Olympic Dressage History, Part 1 - Dressage Today

Olympic Dressage History, Part 1

U.S. dressage riders and Canadian dressage riders look back at the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games and Olympic dressage history.
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Dressage has changed from the days when it was first added to the Olympic roster in 1912. Contemporary riders would hardly recognize those early competitions, when jumping and obedience tests were routine. The awarding of team medals began with the 1928 Games, and piaffe and passage were added in 1932. But women and civilians had to wait until 1952 to compete alongside their mostly male/cavalry counterparts. The next major development occurred in 1996, when the musical freestyle debuted at the Games in Atlanta. As we look forward to the next Olympics in London later this year, we begin a series of interviews with U.S. and Canadian riders who participated in earlier Games.

1976 Montreal, Canada
While a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast by the name of Nadia Comaneci was grabbing headlines for earning no fewer than seven perfect 10s at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, the unheralded U.S. dressage team made its own history: It was the first American Olympic dressage squad to win a medal since 1948 where the U.S. won silver. Coached by Col. Bengt Ljungquist, the all-female trio of Hilda Gurney, Edith Master and Dorothy "Dottie" Morkis won the bronze medal, finishing third behind the formidable West German and Swiss teams.

Morkis recalls that winning a medal was a very big deal. Gurney agrees: "Nobody thought we'd do well. It was beyond anything I could have imagined."

Master, who rode Dahlwitz, a Hanoverian with Trakehner roots, was an Olympic veteran, having ridden in the 1968 and 1972 Games. The alternate, John Winnett, had also competed in the Munich Games in 1972. But Gurney and Morkis, who had been part of the gold-medal-winning U.S. dressage team at the 1975 Pan American Games, were Olympic neophytes. Gurney had had a winning year with her Thoroughbred gelding, Keen, and felt confident they would make the team. "He'd done well at the selection trials, so I didn't feel in jeopardy, but it was very difficult for everyone else," she says. It probably didn't help that the team was named the night before the Games.

Bromont, Canada, a picturesque resort in the foothills some 50 miles east of Montreal, hosted the dressage and three-day events (show jumping was held at Montreal's Olympic Stadium). "Bromont was really nice, near a beautiful lake," Gurney remembers. "We were stabled on a mountain, but the arena was quite far away. And in those days you couldn't school in the show arena."

The riders also shared a groom?another challenge. Gurney says she even did her own braiding, but the gentle, encouraging presence of Col. Ljungquist made up for any inconvenience. "He was behind us. It was very comforting to have him as our coach," Gurney says.

Morkis, aboard her 15-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Monaco, was the last to ride in the team competition, a spot fraught with pressure. "I made a lot of wonderful friends in 1976, but it was very stressful," she says. "The competition was two long, full days. The warm-up area was nice, removed from everybody, but when it was my turn to go, I was practically in tears because I knew it was all on my back. I didn't want to forget the test. That's all I could think of?Don't forget the test!" Morkis says she made three slips in the Grand Prix. "They weren't bad mistakes, but they were enough to knock me down a little. I said to myself, That is it! Then I started to really ride." Her score was enough to help earn bronze for the American squad. "All the Europeans came over to us and said, ?Good for you!' They loved it," Morkis recalls.

After the team medal ceremony, there was a draw for the Grand Prix Special the following day. Morkis drew the first ride. "That was enough to knock me down by 10 points," she says. Still, she finished fifth individually. "To finish so high behind the best riders in the world?Christine St?ckelberger, Harry Boldt, Reiner [Klimke] and Gabriela Grillo?was just unbelievable!"

Morkis purchased Monaco in Germany four years earlier. He was her first Grand Prix horse. "I was pregnant when I got him, so he had quite a bit of time off. He had very good gaits, and he never earned less than an 8 for piaffe and passage. Back in those days, that was something. That was the beauty of riding him?you could go in and ride a test, and he did everything. You just had to think of the preparation. He was a fabulous horse, one in a million." German Olympian Reiner Klimke had known Monaco and sought out Morkis in Bromont to congratulate her. "He told me, ?I never thought he could move like this.'" Morkis says it was a moment she'll never forget. "I can close my eyes and see it today."

Riding Keen, Gurney finished fourth in the Grand Prix and 10th overall. "That was phenomenal," she says. "I was a public school teacher riding a horse I'd bought for $1,000." She'd purchased the 17.2-hand gelding seven years earlier. "I'd gone to the Mexico City Games in 1968 and seen the kind of horses they had," she recalls. When she returned home to California, she went horse shopping. "There were no warmbloods in California at the time, so I went around to all the Thoroughbred farms." In 1969, she found the then 3-year-old Keen, a racehorse who'd never raced. Gurney laughs and says,? "He was too big to fit in the starting gate."

