rider (wearing top hat and tails) go through a series of steps that look like the horse is dancing: twirling pirouettes, prancing trots and the crowd-pleasing "flying change," which looks like the horse is skipping.
Ann Romney is expected to attend Rafalca's Olympic debut, which gets under way Thursday with the Grand Prix dressage test at Greenwich Park, home of all Olympic equestrian events.
She returned to London after her husband unleashed a torrent of criticism in the British press when, shortly after arriving for the Olympics' opening ceremony, he said the problems facing Olympic organizers were "disconcerting." It was the first of several gaffes that followed during campaign-style visits to Israel and Poland that were supposed to show off his foreign policy chops.
Rafalca's turn in the equestrian arena might focus an Olympic spotlight on another issue facing Romney, his vast personal wealth during tough economic times in the United States. He is worth as much as $250 million.
His wife's financial interest in Rafalca, a bay Oldenburg, has fed criticism that Romney is out of touch with the concerns of more modest-income voters. A top-flight dressage horse can cost more than six-figures, with upkeep running from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month. The Romneys own several horses.
The issue has been the inspiration of several episodes of political satirist Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report." Just this week Comedy Central aired a piece about Colbert taking a dressage lesson from Michael Barisone, the U.S. dressage team's reserve rider in the 2008 Olympics, in a bid to disprove the sport's elitist reputation.
"Dressage is the new American pastime!" Colbert declared.
Dressed like Roy Rogers, Colbert pressed Barisone to explain how a horse is selected to undergo the intense, years-long training that dressage requires, wondering out loud if at one point the horse just says: "Dad, I don't want to go into battle, I just want to DANCE!"
Out at Greenwich Park on Wednesday, such jokes were far from the minds of the U.S. dressage team, which has a shot at the bronze team medal. Germany and Britain are currently favored for the top medals.
"All of our horses are peaking at the right time," said U.S. team member Tina Konyot, who will ride Calecto V. "The other competitors are watching us."
Rafalca's rider Jan Ebeling said he welcomed the attention, negative or not, that the Romneys' stake in Rafalca has given the sport since it's given him a chance to show that dressage isn't about millionaires but hard work.
"I think the biggest misconception is always that people think that you just sit on a horse and they just kind of trot around in circles," he said. "That really is not the case."
A typical dressage horse requires up to a decade of training to compete at Olympic levels. Horse and rider work very much as a team, with the rider giving the horse invisible cues through subtle leg, hand and seat shifts. The horse is judged from 0-10 on executing a standard test of 33 movements:
—PASSAGE: a prancing, high-striding step
—PIAFFE: a passage done in place
—HALF-PASS: where the horse moves forward and sideways at the same time by crossing over its legs
—PIROUETTE: where the horse completes a full circle in place while cantering
—FLYING CHANGE: where the horse changes the sequence of its steps
The highest scoring teams from Thursday's Grand Prix advance to a second, harder test called the Grand Prix Special on Aug. 7. The 18 highest-scoring individual riders then perform a freestyle set to music to determine individual medal scores. That competition is Aug. 9.
The German-born Ebeling, who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, said the Romneys have been great supporters of the sport and have helped boost its visibility.
"I really welcome the attention," he said. "It's given us a fantastic opportunity to have our sport — have visibility in our sport — and show what we're really about, show that it is an Olympic discipline and show people how much we work to get there."
A campaign spokeswoman said Mrs. Romney's schedule in London was too busy for her to comment.
Margaret Freeman contributed.
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