POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 27, 2012
As Ann Romney immersed herself in the elite world of riding over the last dozen years, she relied on Jan Ebeling as a trusted tutor and horse scout. In her, he found a deep-pocketed patron.
A German-born trainer and top-ranked equestrian, Ebeling was at ease with the wealthy women drawn to the sport of dressage, in which horses costing up to seven figures execute pirouettes and other dancelike moves for riders wearing tails and top hats.
A taskmaster, Ebeling pushed Romney to excel in high-level amateur shows. He escorted her on horse-buying expeditions to Europe. She shares ownership of the Oldenburg mare he dreams of riding in the Olympic Games this summer. Ann Romney and her husband, Mitt, even floated a loan — $250,000 to $500,000, according to financial records — to Ebeling and his wife for the horse farm they run in California, where the Romneys stay in a Mediterranean-style guesthouse they use as a getaway.
“He came over here with two empty hands,” Anne Gribbons, the technical adviser of the U.S. dressage team, said of Ebeling, 53. “He had a lucky break to get to know the Romneys.”
For the Romneys, the relationship has “given them the ability to enjoy the horses in a very safe and private haven, along with enjoying the people who provide them the service,” said Robert Dover, a former Olympic rider who knows the Romneys and Ebeling and his wife, Amy. “That friendship has stood the test of time.”
It also offers a glimpse into the Romneys’ way of life, which they have generally shielded from view. Protective of their privacy, they may also have been wary of the kind of fallout that came after Mitt Romney’s mention of the “couple of Cadillacs” his wife owned and the disclosure of plans for a car elevator in the family’s $9 million beach house in California, which prompted criticism that Romney was out of touch with average Americans.
Ann Romney took up dressage at age 50 as a therapy for multiple sclerosis, but it soon became her passion. Riding, she has said, “sings to my soul.”
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was also drawn in. He chose the music that Jan Ebeling has ridden to in competitions, from the movie “The Mission.” He also took up trail riding. In a recent conversation with Sean Hannity of Fox News not meant for broadcast but leaked to the Internet, Mitt Romney showed a familiarity with expensive, esoteric breeds, mentioning his wife’s Austrian Warmbloods and his own Missouri Fox Trotter — “like a quarter horse, but just a much better gait.”
The couple’s ties to Ebeling have also led to a legal entanglement. In 2010, a San Diego woman sued the trainer, his wife and Ann Romney for fraud, claiming that the severity of a foot defect in a horse she bought from Ann Romney for $125,000 had been concealed. The case raised questions about whether the Ebelings, who acted as sales agents, intentionally covered up the animal’s condition, and if so, whether Ann Romney, a largely absentee owner, knew.
Lawyers for Romney and the Ebelings argued that the buyer was aware of the defect, a condition disclosed by a veterinarian who conducted a prepurchase exam, and denied any effort to deceive her. They pointed out that she continued to ride the horse, named Super Hit, for more than a year after the purchase in 2008.
Last September, on the eve of a jury trial, Ann Romney was dropped from the lawsuit before it was settled out of court, according to the Romney campaign. “The lawsuit was frivolous,” said Gail Gitcho, a Romney spokeswoman. Lawyers for the Ebelings did not return calls.
One thing is certain: The suit has done nothing to shake Romney’s faith in Ebeling, who continues to enjoy her support as he has competed in international dressage competitions this spring and prepares for the U.S. Olympic selection trials beginning on June 8 in Gladstone, N.J.
Should he win one of the three spots and ride at the London Games this summer, Romney has said she would like to cheer him on from the stands.
TURNING TO RIDING
Romney, who declined to be interviewed for this article, returned to horseback riding, a sport she loved as a girl, after receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1998.
The Romneys were then living in Utah, where Mitt Romney had been recruited to organize the 2002 Olympics. At first Ann Romney could not stay on a horse for more than a few minutes without tiring, but it made her “joyful and exhilarated,” she once recalled. “I’d sit on a horse and forget I was even sick.”
She met Ebeling, currently ranked No.9 among American dressage riders, when he visited Utah to offer clinics. Ebeling, who did not respond to requests to comment for this article, recalled in a 2007 interview with The New York Times that Romney overcame her fatigue by sheer force of will. “Boy, she was determined,” he said.
As her disease went into remission, she began regularly traveling to Ebeling’s stables in Moorpark, Calif., an hour northwest of Los Angeles. Friends and acquaintances described the trainer as patient and low-key but capable of driving students hard. Asked if she was ever unhappy with Ebeling’s instruction, Romney said in a deposition in the lawsuit, “I think that is not a fair question because we all get upset at certain times with anybody that is — you know, especially a German.”
She said she was grateful for his rigor, which helped her win gold and silver medals in the show ring. “He pushes me harder than I would ever push myself.”
Ebeling trained in dressage as a young man in Germany, a world leader in the sport, and immigrated in 1984 to pursue his career in the United States.
A brief first marriage ended in divorce when his wife, Lisa Wilcox, an American-born Olympic rider, wanted to live in Germany to train and he preferred to stay in California. He later married Amy Roberts, who hired him as a trainer in 1995 at the stables she called the Acres, which she had bought a few years earlier and is now assessed at $1.6 million.
The Ebelings built the property, amid avocado and lemon groves, into a premier dressage barn with stalls for 40 horses. Besides Romney, it has drawn other wealthy clients, including the daughter of William Harlan, the founder of Harlan Estate, a boutique California winery. Dover, the former Olympic rider, recalled Ebeling offering him a glass of a Harlan red one night: “As I was about to take my first sip, he said, ‘That’s like a $4,000 bottle.”’
A POWERFUL SUPPORTER
Ebeling denied in his deposition in the lawsuit that Romney was his financial sponsor. “Not really,” he said.
