Dressage Helps Romney Cope with Multiple Sclerosis
FEI competitor, sponsor and First Lady of Massachusetts, Ann
Romney, gives an insightful look at how her will to ride dressage
horses helped her cope with the debilitating disease Multiple
Editor's Note: Writer Patricia Lasko won the Merial Human-Animal
Bond Award at the 2005 American Horse Publications Awards Banquet
for this article, originally titled "The Elixir of Pure Joy." The
award is given annually to the writer of an article that best
reflects and promotes the strengthening of the relationship
between horses and people.
Ann Romney can be riding in a dressage lesson, doing nothing more
than circles, when suddenly some nuance becomes clearer and this
serious student of dressage exclaims, "Yahoo!" As she schools her
young horse, Superhit, or practices the art of collection on her
schoolmaster, Baron, you would never guess that on an October
morning in 1998 she woke up and was physically unable to get out
of bed. She soon was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a
chronic neurological disease that affects the central nervous
system in unpredictable ways.
After being nearly incapacitated by this incurable disease, the
busy wife of Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts, mother of
five sons and grandmother of six, fought her way back in large
part through her love of horses and dressage, which she calls the
elixir of pure joy.
"My spirits brighten and I love life when I'm on a horse," she
says simply. "Life is so much fuller if you find what you love
and then put that into your life to make it more joyful." Her
story is one of courage and perseverance and a testament to the
healing power equines can convey to their humans.
A True Medicine
As a girl, Romney had ridden horses in Michigan where she grew
up. One day, on television, she watched a performance of the
Lipizzan stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna,
Austria, and became so inspired that she knew she must learn to
ride like that someday. However, college (she graduated from
Utah's Brigham Young University with a degree in French) and
married life in a high-profile business and political family left
little time to pursue riding.
Then, after spending 30 of their 34 years of marriage in Boston,
Mitt Romney agreed to go to Utah to take over as CEO of Salt Lake
City's Organizing Committee, and he did a now legendary job of
eliminating corruption and organizing the city's efforts to
produce a successful 2002 Winter Olympics.
As they prepared to move, the disease hit, and it hit hard. Ann
became so ill she was hospitalized. From October to December of
1998, Romney deteriorated rapidly.
"It's a very frightening place to be," she says. "I was numb in
my right leg and couldn't get out of bed. I was on intravenous
steroids for six months until May '99 because they were trying to
stop the progression of the disease, and the treatment helped.
But I really felt that I was on the fast track to being
incapacitated for the rest of my life, so I thought, what do I
really want to do that I haven't done in my life? And I
remembered my love of horses."
After leaving the hospital, Romney insisted on accompanying her
husband to Salt Lake City. To manage her disease, she relied on
alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga and foot
reflexology, which "helped to kick-start my system." As she
continued to experience extreme fatigue and numbness, getting
back on a horse became an obsession. "I felt like my life was on
fast-forward. I was afraid that I was going to run out of time."
Romney began riding with dressage trainer Margo Gogan in Salt
Lake City in 1999. Each time she went for a lesson, she had to
crawl out of bed, but she did it because she was so excited to
get on a horse.
"I could hardly stand it," she recalls. "It was like Christmas
every day for me. Then I'd sit on a horse and forget I was even
sick. I became so joyful and exhilarated that it brought my
emotional state to another place, and physically, it got me
moving and got my system charged. I'd feel wonderful for several
hours afterward. Then I'd have to pull myself out of bed again
the next day."
Romney gives much credit to her husband for his support. "After a
grueling day of his own, he would do things like stop at the
grocery store and do the shopping, because I didn't have the
energy to do it." When he saw her brighten and get happier and
energetic again, he was thrilled. "Even now, if I'm not on a
horse for five or six days and I start to really slow down, Mitt
will remind me, 'Time to get on a horse again.' Riding is truly a
medicine for me."
Learning to Enjoy the Journey
Romney says she has learned that the partnership in dressage
between horse and rider is wonderful because "you learn to listen
to the horse and have him really listening to all of your aids."
She likens the harmony that comes from this partnership to
watching World Cup Champion Debbie McDonald ride Brentina.
"That's beautiful harmony," she says. "That's the quest--getting
that with your own horse. It doesn't matter what kind of horse
you have. We can all have harmony, which is the joy of riding
that brings us back everyday."
