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On a trail of her own

It was the end of a long day in a stuffy Simi Valley office building. Ann Romney had been under oath for more than four hours, testifying in a sometimes contentious deposition about a pricey horse she sold that may or may not have been afflicted with a condition that made him unrideable.

In the airless room, Romney was getting annoyed.

“That really is -- that really is irritating,” she said when the opposing attorney implied she didn’t know who looked after her horse in Moorpark when she was at her home in Boston. “Of course I know who was looking after my horse. You’re just trying to irritate me.”

It was a rare moment of pique for Ann Romney, not meant for public consumption, and one that opened a window onto the private world of the would-be first lady.

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Though Romney was dropped from the case after 18 months of litigation, the deposition reveals her passionate engagement in a rarefied sport that she believes helps her deal with a debilitating chronic illness. It also displays her fear of privacy loss, and a depth of feeling for a handful of extraordinarily expensive horses that she compares to maternal love.

“It’s like children,” Romney, a mother of five, testified about Super Hit, the horse at the center of the lawsuit. “You don’t ... say one is better than the other, but I loved him.”

Romney, who rode horses as a girl, began riding seriously as an adult after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. “I was losing most of the function of my right side,” she testified at her deposition on June 3, 2010. “And I decided I needed to go back and do what I loved before I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She soon fell in love with dressage, a fussy Olympic sport that is also called “horse ballet.” In dressage, a horse moves in delicate, dance-like steps to music as the rider, formally clad in top hat and tails, imperceptibly guides the animal.

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Because it requires tremendous muscle control, dressage also provided Romney unexpected therapeutic benefits.

“Riding exhilarated me; it gave me a joy and a purpose,” Romney told the Chronicle of the Horse magazine in 2008. “When I was so fatigued that I couldn’t move, the excitement of going to the barn and getting my foot in the stirrup would make me crawl out of bed.”

For nearly 10 years, Romney has trained and ridden with Jan and Amy Ebeling, who own the Acres, an immaculate, Mediterranean-style ranch in Moorpark, about 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Romney is a partner with the Ebelings in the Acres, and she and Amy Ebeling own Rob Rom Enterprises LLC, a foreign corporation registered in Delaware that buys and trains dressage horses.

Jan Ebeling is a world-class dressage rider. Romney sponsors him on Rafalca, a mare she co-owns with the Ebelings and another friend. Jan Ebeling plans to compete with Rafalca next month in New Jersey at the U.S. dressage team trials for the London Summer Olympics.

Starting in 2003, coinciding with her purchase of Super Hit for about $105,000, Romney said she would frequently visit Moorpark from her Boston home, staying either in hotels or in a guesthouse on the ranch. When she is at her La Jolla beach house, she takes the train up from Del Mar.

Romney, who frequently takes riding breaks as she campaigns with her husband, Mitt, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, regularly ferries at least one of her horses, a mare called Schone, between Moorpark and Boston. But moving horses can be dangerous as well as costly.

In 2003, a newly purchased horse, Marco Polo, was flown from Germany to Boston, where his container tipped on the runway. The horse tore a hind ligament and spent a year recuperating. But the accident might have been much worse, Romney revealed in her deposition. “Somebody in the container almost got killed we found out later. It was terrible.”

Dressage is not for the faint of wallet; it requires healthy outlays of cash for upkeep, training, transportation and veterinary care. It attracts some of the world’s richest people -- the daughter of billionaire New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg competes. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife own dressage horses.

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A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign would not discuss the costs associated with Ann Romney’s horses. “We are not required to disclose this information,” said Amanda Henneberg in an emailed statement.

The woman who bought Super Hit, Catherine Norris, testified that it cost $2,400 a month to board him at the Acres.

Insurance documents in the court file indicate that from November 2006 to November 2007, Ann Romney paid $7,800 to insure five horses against mortality and theft for amounts ranging from $50,000 to $135,000 per horse, which she said was far less than their value. “I self-insure for the rest,” she testified. “Just expensive to have insurance.”

Despite her relatively late start, Romney, 63, won silver and gold medals in 2005 and 2006 at the highest level of competition from the U.S. Dressage Federation. She rode Baron, a gelding she has described as “my best friend, my wonderful companion, my best boy.” She credits Jan Ebeling, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany, with vaulting her into the top tier of amateur dressage.

Ebeling’s demanding nature, Romney said, sometimes causes a strain.

“We all get upset at certain times with anybody that is, you know, especially a German,” Romney said. “He pushes me harder than I would ever push myself. So at times I can honestly say that he frustrates me but ... you know, I’m happy with the training I get.”

Super Hit, the subject of the fraud lawsuit, is no ordinary animal. Affectionately known as Soupy, he is an Oldenburg gelding, purchased in Germany in 2003. He trained with the Ebelings for five years. Norris then paid Romney $125,000 for him, about a $20,000 premium over Romney’s purchase price.

“I wasn’t interested in making a lot of money,” Romney testified. “I frankly think he was a very, very good price for that, for what he was capable of doing.”

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The horse’s gait, she said, caused her physical distress.

“I have numbness on my right side, and I also have issues with my low back,” Romney testified. “And I was frequently getting back spasms when I rode Soupy. ... It was hard for me to even put him up for sale, so I would think about it and decide I couldn’t.”

Romney maintained that the horse was sound when she sold him in February 2008. She was reluctant to part with him but was certain she’d found the right buyer in Norris, a former physical therapist who aspired to ride the animal in upper-level dressage competitions.

“I wanted him to go to a happy home,” Romney testified. “She was so happy with the horse.”

But Norris claimed she’d been misled about the horse’s condition, and on April 28, 2010, sued Romney for fraud. She also sued the Ebelings, who took a commission from the sale, and the veterinarian who gave the horse a clean bill of health. The case settled last September.

The horse, now 15, was moved to a barn in San Marcos after surgery and other costly medical therapy. “He is to be permanently retired to pasture,” Norris asserted in the court record. “He cannot be ridden and obviously has no future as a dressage horse.”

The Romney campaign would not allow interviews with Romney, the Ebelings or Romney’s attorney. Super Hit’s owner could not be reached.

Romney’s lawyers wanted to keep the case out of the public eye. In December 2010, one of her attorneys sent a letter to Robyn Ranke, the attorney for Norris, expressing dismay that Ranke refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

“You can be assured we are not going to give any records ... to the L.A. Times,” replied Ranke, “and are at a loss as to why you would even suggest such a thing.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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