To the Olympics for Ann Romney
Ann Romney's dressage horse Rafalca won a place on the 2012 US Olympic Team this weekend.
Rafalca, the 15-year-old Oldenburg mare co-owned by Mrs. Romney, won a spot on the Olympic dressage team, along with trainer Jan Ebeling. The U.S. Equestrian Federation made the official announcement naming the Olympic competitors over the weekend.
While our ever smarmy press keeps calling it "horse ballet" to make the Romney's sound effete, the sport of dressage, like all the mounted equestrian events, actually has its roots in the bloody traditions of European mounted warfare. Before the horse was replaced by motorized vehicles in the mid 20th century many nation's international equestrian teams consisted largely of military officers.
From the beginning knights needed to control their mounts with subtle shifts of leg pressure to keep hands free first for lance shield. The horses themselves needed to be conditioned into suppleness and trained to make flying lead changes, to turn smoothly on either front quarters or hand quarters and to travel laterally because these exercises assisted horse and rider in keeping their balance during the rapid changes of direction during a fight. A horse that moved in a well collected manner at a trot and canter also provided a smoother platform for a rider trying to take aim at an enemy with a pistol or to flail him with a saber. Taking that collection to the extreme at which the horse was trotting almost in place made it more difficult for foot soldiers parrying with a mounted swordsman to take him out of the battle by hamstringing his horse. A cavalry horse also had to be trained to jump whatever obstacles its rider needed to get across. During times of peace the sports of dressage, cross country and stadium jumping were eventually developed from the military training exercises both to help keep the skills of the cavalry sharp and to entertain the citizens.
While Olympic quality horses like Rafalca change hands at high prices due to the years of training it takes to bring a horse up to that level of performance, today dressage is not just for owners of expensive Thoroughbreds and European Warmblood breeds. All horses and riders can benefit from dressage methods. Western style trainers have incorporated it into their routines for training cutting and stock horses for some time now because dressage improves both horse and riders' balance and suppleness. Since 2010 there has even been a Western Dressage Association of America. Far from being an effete sport dressage is for all riders who want better control of a more athletic horse, be it a six figure Olympian, working stockhorse or a backyard pony.
This charming dressage video of chunky Haflingers, a breed of mountain pony originating in Alps, is a favorite of mine. Contrast their rough coats and that very muddy paddock to this video of the elegant Rafalca competing at the Grand Prix level earlier this year.