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."