With his heavier build and talent for piaffe and passage, Keen certainly didn't look the part of a runner. "I'm not sure he was a straight Thoroughbred," Gurney says. "I didn't save any of his hair?I could have DNA'ed him [today]. But he was really hot. It took two people to lead him. And when he got excited, he wanted to passage. By the Olympics, I'd put a lot of mileage on him, so it wasn't an issue." Gurney, who'd come to dressage through eventing, trained the horse herself with help from Franz Rochowansky and Ljungquist at the American Dressage Institute in New York.

Gurney and Keen had gone east to compete in 1974. "It was a tough summer," she recalls. "No American-bred or -trained horse had ever made the team, and I was told Keen wasn't the quality needed for international competition." Undaunted, Gurney pressed on, trying out for the Pan American Games in 1975, which required yet another cross-country trip for the California-based duo. "I threw Keen in a trailer and went to Gladstone." The German judges there were particularly taken with the big chestnut. Gurney was named as the reserve for the Pan Am Games in Mexico City, then joined the team when Edith Master's horse went lame. She and Keen went on to win an individual silver medal.

For Gurney, winning team bronze in Montreal was unforgettable. "Keen tried so hard for me," she says. "The Germans offered me a blank check for him, but I couldn't sell him. My whole life was centered around him."

On their home turf in Bromont, the Canadians fielded their own all-female dressage team?Christilot Hanson (later Boylen), Lorraine Stubbs and Barbara Stracey?and finished fifth behind the Soviets. At 29, Boylen already had three Olympics under her belt, but she remembers the 1976 Games for several reasons, not the least of which was her seventh-place finish in the Special. "Montreal was a lovely competition, but since it was in Bromont, it had more the atmosphere of a big championship," she says. "We were too far away from the rest of the Olympic happenings. But it was also the Olympics with heavy security, particularly in Bromont. The [British] royal family was there because Princess Anne was competing. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were everywhere."

In individual competition, European dressage champion Christine St?ckelberger of Switzerland and her legendary Holsteiner gelding, Granat, won the gold medal. West Germany's Harry Boldt took silver and Klimke won bronze.

1980 Alternate Olympics
Led by the United States, some 60 nations sat out the summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the Games was controversial. As the Games went on in Moscow, Austria's Elisabeth Theurer won individual dressage gold (although her national federation had joined the boycott). An alternate dressage competition was organized at the sprawling Goodwood Estate in England. The jumping competition was held in Rotterdam, while eventing went to Fontainebleau, France.

For Lendon Gray, a member of the U.S. dressage team?along with Linda Zang, John Winnett and Gwen Stockebrand under coach Melle van Bruggen?the Goodwood Games represented her first international show. Goodwood might not have been the official Olympics of 1980, but for Gray, who later represented the United States at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, it was an Olympic-caliber competition all the same. "It was a major international dressage show," she says. "We had pretty much everyone there who would have been our competition."

The Germans won team gold, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. It was all pretty heady stuff for Gray. "I was fairly overwhelmed," she says. "I had very little experience. Nowadays, when somebody goes to the Olympics, they've done a tremendous amount, but I'd only ridden my first Grand Prix two years previously." With the American-bred and registered Holsteiner gelding Beppo, she had the unenviable task of riding immediately after St?ckelberger. "Everyone?even the street sweepers?came in to watch Christine and Granat," says Gray with a laugh. "Then in comes this little American whom no one had ever heard of. I remember as I was going around the outside of the ring that everyone started leaving. And then when I went in, the only tracks in the ring were hers. All I could think was, Wow." Nevertheless, their performance was enough to help the U.S. team finish in seventh place. "Beppo was not a spectacular horse by any means," Gray notes. "To say he wasn't fancy was putting it mildly. But he was a good boy."

The 1980 alternate Olympics was also the first time Canada's Bonny Bonnello represented her country. She rode her Westfalen gelding, Satchmo, and remembers, "The trip over was very exciting. I'd competed in Europe, but I was pretty green then. For me, Goodwood was huge." She'd purchased Satchmo in Germany two years earlier after participating in a clinic with dressage master Georg Theodorescu. The horse, she says, was as reliable as they come. "Nothing bothered Satchmo. It didn't matter what kind of venue it was. He was fine with it."

Bonnello went on to compete at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, but Goodwood will always remain special. "You work hard to make it to the team," she says. "You have all your sacrifices, but it's a great journey to get there. And you never stop feeling like you could do it again. That desire never goes away."

Next month, Robert Dover, Jessica Ransehousen and others remember the 1984 and 1988 Games.

This article was originally printed in the March 2012 issue of Dressage Today.?If you are interested in reading more articles like this, consider?subscribing.

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