Erin Zimmermann wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she bought 3-year-old Aeris.
Zimmermann had just started her journey in dressage a year before on a schoolmaster after doing low-level eventing as a child and then attending college and finishing grad school. Growing up she’d often ridden project horses and jokingly referred to herself as a “crash test dummy.” But as an adult rider who’d never started a dressage horse, buying a 3-year-old trail horse who looked like an Andalusian wasn’t the most logical choice.
Something about the gray mare’s look and “can-do” attitude caught Zimmermann’s eye though, and she took a chance.
Now, six years later, Zimmermann has achieved her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze and silver medals on her “Amish Warmblood,” and she has gold in sight.
“I thought maybe in 10 years we would hit third level,” said Zimmermann, 34. “I recognized that I could do some dressage stuff on a schoolmaster, but I didn’t know how to train a horse to any high level. I’d ridden a lot of green horses in my life, but I really didn’t expect myself to be able to bring up a horse through the levels. Years later, [my trainer Nicole Harrington] admitted she wasn’t entirely sure that Aeris would even canter. She was never going to tell me that because she wants to believe in every horse, but she just wasn’t really sure that was going to be a thing!”
Zimmermann grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and she had a family connection to riding through her mother and an aunt. Once she reached her 20s, she decided she’d rather not jump and made the switch to dressage.
She found Aeris near Atlanta. Life circumstances had forced the mare’s previous owner to give Aeris to the barn owner, who then sold her to Zimmermann. At the time, Zimmermann wasn’t sure of the mare’s origins and assumed she was an Andalusian.
“She walk/trotted and kind of steered,” Zimmermann said. “I couldn’t even get canter in both rides I did. But I just really liked her. She was so calm. She’d passed hands a couple of times. We thought she was 4, turns out she was 3. She wanted to do the right thing so badly. Even when it came to cantering, she just had this big canter and not the balance to keep it up, but she wanted to please so badly.”
Zimmermann eventually made contact with Aeris’ former owner through Facebook.
“She had messaged me saying how she was glad the horse had a good home, and she had been following me and watching from the sidelines,” Zimmermann said. “From there, I found the person she had bought the horse from, who it turns out was in Michigan near the Indiana border. That’s how I found out she came from an Indiana auction house in Shipshewana [in the heart of Amish country]. It was kind of wild. It was one of those good uses of social media, and they continue to be her cheerleaders from the sidelines.”
How Aeris ended up at the auction is still a mystery, but her breed is not anymore. Zimmermann had her DNA tested at Texas A&M University and found out she’s a Percheron-Dutch Harness Horse. After some research, Zimmermann found out the cross is actually quite popular for riding and driving.
“Now that I’ve seen some, they do look exactly like her, and I totally see it,” Zimmermann said. “She doesn’t look Andalusian at all.”
Zimmermann met her current trainer, Nicole Harrington, after seeing she’d worked with Andalusians back when she thought that’s what she had. Harrington has helped the pair move up the levels.
Zimmermann, Cincinnati, is quite busy with her full-time job working on testing and validating jet engines, and she’s spent time in Italy working with a team there, but she’s able to ride regularly. She and Aeris have competed at the U.S. Dressage Finals (Kentucky) and regional championships several times. They earned their silver medal last year.
“2019 was really busy,” Zimmermann said. “I got married; I did two different work trips to Italy, one that was a month long in October, so I knew I couldn’t do regionals. I felt OK about making a solid attempt at getting my Prix St. Georges scores.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Zimmermann hasn’t gotten back into the ring yet, but she’s hoping to soon. “When I came into 2020, I had planned to do a lot of shows; I absolutely had regionals in sight. I was hoping to shoot for Finals, but now it’s just sort of sitting back and weighing my options,” she said. “It’s not just trying to get to a horse show, it’s, ‘Where do you stay? Are there restaurants open? What are the restrictions?’ I’m just watching and waiting to see how the first wave of horse shows that open up go through.”
Now 9, Aeris continues to improve, and Zimmermann is excited to continue her journey with her “Amish Warmblood.”
“The Amish Warmblood moniker came from the fact that she was from an Amish auction, but it also is sort of a reminder that she is a very American horse,” said Zimmermann. “It’s a joking sort of thing, but sometimes it’s nice to remember that horses like her exist in all corners of the U.S.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask where I imported her from or what her bloodlines are,” she continued. “It’s so funny, because first of all, that’s a very ‘dressage’ question to ask. But it’s also funny because, while she’s grown up nicely, when I first got her she had the stumpiest little legs. She was like 15.2. I was a little big on her, but I didn’t have a lot of money. It was like one year her legs just grew, and now she’s 16.3, she’s massive, she looks like a warmblood, and people are always asking me fancy questions about her. It’s like, ‘No, she came from the livestock auction. She just decided to be fancy one day, and here we are.’ ”