By Erin Zimmerman
When I was twelve years old, I had two simple goals; I was going to become an engineer, and I would use the money from that job to buy a horse. Before you start imagining that I had thoroughly planned my entire future, though, this was also about the same time I told my mother that dressage was “for old ladies who couldn’t jump anymore,” and that I would never buy a gray horse because they’re just too hard to keep clean. So, as I paraded through the victory lap at US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® on my lovely, gray, draft-cross mare, Aeris, I thought about how long I had worked to reach this point, and how wonderfully improbable our journey so far has been.
As a kid, I was the barn wild child. Every barn has at least one scrappy kid that enjoys nothing more than tangling with the naughtiest, feistiest ponies and, for my little barn in Wilmington, Delaware, that was me. The head trainer once told my mom that Charlotte, my favorite pony, and I were improving because “they don’t scare me half as much as they used to”. I took it as a mark of pride. Like most crazy kids, I took to eventing and saw dressage as a boring appetizer before the cross-country feast. However, my antics led to a good deal of falls, scrapes, and a broken bone. By the end of college, I had lost my nerve. In my head, I still wanted to jump, but my body language told a different story. My trainer at the time suggested I switch to dressage, but I brushed it aside. Remember, I told myself, “Dressage is for old ladies who can’t jump anymore”.
After taking a three year break from riding, to work and complete my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering, I returned to riding with a new sense of honesty. Maybe it was time to retire my jumping saddle and give real dressage a try. I found a schoolmaster to lease and started my new love affair with the discipline. Much like my studies in Systems Engineering, dressage makes you think about how each portion of the body must work together to create balance, ease, and harmony. Also, while quite precise and contained, it still requires the power and energy I had once found so exciting on the cross-country course. Embracing my new love, I decided to take my meager budget and buy my first horse.
I bought Aeris in 2013. She was about three or four years old and pretty green, but I loved her movement and low-key attitude. Originally a family trail horse, she was brave and quiet, but knew little past walk and trot. Her breeding was also a mystery (initially thought to be an Andalusian cross, DNA tests suggest she is mostly Percheron and Hackney), but I didn’t care. Watching her in the arena, I knew she had the clever, curious personality that I loved. After bringing her home to Ohio, she proved herself to be a fast learner and an old soul. She can be in an arena with a horse running wild on the lunge line and not bat an eyelash. I can count only twice where she has actually spooked, and one of those instances involved fire. She has quietly packed my mom and many of my friends around the ring, always carefully carrying any new rider. Despite all of this, however, she is not a dead-head. She is brave and confident, often snorting in spite of herself when she knows she has performed well. Her favorite gait is extended canter and she has plenty of motor to gallop across an open field. While her other favorite ring activity is ‘stop and chat’, when asked, she is a flexible, capable powerhouse.
Our journey toward the 2017 US Dressage Finals was a bit more challenging than previous years. My boyfriend (now fiancé!) and I decided this was a good year to renovate our entire house. On one notable Friday, I worked a mostly full day, rode Aeris, then came home and built IKEA kitchen cabinets for about eight hours. Aeris, meanwhile, was going through some awkward growth spurts, often resembling a Great Dane puppy with her strange, jutting shoulder angles and large features. All of this made training an extra challenge. I do most of the riding on her under the careful guidance of my trainer, Nicole Harrington, and my lack of time combined with her growing body made learning new movements, particularly flying changes, quite difficult. One week we would be smooth as glass, the next week her chest would pop and she wouldn’t know what to do with her front legs. Like many things in horses and in life, it was comical and frustrating all at once.
Despite the challenging year, we were able to qualify for Finals in the 3rd Level Adult Amateur Musical Freestyle, although even that was close. At the Great American/USDF Region 4 Championships, I came within two strides of elimination before a kind bystander yelled for me to drop my whip. So, as Aeris and I entered the Alltech Arena to do our first warm up, I felt grateful. It was our third trip to Finals, but it felt extra special with all that we had faced and with the added bonus of graduating to the huge, indoor arena. As we walked around the outside of the ring and I stared up at the flags overhead, I could hear Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” playing over the loudspeaker. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” I laughed; a perfect song to fit the moment.
Being a repeat competitor at Finals is not unlike attending summer camp. You see some familiar faces and old friends, get stable “bunk” mates, and drool over the eye candy of the top horses in the United States. With our championship class not until Sunday of that week, I divided my time between watching and helping my trainer with her three horses, and watching various tests around the horse park. As I watched, it was impossible not to strike up conversations with other riders or spectators. The joy and excitement each person felt mirrored my own, and it was inspiring to hear about their journeys to the competition. To me, that is what sets Finals apart from any other competition: each person knows how hard it is to just earn the chance to compete.
Finally, it was Sunday. I felt reasonably confident. Aeris had schooled well in the Alltech, even when other horses nearby had spooked or reacted. I did our normal morning routine, plaiting running braids into both sides of Aeris’s neck while listening to pop music. Once complete, I plugged in my headphones, closed my eyes and listened to my freestyle music, picturing every step of my choreography.
In a perfect world, each step in my performance would have gone exactly as I had envisioned it in my head: laterals would flow seamlessly, extensions would be expressively powerful, and I would win the coveted cooler. However, to answer Freddie Mercury, this is real life, not fantasy. In real life, riding a seven-year-old horse into the Alltech Arena to compete is much trickier than I had previously thought. At most horse shows, my class warm up consists of lateral work, practicing some changes and then, right before going in, schooling some extensions to get her blood up. As I moved Aeris up into the extended canter, I could feel her nervous excitement let loose and she charged down the long side. Always good on brakes, I was able to bring her back, but she was now snorting as she marched around in an excited power-walk. I gave her a pat and took a deep breath. I shook off the creeping self doubt. No matter what happened out there, I was proud and happy to get the experience of riding in that famed arena.
We passed under the entry gate and I could feel Aeris’s whole body grow. She loves an audience at shows and lives to perform, but this was different. Suddenly, that ring that had seemed so inviting in the prior days’ schooling looked huge and ominous with the hum of activity hanging in the background. We marched forward, but I could see Aeris’s ears flipping in every direction, trying to catch the sounds of activity all around her. The bell rang and I raised my hand to start the music. No matter what happened from here on out, we had made it. The test started out a bit rocky. Both extended trots face away from the judges’ booths and Aeris took those opportunities to break into a few strides of canter to escape the scary platforms. She was nervous, but still working hard to stay focused on me. As our music transitioned to the walk, I felt her loosen and relax a bit. The music was quiet and peaceful; I could see her ear radar settle down and focus on the familiar sound. I thought, maybe we can pull it together.
While the canter had some bobbles, I could feel her getting more confident. By the final strides, she was moving forward boldly and confidently. Thundering down the last centerline and coming to a halt, I took a glance at the jumbotron screen above and Aeris’s name lit up in big letters. In four years, she had made her way into the big ring, and in five minutes she had matured into a star.
We had faced our biggest show together and proven we deserved to be there.
We earned fifth place, which I was really proud of for our first year at Third Level and first time in the Alltech Arena. Facing our fears, staying bold and forward, I would like to think that I am not “an old lady who can’t jump anymore”. I am, proudly, a dressage rider.