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Living With Genius

July 20, 1986|KATHLEEN BROWN

One night about 10 years ago, Ruffin, a young thoroughbred colt destined for stardom at Hollywood Park, injured his leg in his stall. With that, his racing days were over.

Enter Zola Da Virro, who had excelled as an equestrian in her youth and, then 29, was reaching what she describes as "the first of many mid-life crises." She'd put her husband through school, and his career was taking off. Two children were growing up fast. In short, she needed a new game. "I wanted something that would consume my every waking and sleeping moment and keep me from contemplating the meaning of life too thoroughly." She decided to buy a horse.

Ruffin was the only choice for the job, a horse with little training. What Da Virro set out to do with him is something akin to taking a 5-year-old child and educating him or her to a doctorate of philosophy, a process that can be accomplished with a human in, say, 20 years, if all lights are green. It took seven years for Da Virro and Ruffin to reach the Ph.D. level of horsedom, and three years more to practice, polish and perfect.

Now, Da Virro and Ruffin compete at Grand Prix level in dressage, the equestrian sport that captivated the public during the 1984 Olympics. The word dressage means, simply, training and education. A horse is schooled to complete obedience in a series of precision movements including such elementary maneuvers as walk, trot and canter, the three natural gaits we all associate with horses. At Grand Prix level, on the other hand, the horse and human must execute 31 movements with unity and elegance. These include extension and collection of the three basic gaits, pirouettes (or slow, controlled spins) and piaffe , which is trotting in place. Through the United States Dressage Federation, there are a series of competitive levels at which horse and rider must show proficiency before advancing to the next. Da Virro and the sleek, black Ruffin, whose show name is Shogun, have earned bronze, silver and gold medals through the nine levels and are now at the top. The ultimate goal: the 1988 Olympics.

High on Da Virro's list of what's important in a Grand Prix horse is temperament and conformation, or the horse's structure. If a horse isn't able to withstand the physical and mental demands, the work will be difficult for it and cause it stress.

Ruffin has clearly got what it takes, and he loves to play the game. He's about as smart a horse as you'll ever meet. But he has a few quirks, as one might expect (and always tolerate) in the presence of genius. He likes to escape from his blankets. He won't allow anyone to mount from the ground, insisting instead that the rider either get a leg up or mount from a block. He grimaces in apparent agony when the saddle is cinched up and bites whatever's handy.

He has his routines and doesn't like them altered one bit. "There's a riding ring in which I've ridden for seven years, several times a week, but he always shies at the same spots," says Da Virro. "He'll stop, snort, go over, chew the fence, look around. It's a ritual. If I'm in a hurry that day and don't let him dally in his favorite spots, I get a lousy ride from him every time."

Although Da Virro makes a game of his eccentricities, she admits he isn't the friendliest horse. As one of Ruffin's grooms puts it, "He knows he's a good horse, but he gets a little pompous sometimes." Da Virro says he's descended from a line of famous race horses well-known for their cranky dispositions. But by playing it Ruffin's way, Da Virro has avoided major tantrums and established a delicate compromise.

Da Virro feels she's been lucky, not only to have had a good background in riding and some excellent teachers along the way, but also, mostly, to have a horse like Ruffin who, despite his idiosyncrasies, is her best teacher, about riding and other things. "Once I'm on his back, the horse gives everything he's got," she says. One can't ask more.

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