Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ride a Horse to London

I have no idea what my fellow bloggers who write about horses are saying about the Ann Romney/dressage issue. I wanted to get my own thoughts into writing before I went looking around.

If you've missed out on this because you don't watch Stephen Colbert or Lawrence O'Donnell, I'll try to lay out the facts. Mitt and Ann Romney co-own a high-level Oldenburg dressage mare named Rafalca which has just qualified for the Olympics. Mitt, in just about the only thing he's said which shows an ounce of caring for anything, stated that his wife has a love for horses which he indulges and that this horse has helped her through her MS problems. The Romneys took something like a $77,000 tax deduction for their horse expenses last year as a "business expense."

Unlike Colbert or O'Donnell, I see nothing silly about dressage, where horses are trained "above that which is necessary" to execute moves that were once a part of military maneuvers. Dressage is generally good for the mind and body of these animals and the humans who work with them. Contrary to Lawrence O'Donnell's snarkyness on TV, these horse are athletes and dressage is a sport which is less likely to cause instant damage to the horses or riders than jumping, steeple-chasing, eventing, or racing can. Both Colbert and O'Donnell are focusing their remarks on musical freestyle, ignoring the intricacies of dressage tests which are just as fascinating as skaters doing figures in competition used to be. "Horse ballet," as they've been calling it with sarcasm, is a dance done best when horse and rider appear to be a single creature. It is breath-taking, as most horse people know..

And unlike Lawrence O'Donnell, I am completely aware of the good that hippotherapy does in treating people who have diminished physical capacities for a variety of reasons. One of the very first photographic assignments I covered for the Washington Post more than 30 years ago was to take pictures of a child with cerebral palsy at a hippotherapy program in Rock Creek Park which was facing closure due to a funding crisis. It was my very first encounter with the treatment and the amazing interaction of these riders and horses. It broke my heart when the article ran without pictures for lack of space because if there ever was proof of a picture being worth 1,000 words, I captured it that day.

Years later, when I acquired my beloved Arabian Prince, his first home in L.A. was at a barn which housed a hippotherapy program. I got to see a lot of disabled riders and the progress they could make through the healing effects of horses. Bill Shatner has a charity horse show every year out here to benefit a hippotherapy program. They work.

Lawrence O'Donnell has pointed out that his statements were not to attack Ann Romney but he was not aware that dressage is a common treatment for MS. He's probably right about dressage in particular, but if he had looked up hippotherapy and MS in a Google search, he would have found plenty of information. Mr. O'Donnell should go to a para-Olympic competition and see the horses and riders there. It will bring tears to his eyes.

Most hippotherapy horses are not high-level competitive horses that cost six figures and $77,000 a year to keep. Some of them may have been competitors in their past lives, but are now cool, calm, and collected therapists who can deal with unskilled riders and claustrophobia when as many as six assistants try keeping a severely disabled rider in place.

I had no idea what level of dressage Ann Romney rides until I found this article about her from 2008 in The Chronicle of the Horse. She has, despite her MS, earned silver and gold medals at Grand Prix. I can understand that riding "makes her heart sing" because that's how I feel about the Arabian Prince. Through her horse Baron, she found a way to get out of her bed and back into the world after her diagnosis. That's really a great story.

Rafalca performs at the highest level there is. Her rider at the Olympics and elsewhere is not Ann Romney but trainer Jan Ebeling, who operates his barn about half-an-hour away from where I live. I've been to his facility (it is lovely), I've met him, and I've watched him give lessons to friends of mine. (Jan's wife is another of the co-owners of Rafalca.)  I know how the Romneys had $77,000 in horse expenses last year.

I don't begrudge them having that kind of money to spend on their horse and I have no doubt that Rafalca gives Ann Romney a great deal of happiness and mental well-being, but she's not for physical therapy.  I don't think the Romneys have any of their six homes any closer than La Jolla, down by San Diego, so how does she ride horses she keeps in Moorpark? Ann gave an answer in that 2008 interview: “I’m just like any other crazy horse person,” she said. “You find a way to make the time to ride. If I have to get up at 5 a.m. to fly to California and then ride until 10 p.m. at night, because that’ll be my only chance to ride for a month, then that’s what I’ll do.” (Italics mine.)

