American Dressage Legends: Margarita “Migi” Serrell

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Reprinted from the April 2016 USDF Connection magazine.

In the early 1960s, dressage was little known or respected in the US. Margarita “Migi” Noble Serrell (1917-2008) was one of a few dedicated enthusiasts who sought to promote and develop the sport in this country. The dressage organization she founded would become the first in the country to launch a national educational program, and it was a forerunner to the USDF.

Serrell, a nearly lifelong resident of Greenwich, CT, rode from an early age and served as joint master of the Fairfield/Westchester Fox Hounds before developing a love of dressage. She eventually progressed to the Grand Prix level, becoming something of a rarity among American dressage riders of her time.

Like many New York City metropolitan-area residents, Serrell liked to beat the summer heat by escaping to the upstate New York resort and horse-racing city of Saratoga Springs. It was there that she would help make American dressage history.

In Saratoga, Serrell befriended other dressage enthusiasts, including future Roemer Foundation/ USDF Hall of Famer Dr. Max Gahwyler, who lived not far from Serrell in Darien, CT. The friends began riding in Saratoga and enjoying the city’s cultural offerings, including as the summer home of the New York City Ballet.

In 1967, eager to further their dressage educations, Serrell and her friends made what she called a trial effort at hosting a dressage seminar in Saratoga. As she told USDF Connection in 2002: “One summer, we got together a couple of guinea pigs who wanted to become acquainted with another level of riding. Things went so well during those first two and half weeks that we said, Let’s not let this go, and let’s put it together the next summer. Guess who everyone looked at?” Serrell thus was put in charge of the effort,  and she would serve for six years as president of the organization she created, which she called the American Dressage Institute.

Serrell herself provided most of the funding for the ADI’s inaugural seminar, a three-week program held in Saratoga in 1968. Then-Spanish Riding School of Vienna director Col. Hans Handler, a friend of Gahwyler’s, was the clinician.

The ADI Dressage Seminar initially attracted riders from New England and the Mid- Atlantic, but word spread and soon riders were coming from as far away as California and New Mexico to learn. The organization even developed a symbiotic relationship with the New York City Ballet. The late George Balanchine, the legendary NYCB director, loved the Spanish Riding School’s Lipizzan stallions. Although Balanchine’s dream of having his dancers perform with the Lipizzans never materialized, he did arrange for a 1967 publicity photo of himself and then- NYCB prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell en pointe next to a stallion and his rider. Then-NYCB general director Lincoln Kirstein became board chairman of the ADI, as well; ADI letterhead from that time even bears the address of Lincoln Center, the New York City home of the NYCB.

Education and Beyond

Serrell and her fellow ADI supporters dreamed that the organization would become a true US national dressage academy. In her 1969 letter to the ADI membership, she wrote hopefully: “Our goal of a school whose sole purpose is to teach the correct basic elements of classical dressage seems to be almost within our grasp and points the way toward putting the USA in the running again on an International level.”

For a time, it seemed as if the dream might come true. The 1969 ADI seminar drew 17 riders and 10 auditors from 15 states, according to Serrell’s letter. Many well-known riders and trainers were ADI “graduates,” among them FEI 5* dressage judge and Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee Linda Zang, Olympian and fellow Hall of Famer Michael Poulin, the late FEI-level competitor and judge Alexsandra Howard, and judge Thomas Poulin.

Even more tantalizing was the thought of a permanent ADI riding school. As Serrell reported in her 1969 letter: “Skidmore College [in Saratoga Springs] is planning a new riding center to be, hopefully, ready in the spring of 1971. A.D.I. has agreed to raise $50,000 toward the building fund which would insure [sic] us permanent riding facilities where we can teach twelve months of the year. In return for this money, A.D.I. would have ten box stalls, an office, indoor school and our own teaching staff, available to all at any pre-arranged time, plus additional outdoor arenas and housing for non-resident students, maintaining, the while, our own identity.”

American Dressage Institute president Migi Serrell addresses the audience at the 1971 opening of the Skidmore College Riding Center and ADI facility in Saratoga Springs, NY

The Skidmore College Riding Center, with ADI facilities, did indeed open in July 1971, with Serrell and other ADI and dressage dignitaries attending the opening ceremony and dressage performances. The ADI went on to conduct several week-long sessions from the riding center’s opening until its eventual dissolution in 1978. Gahwyler took over from Serrell as president in 1973 and served until the ADI’s closing. Under his watch, the ADI’s most significant achievement was the hiring of the late Swedish Col. Bengt Ljungquist as its head instructor, and the subsequent ADI sponsorship of dressage training sessions at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, NJ, headquarters of the United States Equestrian Team (now USET Foundation).

The ADI had a vision that went beyond dressage education, and with Serrell’s help it too became a reality. In that same 1969 letter to ADI members, she wrote: “There is no reason to doubt that, with proper facilities and first rate staff, ADI could produce a rider and a horse of Olympic quality for 1972, and perhaps even two for 1976.”

Surpassing Serrell’s hopes, the US was able to field an entire dressage team for the 1976 Olympics; and Hilda Gurney/Keen, Dorothy Morkis/Monaco, and Edith Master/Dahlwitz brought home the bronze medal—the first US Olympic dressage medal since 1948. The ADI footed the $20,000 bill to send the team to Montreal.

A Lasting Legacy

Serrell proved instrumental in the establishment of the USDF, as well. Representing both the ADI and the Westchester-Fairfield Dressage Society, she attended the USDF founding meeting in 1973 and continued to attend USDF annual meetings as a delegate for some years to come.

Sidley Payne and ADI president Migi Serrell perform at the ADI/Skidmore College Riding Center opening in 1971

As the USDF took hold and grew, it became evident that the American dressage community at the time was not able to sustain two national dressage organizations. According to Gahwyler, with a membership of about 500, the ADI was unable to keep pace with the USDF’s numbers, and the ADI’s run ended in 1978. But through her creation of the ADI, Serrell sowed the seeds of a wider-ranging effort to educate American dressage riders, trainers, and instructors. Today, the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program helps to carry on the ADI legacy of developing classically trained teachers and trainers.

In recognition of her seminal efforts in developing dressage in the US, the Roemer Foundation/ USDF Hall of Fame inducted Serrell in 2003.

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