However, Romney's ideas about harmony and partnership were not
learned quickly. "I was a pretty good rider when I was a kid, but
when I began riding as an adult, I couldn't even remember how to
do a posting diagonal," she says, laughing. After watching Gogan
ride a Grand Prix horse, Romney was eager to progress. Finally,
at the end of a year, she asked Gogan, "How long is it going to
take me until I really can do [Grand Prix work]?"
"Years," replied Gogan, pointedly.
How can it take so long, Romney wondered. Then she asked Gogan,
"Do you feel like you're still learning?"
"Of course." Gogan replied. "That's why this sport is so
wonderful. You're never there."
Romney says it took her a while to realize she needed to enjoy
what she was learning by increments, as opposed to rushing
headlong toward her goal, and that's when she began to slow down
and enjoy the journey, moment by moment.
During this time, Romney attended clinics in Utah given by Jan
Ebeling, whose riding she admired. She and Gogan began traveling
to Ebeling's stable The Acres, in Moorpark, Calif., to ride with
him. "I watched Margo's lessons and really tried to soak it all
up," she says. "Then I kept a horse with Jan, and we began to
develop a good, working relationship."
Romney explains that Ebeling and Gogan understood she was ill and
had limited endurance. But they also knew how much to push her
when she wanted to quit. This helped her increase her endurance.
Gently and calmly, they would encourage her: "Do it correctly
another two times around the arena." Romney would sigh and think,
"OK, I can do that."
Romney's MS symptoms continued to abate with her program of
riding and alternative therapies. The couple moved back to Boston
after the winter Olympics, and Mitt was elected governor of
Massachusetts in November 2002.
The Right Horses to Learn On
Today Romney's MS is manageable, with fatigue continuing to be a
daily reminder of the disease, and dressage continues to be her
focal point. Her idea was always to maximize her learning curve
by getting the best instructors and horses to learn from. Her
schoolmaster is Baron Boucheron, a 16-year-old, 16.1-hand
Austrian Warmblood gelding. She has shown Baron to Prix St.
Georges and reports that they broke into the 60th percentile last
year. "This is the horse that has been so patient with me, who
plodded along safely at First Level and is now waiting for me to
learn to ride my first Grand Prix test, hopefully next fall," she
says. "He is a kind and gentle professor."
Romney also has taken on the role of sponsor for Ebeling who
rides and trains Liberte, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding,
who begins his first year showing at Grand Prix in 2004. Last
year, Ebeling qualified both Liberte and the young stallion
Feleciano (owned by New Horizons Dressage) for the Pan-American
Games team. He could only ride one and chose Feleciano. Was
Romney disappointed he didn't choose her horse? "I support Jan in
whatever he does," she says emphatically.
"Afterward, I told Jan he did the right thing, because he led the
team to a gold medal. I was just happy he could have that
experience. I want to recognize Jan's enormous talent and ability
and support him on a U.S. team," says Romney. "Whether it's on my
horse or someone else's, that doesn't matter to me."
Romney and Ebeling went to Germany last summer to look for
another schoolmaster and a young horse to bring along. They came
home with the 6-year-old colt Superhit that Ebeling trains and
Romney rides when she is in California.
"Superhit is by Sandro Hit, just like Poetin 2, who last fall
sold for a record $3 million at auction," says Romney. "So we
were feeling like we really picked a winner. He is
unbelievable--so elastic, and he already offers passage and
piaffe. But he's only 6 and needs a lot more time and training."
They also found Marco Polo, a 9-year-old Dutch gelding schooled
to Intermediaire I that she keeps with trainer Maria Harrington,
nearby the Romney's home in Belmont, Mass. Marco Polo had a
suspensory ligament injury during shipping and has been
recovering for the last six months. Romney says she loves
brushing and caring for him during his recovery. It's another
training experience just to hand walk and ride him only at the
Of her dressage journey, she explains, "For me just to get to the
Grand Prix ring is a miracle. Then if these younger horses I've
bought end up being good, I'd love to do a CDI--at least get to
the point that I'm not an embarrassment to the sport," she
laughs. "For the whole time I've been riding with Jan, he's had
to pull me back. Before I knew better, I would say, 'I want to go
here and try this,' and he'd tell me, 'No, you need to get this
down first,' which, of course, is the correct way to do it."
That same eagerness and enthusiasm has brought Romney far in her
fight with MS. Because of her riding and alternative therapies,
she is now off all medications and doing well. "I have so much
joy in the moment and love each horse I'm on."
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of
Dressage Today magazine.