After leaving Zuchthof Risch, Rafalca began to compete in smaller competitions. At 4 years old, Rafalca won several titles, helping her increase her appeal to buyers looking forward to her professional years.
Rafalca was purchased and brought to the United States in 2006, at a time when dressage horses were fetching six- and seven-figure price tags. (Rafalca was not sold at auction and her price has not been disclosed publicly.) Care and keeping for such horses is not cheap. In 2010, the Romneys reported a $77,000 loss on their tax returns for their share of Rafalca, which is owned by a partnership that includes Ebeling’s wife, Amy, Ann Romney and Beth Meyer.
Unlike racehorses, which compete when they are young, dressage horses are often trained for years and years, not reaching their competitive peaks until they are at least 10 years old. The longer a horse is with its trainer — Rafalca and her rider Ebeling have been a pair for six years — the better.
Rafalca “did everything perfectly,” said Miriam Dhanji, a horse consultant who splits her time between England and Germany. “The horses are bred to perform at high levels. The breeding does a lot, but the actual training is a big part of it.”
Ebeling, a German native who has been a United States citizen since 1998, heard about Rafalca from a friend of his who had seen the horse. Ebeling, like many riders, preferred geldings over mares. “Mares can be difficult sometimes,” Ebeling said. He told his friend he was not interested.
But the friend persisted and persuaded him to visit Rafalca on his next trip to Germany.
“I fell in love with her right away,” Ebeling said. “I think it was her temperament. She’s a horse that puts her heart into it. She tries really hard to please.”
Rafalca was walked in front of the Ebelings and they were impressed with her gait. Then he rode her and was taken with how responsive she was to subtle movements of his legs and shifting of his weight, crucial details in dressage. Her shoulder and neck structure, too, befit the sport, and is one of the traits of the Rubinstein descendants. Romney and her partners purchased Rafalca in 2006.
Rafalca’s Oldenburg qualities were on full display for Ebeling that day in 2006: her mood, gait and responsiveness to commands. “If you have a horse with a good temperament, that can overcome a lot of other small shortcomings,” he said.
That’s part of what Ebeling has been training to do as a rider for years. He was born in Berlin, but spent most of his childhood in Oldenburg, Germany, not far from where Rafalca was born. As a child, he took lessons at a nearby riding club and fed and groomed the horses and maneuvered the horse manure cart to pay for his lessons. “From an early age, there was a high level of commitment,” he said.
A student of the German riding school, Ebeling worked his way up through an apprenticeship and now oversees 30 to 40 horses, including Rafalca, at the Acres, a ranch in Moorpark, Calif.
“Rafalca is a classic German horse,” Braddick of Dressage-News said. “It fits with Jan’s personality and Jan’s training, which is very consistent and classical. They fit each other.”
From the start, developing trust with Rafalca and honing her training proved challenging. Dressage horses may not be primed for elite competition until they are 10 to 15 years old and after years of continuous training.
“I can read her,” Ebeling said of Rafalca. “With a horse, when you’re competing at that level, you have to have some kind of bond. You really have to have a relationship with the horse. I know when she’s not feeling so good and she can probably tell when I’m not feeling so good.
“The essence of dressage,” Ebeling said, “is we’re trying to show the power of the horse and the balance of the horse in total relaxation. You have to look powerful, but it cannot look forced. That’s our problem sometime. The good riders that make it look easy, that’s the point.”
In a show arena, the rider is not allowed to use his voice with a horse, but may shift his weight or pat a horse.