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 Sclerosis.

Ann Romney, a student of Jan Ebeling as well as his sponsor, rides her horse Superhit. Ebeling is on her Dutch Warmblood Liberte. | Photo by Kelsey Edwards

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 walk.

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.”

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,” that appeared in the May 2004 issue of Dressage Today. 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.

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