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.