In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.
Rafalca’s been with us for about six years, and she’s 15 now. We found her in Germany through the recommendation of a very good friend of mine, Christian Heinrich. She was at Wolfram Wittig’s stable.
She was competing Prix St. Georges at the time, and I liked her from the beginning. I never really wanted a mare, and when I heard it was a mare he wanted me to see, I wasn’t really so interested. But he said, “You have to come; you have to see this horse.” He was adamant about it. So I said, “OK, I’ve found other nice horses through you. I’ll come look at her.” Her movement was nice, the silhouette was good, and she’d had very good training up until that point. So I ended up with a mare. Oops.
There actually has never been a moment when I thought, “This was really a mistake.” She’s never mare-ish, even when she’s in heat. I think she came into heat in the last show at Del Mar, Calif., and that was one of the best shows she’s done. [Rafalca was second in the CDI-W Grand Prix freestyle with a 74.80 percent.]
I think the Olympics were always a goal when we purchased Rafalca. We saw the potential in the horse right from the beginning. We knew that it was going to take some years. But I think the timing was really right. Going the route through these World Cup Finals has really helped us, and I think last year the World Cup had a big impact on us going to the Aachen CHIO [in Germany] and having the strong showing we did. You build on each show, and they’re really sort of steppingstones.
Two Successful Combinations
I started out in the small tour with Rafalca. We did go to Gladstone, N.J., to the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF National Dressage Festival Of Champions, that first year  and did really well. We ended up third. Then we had a couple of European tours.
The first big showing at Grand Prix was when I was test rider at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas in 2007. I also competed in the World Cup in Las Vegas in 2009, and that was really the only non-successful showing we had. That was sort of a nasty one [where they finished last in the Grand Prix].
Then we went over to redeem ourselves last year, and that was really awesome. [Ebeling was the highest-place U.S. rider with Rafalca, finishing 10th out of 17 in the Grand Prix and 11th in the Grand Prix freestyle and markedly raising his scores.] She went really well. I had a very, very good test. The European media was raving about her. The judges gave me good marks, but the media felt that the score really was not high enough, especially in the freestyle because of the high degree of difficulty. The only mistake was that she didn’t stand still in the halt, but the choreography was really very difficult. They were just raving about the freestyle. That was awesome—to get that kind of review on that stage.
At first, since Klaus Balkenhol was the coach of the U.S. dressage team, we went to him for training. I’d also become really good friends with Wolfram Wittig. I started riding with him soon after we bought her, which is great. The problem is that he’s in Germany, and it’s difficult to see him many times a year. He does come to the States every so often, but his wife competes, and he’s very busy.
We’d been looking to have someone here in the United States as well, so I’ve been working a lot with Christine Traurig. It’s been a really positive combination between Wolfram and Christine. They really complement each other in their training. I think it’s a very successful combination.
Rafalca is at a stage now where her movements are really confirmed. I’m not doing that many movements in our training. Really what I’m working on is very basic stuff—lots of transitions and lots of work on having an optimum frame. You can’t have it all the time; you have to have the horse, in my opinion, in a really ideal, show frame, but then only for a short time. You can’t school like that the whole year. You have to have your horse a little lower, and that’s what I’m really working on—having her loose and working on transitions between the gaits, going forward and back.
We’re touching on piaffe and passage transitions without having her stay in it very long. I’m gymnasticizing the horse, to put it in one word, rather than working away on movement after movement. We’re keeping her fit and making sure she’s ready to peak at the time I need her to peak.
Christine has been very helpful with this because she sees me all the time. Wolfram sees me a couple of times a year, and it’s very intense training, and it’s amazing. He has an amazing eye. But Christine sees the horse throughout the year for one day or two days, and then she sees the horse twice a month or three times a month. So she has a little bit of a different feedback than what Wolfram does. We do lots of work over a short time with him. Christine is a very constant thing. I think it works really well for us.
