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June 13, 2014

Fashion Forward Diva, Dressage Ambassador, And Usher Fan All Rolled Into One: Meet Rafalca

"It prevents the muscles from building too much lactic acid," said Jan Ebeling of Rafalca's Team USA Hidez compression suit. Photo by Ann Glavan.

If you’ve spent time on online in the past two weeks, you may’ve noticed a picture of a red, white and blue spandex-clad dressage horse circulating through the social media sphere. That horse would be Jan Ebeling’s Grand Prix partner Rafalca, and her patriotic attire is a Team USA Hidez compression suit.

Rafalca sported the suit in a picture posted on Ebeling’s The Acres Dressage Facebook page, and we had to get the scoop on the 17-year-old mare’s bold fashion statement. We went back to the barns at Gladstone during the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions to see Rafalca’s wardrobe first hand and to check in with a horse who brought dressage some mainstream media attention during the 2012 presidential campaign.

So first of all, what’s the deal with the space suit?

“What it does, it prevents the muscles from building too much lactic acid,” Ebeling explained as he held Rafalca for groom (and official suit fitter) Allie Schmidt. “So if we have a really hard workout, we wait until she’s dried up, and then we put that thing on her and leave it for a few hours.”

The mare also wears her suit in flight, and Ebeling says we aren’t the first people to show interest in Rafalca’s attire.

“When we loaded her up on the plane, all the people from FedEx, they all came to take pictures,” Ebeling said. “But the guys who were working the flight, they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve seen those before on race horses.’ ”

If you ask Ebeling, for want of a compression suit the Triple Crown was lost.

“Apparently all the race horses use them, and California Chrome did not use his and see? Could have won the Triple Crown!” Ebeling said with a laugh.

Rafalca Space SuitHer style has made a splash, but Jan’s wife, Amy, says Rafalca’s most important accomplishment in the way of media attention was bringing dressage center stage. Partially owned by Ann Romney, the mare has made it possible for Amy to tell people she rides dressage horses without completely baffling them.

“It’s been so great to be able to educate so many more people about dressage, and it was funny because we used to go into the airport with our boot bags, and people would ask, ‘Oh where are you going, skiing?’ And we would say no, we’re riders,” Amy explained. “And they would say ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say dressage, and people would look at us with this blank stare on their face. 

“Then shortly after all this media hype about Rafalca, we were going to the airport, and people would go, ‘Dressage, hmm, you know Mitt Romney’s horse does dressage,’ and I’d say, ‘You know what, I think you’re right!’ ” Amy said with a laugh.

Between the comedic treatments of Stephen Colbert and being the subject of more serious news pieces, does Amy think all the attention has gone to Rafalca’s head?

“Absolutely, she’s a super model,” Amy said. “She says, ‘Oh yes, more more more more more!’ If someone brings out a camera she knows, and big movie cameras, they don’t scare her at all. She was in a stall here two years ago, and we had NBC here, we had CBS here, and they had their lights and everything, and she just loved it.”

With all the coverage from outlets and reporters not accustomed to dealing with horses, there had to be some entertaining moments for the Ebelings. What was the most bizarre?

“They were very intrigued we fed Rafalca a lot of watermelon before her flight because sometimes she doesn’t drink on the flight,” Amy explained. “So we wanted her to stay hydrated, so we give her a lot of watermelon, and they were all very interested and intrigued by that.”

“Oh that watermelon, that was probably the best one,” Jan agreed.  “I mean, everybody wanted to know does Mitt ride her, there was always that interest, but we were feeding her watermelon, and that completely took the reporters off their line of questioning.”

Watermelon is not Rafalca’s favorite treat, however: that honor belongs to Platinum Performance bars. Schmidt does stretches with her using the bars three times a day, and says Rafalca has the routine down pat.

“She’s funny, because if you’re holding the bar she’ll touch her side and then look at you like, ‘OK, I did it, where’s my treat?' ” Schmidt said. “She’s really smart; she knows what’s going on.”

When a horse has this much personality, it should come as no surprise Rafalca also has very specific music tastes, and according to Amy, there’s no song she likes more than “OMG” by Usher featuring will.i.am. Jan ended up including the song in his freestyle music after the mare let him know of her pop music proclivities.

“We have music around our arena, and it was at the time when that Usher song ‘OMG’ was playing all the time like every fifth song, and every time it was on our working students loved the song, so they would turn it up, and she would just get so animated,” Amy said. “Then one day we were videoing her, and the song came on, and it was like the music matched her beat perfectly!”

Amy says adding the song into Rafalca’s freestyle mix required some celebrity clearance.

“Before the Olympics when we changed the music, we had to get Usher to sign off on allowing us to use the music,” Amy said. “So one of our best friends, Kim Biggs, was able to get in touch with Usher to have him sign off on letting him use the music.

“He was great about it,” Amy continued. “He said, ‘Of course, a horse? Why not?’ It was really perfect.”

So what’s the plan for Rafalca’s future? After all of her success in the ring with Jan, Amy says the thought has crossed her mind to sell her part in the ownership of the mare—but only for a moment.

“She’s part of the family,” Jan said. “My dream is to see her with a baby at her side, a little Rafalca baby would be awesome.”

Rafalca finished second in yesterday’s Grand Prix class, and will compete twice more with Jan before the conclusion of this weekend’s U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions and U.S. selection trial for the short list for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Read all the Chronicle's coverage from the U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions.

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