Ralfalca and Jan Ebeling

For most people, the mention of Mitt Romney and four-legged friends will likely conjure images of Seamus, the Irish Setter whom the candidate once strapped to the roof of his station wagon during a family road trip.

Thankfully — and likely to his relief — a new animal-related story has broken about the presidential candidate: His wife, Ann Romney, co-owns an Oldenburg mare named Rafalca who's made the Olympic dressage team.

A Little Lesson on a Sport With Royal Roots

Dressage, which is derived from the French word for training, is loosely described as “horse ballet.”

“Dressage was originally an art form and performance, a form of entertainment for the kings and queens of Europe,” explains Laurie Joliffe, trainer and owner of Excel Dressage in Pennsylvania. “It’s fascinating because you don’t see a whole lot of movement from the rider, but the horse is dancing. The growing popularity of the sport has brought it more into the realm of competition.”

The Colbert Nation Takes Notice

Interest in the elite sport hardly helps Romney’s “regular guy” image. In fact, as TV personality Stephen Colbert noted ironically last week after Rafalca competed in the first trials, “The image of Romney as a privileged princeling ends today, because Mitt is just your average, blue-collar fan of dressage.” In the same video, which promptly went viral, the satirist also donned a trucker hat and a foam finger to root for Rafalca.

All in good fun, the United States Equestrian Federation responded with their own montage video of fans preparing for the competition — all waving “Dressage Is #1” foam fingers. Colbert continued the riff, dancing behind his desk dressed in a horse head and hooves (see below video).

Either way, Joliffe thinks Ann Romney’s interest in dressage, and Colbert’s attention, are both positive because they bring focus to the sport: “I’ve seen the skits, and they’re hysterically funny because Colbert isn’t mocking the actual sport. They're putting the limelight on dressage.”

In anticipation of Rafalca's Olympic debut, Vetstreet compiled 10 must-know facts for newbie fans about the suddenly trendy equestrian sport:

1. Classical dressage, which initially wasn't a competition but an art form based on training for the battlefield, first came to prominence during the Renaissance.

2. The horse and rider perform in a 20 x 60 meter arena, marked by a series of letters that indicate where specific movements should be done.

3. The performance is judged based on accuracy, athleticism, artistry and, more important, how well the horse is trained. Movements are scored on a scale of one to 10 — the higher the score, the better.

4. Ideally, the horse should respond to subtle cues, including such imperceptible body signals as the shifting of weight in the saddle.

5. Some moves include a canter Pirouette (a 360-degree turn in place), a Piaffe (trotting in place) and Flying Changes (these make it appear as though the horse is skipping).

6. There are various phases of competition, including a freestyle section referred to as The Musical Kür, when riders combine the music of their choice with more artistic movements.

7. Dressage was not a competitive sport until it was introduced to the Olympics in 1912.

8. The sport didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the early 1980s, when the dollar was strong and people could afford to travel to Europe and find horses specifically bred for dressage.

9. Much to Colbert’s delight, Mitt Romney has previously chosen music for Rafalca’s Kür performances, including selections from Rain Man and Cocktail. It takes years to train a dressage horse to Rafalca's level of competition, which is Grand Prix.

10. Colbert has proclaimed dressage the “Official Colbert Report Sport of the Summer.” Last year’s choice? Canoe dancing.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mitt Romney’s Champion Horse & Stephen’s Dressage Contribution
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Our dressage facts were provided by the following: the United States Equestrian Federation and Laurie Joliffe of Excel Dressage.

Check out more Vetstreet-exclusive coverage of the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games.