Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023

Horse Of A Lifetime: Monaco

In his first dressage test in America, Monaco, the future Olympic medalist, tripped on the centerline and nearly fell down.  "It was a fourth level test, and he fell twice," recalled his Olympic partner and owner Dorothy Morkis.


In his first dressage test in America, Monaco, the future Olympic medalist, tripped on the centerline and nearly fell down.  “It was a fourth level test, and he fell twice,” recalled his Olympic partner and owner Dorothy Morkis.

“It was on the grass at Ox Ridge [Hunt Club in Darien, Conn.]. We came to halt, and down he went on his knee. Then we came around a turn, and he stumbled and fell again. He was so lazy. I called back to Ernst [Bachinger] in Europe and told him, and he said, ‘Kick him, kick him, kick him up. He’s sleeping.’ “

That aspect of Monaco’s personality never changed.

“If you didn’t stay on top of him throughout a ride, he’d be sleeping by the end of the test,” Morkis said. “If you let him, he’d just be a big pony.”

Who would have ever thought that the gray gelding would make the U.S. Olympic dressage team in 1976? And, not only make the team, but also score well enough to help the U.S. team win the bronze medal?

It certainly wasn’t the Europeans, who had rejected the 16.1-hand Hanoverian on the grounds that he just wasn’t Grand Prix material.

“The Europeans wanted ‘more bigger, more bigger.’ But more bigger just wasn’t in him in the way they wanted it. Their style of training and riding just didn’t fit him,” Morkis said.

It was after her Thoroughbred broke a pastern bone while galloping in his pasture that Morkis went hunting for a new horse in the winter of 1972. Her goal at the time wasn’t the Olympics, though.

“I just wanted a horse that could do everything so that I could learn to become a better rider. And at that time, you had to go to Europe to find horses that could do it all. We just didn’t have anything here in America,” Morkis said.

So she called her friend Ernst Bachinger, a former Oberreiter of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and he told her to come quick and see a horse owned by Germany’s Herbert Krug that might be perfect for her. It was love at first sight.

“He was beautiful. He had a beautiful head and neck and the kindest eyes,” Morkis said. “And his passage and piaffe were splendid.”

The only problem was she didn’t have the money to buy him on the spot. So Morkis headed home, hoping to get the money together. Meanwhile, Krug started showing the horse.

“Then Monaco started winning, and Krug didn’t want to sell him,” Morkis recalled.


But then Monaco hit a roadblock-empi changes. The German system of training and riding just didn’t suit the gray gelding, and he locked up. The more they pushed, the more he resisted. His changes were strained. The freedom of his gaits was lost. And by the summer, Krug was sending a telegram to Morkis, asking if she was still interested. She was and Monaco, at age 11, made the move to America. He cost Morkis the substantial but not stupendous sum of about $10,000.

Calm, Casual Curiosity

It was, said Morkis, the perfect fit-he lazy horse and the self-described “rather ignorant American rider.”

Recalled Morkis, “He taught me everything about riding, and I taught him that everything’s OK. Life is great.”

Monaco’s life with Morkis was far less pressured than it had been in Germany. She rode him loose and long as she took him trail riding.

A more relaxed, less structured training regimen-he only way Morkis knew how to work a horse”was just what Monaco needed at that stage of his training. He needed someone who would cut him some slack, and, eventually, they developed the ideal partnership. She learned how to push him when she had to; he learned to give her the movements”especially the troublesome tempi changes-o her when she asked.

“At that time in my riding, I was a dumb American. What did I know of training a top dressage horse?” said Morkis. “And I was pregnant when I got him too. I rode about in a long rein. Off we’d go”dinky, dinky, dinky. But you know? It worked. The tension went away. He got loose in the shoulder.”

The laziness never left Monaco, but with it came the easy-going attitude that Morkis credits with saving them during their Olympic ride, the one that earned the U.S. dressage team its first Olympic medal in 28 years.

“We were the last of the team to go, and I knew the medal depended on me,” Morkis recalled.

And she was petrified. A fading photo of her and Monaco shot moments before they entered the ring shows the terrified look on her face. But the look in Monaco’s eyes is one of calm, casual curiosity about the whole affair.

“He was like, ‘Yup, OK, here we go,’ ” Morkis said. “Nothing fazed him. He would go anywhere, anytime. He didn’t care.”

Still, the energy of the Olympic environment at the stadium in Bromont, Que., did get to him as the duo started their first extended trot across the diagonal.

“He was put in a new circumstance and got a little excited,” Morkis said. “So I almost got run away with. But I stood up in the stirrups and said, ‘Hello’ and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, right, OK.’ And he was back with me.”


Monaco turned out such a stunning performance that even the Europeans were surprised.

“Reiner Klimke came up to me and said, ‘We never thought that horse could move like that,’ ” Morkis recalled. “They had rejected him because of the tempi problem and because he didn’t have the gaits. It was because he wasn’t free in the shoulder.”

“He Just Liked People”

For Morkis, there will never be another Monaco because he was a “once-in-a-lifetime horse.” And while his laziness made her work hard when she rode him, in many other ways there was no better horse.

“He had the best, most honest character there ever was,” Morkis said. “He was so kind, so caring. When he was a little older, the girls once spent all day dressing him up as a reindeer, and he just didn’t care. He didn’t care what they did to him. He just liked people and figured that they all liked him.”

No horse has had more impact on Morkis’ life. She credits him with changing her life forever and with helping her become the trainer she is today.

“Every bit of riding knowledge I have is from him. He formed the whole basis for teaching me not only how to do the movements, but also how to feel”and you can never really advance without learning to feel. If you halfway asked for it, he’d give it to you. That’s how kind he was.”

After the Olympics, Monaco was on the U.S. team at the 1978 World Champion-ships, where he finished seventh. “He was never outside of the top 12 in international competition,” Morkis said.

It was after the World Championships that Morkis retired Monaco at age 18.

“He had a few issues, and he didn’t need to keep doing it. I decided to retire him while he was still on top,” she said. “I still schooled him a bit and the kids rode him, but mostly he became a family pet.”

The kind, gray gelding died in 1984 at age 23. A pony turned out in a paddock next to his apparently kicked him through the fence, fracturing his leg. Monaco was buried on the family farm in Dover, Mass.

She never has”and never will”forget him. And neither, it seems, will anyone else who worked with him.

About five years ago while on a horse-shopping trip to Germany, Morkis met up with a couple she’d met on a previous trip. This time they invited her into their home and into a hallway filled with photos of horses the man, whom Morkis only knows as Herr Wells, had trained. One of them was Monaco.

“He spoke only a little English, and we’re waiting in this hallway and my friend points to this photo and says, ‘That’s you and Monaco.’ And it was. And then the man brought me into his living room and showed me an oil painting. It was Monaco at the age of 3,” Morkis recalled. “He loved that horse.”

And so too did Morkis. “I owe him everything,” she said.




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