Ready For World Cup
Last year we had a lot of travelling. I wanted to make sure that, since we’re doing a lot of travel this year too, we’re making our show season as short as possible. I want it very condensed. I think that the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final [held April 18-22 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, where Ebeling will be one of two U.S. riders] is going to be a big step toward the ultimate goal, which is making the team for the Olympic Games. It also means we have to go to Europe and then back to the United States for the selection trials [scheduled for June 8-10 and 13-17 in Gladstone, N.J.]. And then we go back to Europe if we make the team.
We’re scheduled to leave on April 5 for the World Cup. Having flown many times before I know that can change, but we’ll have time to get over and rest for a bit. I have a few days where we hand-walk and do very, very light riding, and then we still have enough time to get ready and do intensive training before the World Cup classes.
I’m planning on going to some other shows in Europe, but we haven’t quite figured out which ones. It’s balancing the travel time, making sure that you travel the least amount possible, but also spacing the shows out. I don’t like doing shows back to back because I feel the horses get too fatigued, but sometimes you have to do it. I may have to do it this year because there’s one show only half an hour away from where I’m staying. In that respect, I can look at that show almost in terms of not really traveling. I’m doing my work at home, just in a different place. For my benefit, that’s my psychology of getting ready for a show. I never think about going to show, it’s just a different place for doing my job. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about going to a horse show.
There are a few judges who know my horse well and haven’t seen her in a while. They gave me really great reviews at the few shows I’ve done so far this year. One said, “I haven’t seen your horse in more than a year, and she looks amazing.” It’s been very encouraging. It’s great when you have the big plans I do for this year to get comments from international judges that your horse is looking great.
Special Temperament, Special Bond
Rafalca is a very, very hard worker. She wants to please, and it starts when you walk in the barn in the morning. She sees me coming and she whinnies, probably because she always gets a treat. She’s a really super worker. Christine says it every time I ride with her, “I love this mare.” She tries her heart out every time you ride her. She has her goofy things, and she has her funny things, but every single day she comes out and works. It’s funny to see the habits they develop. They’re such creatures of habit.
I spend so much time with Rafalca, not just riding but also being on a plane and being in Europe. Here at home I have a lot of horses, and there’s only so much time I can spend with each one. But I make a point to go in her stall every day, and we do our little special exercises. We do some stretches, and I make her bend her neck to get a carrot, things like that. They know you if you interact with them like that, and I think that’s very important if you compete.
It’s important to have that sort of a relationship with a horse, period. Of course, as a professional, it’s impossible to have that sort of relationship with every horse you ride. You pick the ones you show, where you have to spend that extra time. I think it’s part of the training. They have to trust you, and they have to like you.
She gets revved up just enough at the horse shows—revved up in a good way—so we’re really excited about this year. But we’ve been excited every year. There were some tears along the path, but it’s been a great journey with her. She’s sound, knock on wood, so let’s hope that continues and we have a little bit more time with her. She’s really a special horse.
Fast Facts About Jan Ebeling
Hometown: Based out of Moorpark, Calif., with wife Amy and son Benjamin.
Horse: Rafalca, a 15-year-old Oldenburg (Argentinius—Ratine, Rubinstein) mare owned by Ann Romney, Beth Meyer and Amy Ebeling and bred by Erwin Risch Menslage.
- 1st place Grand Prix freestyle, Burbank CDI-W (Calif.) (2012)
- 2nd place Grand Prix, Burbank CDI-W (Calif.) (2012)
- 2nd place Grand Prix freestyle, Del Mar CDI-W (Calif.) (2012)
- 2nd place Grand Prix, Del Mar CDI-W (Calif.) (2012)
- 1st place Grand Prix, Burbank CDI-W (Calif.) (2011)
- 1st place Grand Prix freestyle, Burbank CDI-W (Calif.) (2011)
- 1st place Grand Prix, Saugerties CDI-W (N.Y.) (2010)
- 1st place Grand Prix freestyle, Saugerties CDI-W (N.Y.) (2010)
- 6th place Grand Prix Championship, Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF National Dressage Festival Of Champions (N.J.) (2010)
- 10th place Grand Prix, Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Finals (Germany) (2011)
- 11th place Grand Prix freestyle, Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Finals (Germany) (2011)