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A Horse Is A Horse, Unless Of Course It's Ann Romney's Dressage Champ

Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, wears a "Dressage is no. 1" foam finger at a competition on Saturday. Romney's horse, Rafalca, qualified for the 2012 Olympic dressage team. (Courtesy of Steve O'Byrne)

Whether it's good or bad for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, Ann Romney's horse Rafalca qualified for the U.S. Olympic dressage team over the weekend.

Dressage, for the vast majority of the population who don't follow it, is one of three horse-related sports in the Olympics, and the only one that doesn't involve jumping. It DOES involve very large horses doing precise sets of movements, some of them to music. Dressage enthusiasts HATE when it is compared to ballet. (Full disclosure: I am a long-suffering practitioner of the art, which is harder than it looks.)

Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg mare, and her rider (and Ann Romney's longtime coach), Jan Ebeling, finished third in the trials held at Gladstone, N.J., nabbing the third and final team spot on the squad. Romney co-owns the horse with Ebeling's wife, Amy, and Beth Meyers, described by The New York Times as "a family friend."

The Romneys' involvement in dressage (French for "training"), often considered the snobbiest of the horse sports, has brought considerable attention to it of late, not all of it good.

For example, Stephen Colbert was his usual scathing self last week, when it appeared likely the Romneys might have a date in London this summer. Colbert suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that being involved in dressage might give Romney some help "relating to Joe Sixpack" and teased the sport's fans for being "highfalutin'."

The U.S. Equestrian Federation struck back, if not to defend Romney, at least to defend dressage. At Saturday's last day of competition, the group handed out bottles of Budweiser (presumably to those of age) and foam fingers declaring "Dressage is No. 1," creating what must have been one of the stranger equestrian Olympic trials ever. Ebeling and Romney (and Rafalca) even posed with the props.

But now comes the real question. The Olympic dressage competition is scheduled for the first week in August. For some voters, it will be the first introduction to the Romney family. And that first image may well be that they co-own a horse worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in a sport practiced by a fairly small and mostly well-to-do segment of the population.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A Romney will take part in this summer's Olympics, or at least a half Romney. This weekend, Rafalca, a horse co-owned by Ann Romney, won a spot on the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team.

Dressage. It's considered the ultimate test of communication between rider and horse and the most artistic of the equestrian sports. To the untrained eye, it looks like a kind of horse dancing.

We wanted to know more. And guess what, we didn't have to go very far to find someone to talk with about this sport. We just went upstairs. It turns out that our health care correspondent, Julie Rovner, has been competing at lower level dressage for more than two decades and she's currently doing so with her quarter horse, Impressive Star Man, aka Hopper. Hi, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: You're here to shed some light on what some people refer to as horse ballet. And, Julie, how do horse and rider actually compete in this sport?

ROVNER: Well, they're - it's a prescribed test. So, a horse and rider will enter the ring. There will be judges actually at several different places. And the horse does a set of movements.

SIEGEL: But this is different from jumping. Say, this is not about that at all.

ROVNER: That's right.

SIEGEL: This is turning left in a circle, turning right in a circle?

ROVNER: Yes. Although it's...

SIEGEL: Throw in a little mambo move.

ROVNER: It's more than that. These horses are doing really extraordinarily difficult movement. And it looks to the unpracticed eye like the rider is doing almost nothing. They're not allowed to talk to the horse. The movements on the rider's part are imperceptible. That's why the training is so exquisite.

I can tell you, as one who does it, it's really, really hard.

SIEGEL: But there is a kind of freestyle component to this?

ROVNER: That's right. There are three events, two actual tests where you do prescribed movements. Everyone...

SIEGEL: School figures.

ROVNER: Everyone will do the same movements, right. Like school figures and figure skating. The last one is a freestyle to music, as in figure skating, that everybody gets to go and then you get to sort of make up your own test, showing off what your horse does particularly well. If your horse does great cantor pirouettes, you'll have several cantor pirouettes. If your horse does the flying changes of lead, which is very exciting. It looks like the horse is skipping. You'll have several of those.

SIEGEL: This feels like a very 19th century kind of sport. What's its history?

ROVNER: It actually dates all the way back, really, to the Greeks. This started out as a military sport for military horses who needed to be obedient and maneuverable. That's - you know, basically, dressage is all about getting a horse to move with a rider on its back the way it moves without a rider on its back.

It began in the Olympics 100 years ago. This is the 100th anniversary of it, but only men - only military people - were allowed to ride until 1952. That's when the first women were permitted to ride in the equestrian events. And since then, women and men have competed on equal footing.

SIEGEL: And a medalist in Olympic dressage - it's the rider or it's the horse?

ROVNER: It's both. It's always been both.

SIEGEL: Now, which one gets the medal around the neck?

ROVNER: The rider gets the medal and the horse gets a ribbon, I believe.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK. Now, it's time to handicap the field for us since we know nothing about this sport. Who are the stars? Who's Ann Romney's horse up against?

ROVNER: Well, the Germans have dominated dressage, really, the way the U.S. used to dominate basketball. In recent years, though, the Dutch have come up. And, in fact, the individual gold medalist for the last three Olympics has been a Dutch rider, Anky van Grunsven. The Dutch have had another really breakout star, Edward Gal, who won the world championship two years ago, although he lost his horse. It got sold by his sponsor. But he apparently has two other horses. So, it's really the Germans and the Dutch who everybody will be watching.

SIEGEL: So we're not talking about a cheap sport here.

ROVNER: We are not talking about a cheap sport here. This is - at this level, it's hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. At my level, it's not quite that expensive. I don't make that much money. But, no, it is not a sport for the faint of pocketbook.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Julie Rovner, thanks for introducing us to dressage.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: NPR health care correspondent and dressage devotee and competitor, Julie Rovner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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