By Sarah Parsons
In 1976, three women did something that hadn’t been done in almost thirty years. They won a team medal in dressage at the Montreal Olympics for the United States. Hilda Gurney, Dorothy Morkis, and Edith Masters. It didn’t matter that half the newscasters in the nation couldn’t pronounce the sport’s name correctly – as an impressionable 13-year-old, I wanted to be like them.
For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me riding lessons. Living in Colorado, that meant that you learned to ride western. After the Olympics in ’76, I switched over to riding English at Hillcroft Acres in Golden, Colorado with my instructor Donna Baker. It was challenging and different, but I enjoyed it completely. Unfortunately, my friends didn’t quite understand what I was doing and kept referring to it as “Eastern riding” instead of English riding. Donna helped start me in dressage, although there were no shows we could go to. A few years later, Donna did something I had never heard of – she gave up her job and her life in Colorado and moved to Germany to train with elite riders there.
At that time there was only one other well-known dressage trainer in the Denver area, Julie Sodowsky. I moved over to her barn, Table Mountain Recreational Ranch, and started to work with her. She had just spent the unbelievable amount (at the time) of five thousand dollars for a young Thoroughbred, named American Pie. I never knew anyone personally who spent that much money on a horse. I got to ride her old school master, Dubonnet. He was very patient with me, and we did well together. It was a wonderful time for a young teenager. And I had the sense I was at the beginning of a new world. A completely new world.
Julie recommended I join a new organization that had only been around for five years. It was called the United States Dressage Federation. We all knew of the AHSA and AQHA, but I had never heard of USDF. No one had. The Rocky Mountain Dressage Society (RMDS) was the local Group Member Organization (GMO), although, back then, I don’t think they were called GMO’s. I joined the Foothills Chapter, and we met every month in the room upstairs at Table Mountain’s indoor riding arena. There were less than twenty of us, and the three juniors had to sit on the floor. I never had so much fun as a teenager.
We were a small group, but we were enthusiastic and willing to go the distance for our sport. It wasn’t unheard of traveling a thousand miles to go to a recognized show. Julie drove her small red two-horse trailer from Denver to Chicago or Phoenix routinely with a small caravan of trailers and cars following her.
It was a different time back then. We didn’t have freestyle classes, we had kur classes which cost 12 dollars to enter. Our shows were catered by high school clubs, and our trophies for classes were things like coffee pots and trays. And not a single rhinestone in sight, or any colors other than black or white. We used track wraps instead of polos – no one had polo wraps in those days.
RMDS worked hard to bring in instructors from across the country to teach us. Hilda Gurney and Keen came to the Mile High Ranch to give a demonstration. Alex Steiner and Bodo Hagans came to Table Mountain for clinics. We watched films about top riders and started judges seminars.
It was in the early eighties, when a dressage exhibition was finally done at the National Western Stock Show. I repeatedly heard people say that they’d “never seen a horse do that before” or “my horse can’t do that.” And I would encourage them by saying, “Anyone can do it and any horse would benefit from it.” The membership grew and more shows began to take place.
I never got to be like Hilda Gurney or Dorothy Morkis or Edith Masters, but because of my association with USDF I was a volunteer for the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky and an administrative assistant for the Atlanta Olympic Games for the Equestrian Events and Modern Pentathlon.
As for the people who I met in those meetings as I sat on the floor watching videos, Julie Sodowsky is an FEI rider and trainer. Janet Brown became a FEI I-rated judge. Axel Steiner has been inducted in the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. Bodo Hagans unfortunately has died. Others have gone on to be successful trainers and judges and riders. And today, sportscasters know how to say the name of our sport correctly.
Sarah shared these great throwback photos with us of her time as a USDF member through the years:
If you notice on the page with the international winners of 1978 you will see a picture of Kay Meridith.
This was such an interesting trip down memory lane, and we appreciate Sarah taking the time to share these items with us! USDF celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Will you join us in Omaha for the Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention to celebrate the occasion? If you have vintage USDF items you’d like to share of our organization and the sport of dressage through the years, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.