Is she joking? That's not a reality for most horse crazy people. Does the IRS let Ann Romney write off the expenses for her flights to California to ride her horses for a day? She's an amateur rider, not a professional rider, at least according to her dressage awards.

So Rafalca is more like a kid who's been sent to boarding school or off to college to live away from her parents. This is not an ideal situation to convince me that Ann Romney rides Rafalca for MS therapy (especially when the article in the link says she wasn't riding her at all in 2008 to avoid ruining Rafalca's  prospects), though I am willing to accept Ann might have a more appropriate, less flashy, horse somewhere to help with the MS. Perhaps her therapy horse is Baron, who would be 23 now.

And that brings us down to the real issue which is that the Romneys took a $77,000 business (not medical) deduction for their horses in the only tax return they have released. I'd like someone to really investigate what their "horse business" is. Ann rides as an amateur, so aren't her horses a hobby? I know that the way to make a small fortune in the horse industry is to start with a large one (thanks, Ron Weschler), but what exactly is the business model? The IRS says you have to make a profit 3 of 5 years. Where's the potential profit in a dressage horse short of building up her show ribbons and selling her off for more competition or turning her into a brood mare and selling the babies? Do the Romneys have a breeding operation? It doesn't sound like it from the Chronicle article. A horse like Rafalca takes a number of years to mature and train into a horse for the rarefied atmosphere of Olympic dressage, so where are the 3 of 5 years of profit? It is not like horse racing where there are potentially huge purses for wins. (Yes, I know there can be monetary value at some shows, but, really? Enough to cover the year's worth of expenses for the stable?)

Is the reason that Mitt Romney has failed to disclose his tax returns because this $77,000 business deduction (something like twice the annual income of the average American family)  is the tip of the iceberg in questionable Romney business judgment (let us not forget that sources indicate he keeps most of his money in oversees tax shelters, not invested in America)? At what point do voters realize they will never have this kind of money and someone who does, and who seems to almost totally lack empathy, can never, ever understand their realities? (Here's another piece on the Romneys and their dressage horses, and how the reason they are "keeping a low profile" is because this kind of dressage involvement is something that few Americans can relate to.)

I'm giving Stephen Colbert a big pass on this (except to say "Steve. Riders wear top-hats, not velvet hard-hats for top-level dressage) because he's a comedian, not a newsman. But I expect better research and reporting from Lawrence O'Donnell. I expect him to be more truthful and informative that Murdoch's squawking parrots.

I wish Ann Romney nothing but the best in her fight against MS and that Rafalca continues to make her feel better. I will be cheering Rafalca on during the Olympics and hope that the attention that dressage is getting from Stephen Colbert and others means that I'll be able to watch ALL of the dressage events at a reasonable hour when NBC covers the Olympics this year.

But I won't be voting for Mitt Romney for President of the United States and I hope the IRS takes a real close look at the Romney tax returns. Rafalca is a hobby-horse.


Tom Galloway said...

I could be wrong on this, but my recollection is that a not uncommon tax "dodge" with respect to hobbies is that while you need a profit in 3 of 5 years, it doesn't have to be a profit over the whole five years. So you load as many expenses as possible into the two years of loss (say, buying a year's worth of horse chow in December of a loss year, paying the trainer in advance, etc.) and get a small profit in the profit years, even if to do so you don't claim some expenses in the profit years.

M. C. Valada said...

Oh you are correct about this. Things were so much easier when it was two years of profit in five years of operation. But the IRS tends to take a really close look at things that can be hobbies. The ABC article I just added has a lot of detail about the limited partnership which buys and sells horses and how the Romneys didn't attend the World Cup in the Netherlands to watch their horse this month, although it would normally be their habit to do so. It is being equated with John Kerry windsurfing for making them look out of touch with common people. I think that some of things they said makes it apparent they are truly out of touch and tone-deaf.

I know lots of people who compete at dressage who don't have the money that the Romneys do, so I think it is unfortunate that the sport is taking a bum rap right now. I do wonder how many undocumented workers are involved with the care of these horses, because the practice of using them to care for horses at low levels of pay is endemic in the show horse industry. I don't have a problem with undocumented aliens being here and doing this work ("Give me your tired, your poor et al.)if they are paid fairly and have good working conditions, because they tend to really love and care for the animals. I don't like to see them exploited, though, and it's clear from what I've read that they often are.