But Romney was clear on the matter: She supports him in his competitive career. “It gives Jan an opportunity for him to present my horses at upper-level dressage,” she said.
On the Romneys’ 2010 tax returns, they reported a loss of $77,000 for their share of the partnership that owns Ebeling’s top mount, Rafalca. Ann Romney owns the horse with Amy Ebeling and a Romney friend, Beth Meyers. Sponsorship arrangements are not unusual in dressage, where riders who want to climb to the top look to wealthy backers.
“Having people like that is very important to the success of this sport and our country being represented,” said Mary Phelps, the publisher of an online dressage news site, who estimated that the costs of exhibiting a horse on the international circuit could run to $200,000 a year.
Dover, who during visits to the Acres has helped coach Jan Ebeling for international dressage, often with Romney looking on, recalled a meeting to plan Ebeling’s European season. “She was very attentive to what he said, and what I thought, and had her own remarks and really wanted to be a part of the decision-making,” Dover said of Romney.
Ebeling has been Romney’s guide on trips to Germany since 2000 to buy horses for upper-level competition, known as Grand Prix. Over the years, she acquired nearly a dozen, both for herself and Ebeling. Although a champion horse can cost seven figures, Ebeling, like most competitors, sought younger, less expensive horses and invested years to train them to respond to the rider’s subtle squeezes and weight shifts in the show ring, where using one’s voice draws a penalty.
Although Romney once stabled horses near her homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, all are now at the Acres. She spent most of the winter of 2005-6 there, riding Baron, one of her early purchases, in amateur classes at the Grand Prix level.
Ebeling praised her drive. “People who start dressage later in their life,” he said in 2007, “you don’t get to Grand Prix. You just don’t get there. It’s extremely difficult in that short time.”
Super Hit, the horse that became the subject of the lawsuit, was bought in Germany in 2003 for about $100,000. At the time, X-rays showed that he had a small abnormality in his left front coffin joint. Romney consulted three veterinarians and was told it was “not significant,” according to her deposition in the suit, which was previously reported by The Washington Post.
With Ebeling training Super Hit and riding him in competitions, he progressed and did well at shows. The horse also regularly received injections of anti-inflammatory drugs to prevent any problems with his coffin joint, which is where the hoof attaches to the lower leg. Veterinary experts say the drugs are commonly given to top-level sport horses.
SELLING THE HORSE
Though Romney loved the horse, calling him “Soupy,” she decided to sell him in late 2007. Riding him, though meant to soothe her multiple sclerosis, had in fact become painful. “I frequently was getting back spasms when I rode Soupy,” she said.
The eventual buyer was a horsewoman named Catherine Norris, who lived near Seattle at the time. Ebeling, she later said, called Super Hit “the soundest horse in the barn.”
Before writing a check, Norris sought a standard prepurchase exam. The Ebelings recommended a veterinarian they knew, Dr. Doug Herthel, who identified the joint abnormality on an X-ray. He informed Norris of it but assured her it would not bar him from the upper-level show ring.
But Herthel apparently did not mention that a toxicology test reported four tranquilizers in Super Hit’s blood at the time of the exam. His records showed that he injected two of the drugs — to steady Super Hit during X-rays, he testified — but there was no documentation of the other two tranquilizers.
Herthel sent an email to Amy Ebeling asking if the horse had been sedated before the exam; she replied that he had not. How the additional tranquilizers got into the animal was never fully established. A lawyer for Herthel, Steve Schwartz, said the drug laboratory’s tests were not definitive.
But veterinary experts unconnected with the case questioned the circumstances. “The presence of all those medications makes interpretation of the exam null and void,” said Dr. Carolyn Weinberg, a board member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She and others said tranquilizers could mask problems.
“They can affect the gait of the horse,” said Dr. Harry Werner, the chairman of animal welfare for the equine association. “They have the potential to obscure a subtle lameness.”
Norris, who could not be reached for comment for this article, continued to board Super Hit at the Acres, paying some $2,400 a month. But she was soon complaining that “he looks funny on his left front,” she testified in a deposition. According to her, Ebeling replied, “It’s your riding.” When she moved Super Hit to a stable near San Diego in April 2009, a new veterinarian reviewed the X-rays Herthel had taken and diagnosed lameness, and Super Hit subsequently became “a pasture horse” unfit for riding, Norris said.
Jontelle Forbus, a trainer who had gone to work for the Ebelings shortly after Super Hit’s sale and rode him at the Acres, said in court records that she, too, thought he had an irregular step and told this to Ebeling.
“It was a horse sale where the seller wasn’t honest about the product they were selling, and the buyer wasn’t smart about looking into the whole picture,” Forbus said in an interview recently.
In testimony, she said she quit working at the Acres in part because she perceived “a feeling of general dishonesty” between the Ebelings and their clients largely over a failure to openly communicate.
A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, Amanda Henneberg, said, “Mrs. Romney has, and always had, full trust and confidence in Jan and Amy Ebeling.”
In interviews, other dressage clients of Ebeling’s vouched that they trusted him. There is no record of other lawsuits filed against him or his wife in state or federal courts.
Nine days after ending her case against Romney and the Ebelings, Norris settled with Herthel. The veterinarian’s lawyer, Schwartz, said his client paid no money. “They did not have a viable case and they quit,” he said.
Before it ended, Norris’ lawyers accused Herthel of being more interested in gaining favor with Super Hit’s famous seller, at a time when Mitt Romney was making his first bid for the presidency, than in protecting Norris’ interests.
On the day Amy Ebeling had made the appointment for the prepurchase exam, Herthel confirmed it in an email. It was Feb. 5, 2008: Super Tuesday, when California was holding its Republican primary. “We are telling everybody to vote Romney today,” the vet wrote.