It takes a lot of courage to leave everything you know behind and cross the world to chase a dream, especially when you are just 18 years old and you are completely alone. But for Australia’s Simone Pearce, courage and determination know no bounds.
Focused, ambitious, naturally talented and highly intuitive, the 31-year-old athlete will stride into the ring for the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final 2023 in Omaha (USA) as a first-timer. And what will make her presence all the more remarkable is the way she got there.
“My whole career is so unexpected – I just feel like everything I do is beating the odds when you look at the sport! I’m just really lucky to have made it to where I am and to still have more possibilities – to do the Olympics (Tokyo 2020), the World Championships (Herning 2022), and now the World Cup Final – for me it’s all just a dream!” she says.
Middle of nowhere
From rural Victoria where she lived on a sheep farm “sort of in the middle of nowhere,” horses have always been part of her life.
“We grew up re-training racehorses, so I was doing Pony Club and a bit of Showing with thoroughbreds, Campdrafting, Barrel-racing, everything you can dream of, but I always loved Dressage when I saw it on TV. When I was 14, I had a thoroughbred and decided to teach him Dressage and we ended up going to Prix St George level, so that’s how I got a feel for it, but when I moved to Europe I was not a Dressage rider by any means!” Simone insists.
Her arrival at Johan and Penny Rockx’s competition and dealing yard in Roosendaal in The Netherlands in 2009 was a pretty random affair. There was no big plan. “I was just Googling ‘jobs in Europe with horses’ and they came up!” Simone explains.
She was a working student, so mucking out was a big part of the day. “But they let me ride a bit, and after a few weeks they said, ‘Hey, you’re not bad at this,’ so they let me do more and, in the end, they told me I could probably make it as a rider and that I should find myself a real job!”
So six months later, she started working for Sabina Rueben in Germany, riding young horses in her sales barn. The production of youngsters would become Simone’s calling card over the next few years because she has quite a gift for it. Yet she never had any formal training.
“Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise because it makes you get your own feeling with every horse. I was very self-taught. Of course I had a few lessons but I never had a trainer, and I think starting off that way, just playing around and learning, is what saved me in Europe, because I always had to figure it out for myself!” she explains.
Although she now has plenty of older and more experienced horses to ride, she still enjoys taking on the young ones, “because I like everything about riding and I just enjoy developing them at any level. I’m not coming from money, so any opportunity that I get where I get to ride a nice horse no matter how old it is I’m super-grateful!” she points out.
Her career then began to move on apace.
Sabina had a connection with Gestut Sprehe where they needed a young-horse rider for their stallions, so Simone moved there for a year. “I had one older stallion there – I think he was the first horse I competed at S level – and he got sold to Platinum stable in Holland, and when he was sold, they offered me the job as their main rider, so for me that was a big step-up so I took the job.”
When the Platinum operation was being wound up, Andreas Helgstrand came to look at some horses and he was so impressed when Simone rode two for him that the top Danish rider, trainer, and dealer asked her to come and work for him. She flew to Denmark, but the scale of the operation didn’t appeal to her. However, when Platinum closed down, she changed her mind.
“I said I’d come for one year only, but I think I was there for three or four years. It was never my intention to stay a long time, but the horses there are amazing and Severo (Jurado Lopez ESP) and some other incredible riders were there so I learned a lot,” Simone says.
She never lost sight of her main goal – to become a top international rider. She felt she had to leave the big Danish operation if she was to realise her long-held dream.
“What’s gotten me to the place where I am now is that I’m willing to take risks with my career and I’m also willing to see when it’s time to take the next step. Not so many riders coming from not a wealthy background and not a horse background with people supporting them can make it to a high level, because they get stuck or they are not brave enough to move or whatever. With me it’s always been that I have to give it everything, because no-one is going to give it to me. I could have ridden some nice horses and do nice things, but if I wanted to be a top international rider, I had to find a different path,” she explains.
Going back to Gestut Sprehe would be her next step. “Initially it was to ride for a half-day, but they had such good horses and I ended up riding full-time for them for four years.” Simone’s biggest highlight while there was finishing second in the Grand Prix Special at CDIO5* Aachen (GER) riding Destano in September 2021. Their score of 73.426 left them just fractionally behind reigning Olympic, European, and FEI Dressage World Cup™ champion Jessica von Bredow-Werndl from Germany who was competing with Ferdinand BB that day.
Then, 10 months ago, she moved to Gestut Bonhomme which is located about 45 minutes from the city of Berlin.
Leaving Destano wasn’t easy, “but at Sprehe I wasn’t the main rider, so coming to Bonhomme and being the main rider opened up more possibilities. So when the previous rider, Lena Waldmann, was leaving I saw a beautiful opportunity. They felt it was a perfect fit, and so did I!”
Thus began her partnership with the stallion Fiderdance who she’s taking to Omaha. “He’s 14 and he’s like Benjamin Button, getting younger by the day – he’s very fresh!”
The pair didn’t have long to make a partnership. “It was a bit crazy because I had only one month to qualify for Herning (FEI World Championships 2022) so I rode him for two weeks before our first international show, and let’s say we survived but not in the most glorious manner! But it developed quickly after that,” she says.
She describes Fiderdance as “the most spoiled character and he knows it – he’s really cute and looks chilled but he’s a real firecracker!”
They competed in Aachen and Herning last summer, “and over the winter season we did some nice shows. It was a surprise when we were invited to compete at the World Cup Final but it’s an amazing opportunity and we are very happy to be there!”
Her parents, Robin and Chris Pearce, won’t be flying in but they will be watching closely from Down Under.
And her expectations? “We are in good shape and will do the best we can. He’s a bit hot in an indoor arena with music so we’ll see how that plays out!”
It’s going to be an emotional trip for everyone connected with the Bonhomme operation. Simone arrived at the stud in Brandenburg at a very difficult time.
“Sadly, the owner, Evelyn Gutman, passed away the day I started here. She was one of the most famous personalities in the breeding scene in Germany and she created this wonderful place for horses.”
Despite the sense of loss, there will be a special moment at the forthcoming Final, because Evelyne Gutman’s mother will celebrate her 90th birthday on the day of the Freestyle in Omaha.
When asked if she will have a trainer in her contingent at the US fixture, Simone said she won’t. She has always done things alone.
“That’s not because I don’t want a trainer it’s just because circumstantially, I always worked in stables where it is my job to fix the horses, not their job to pay someone to fix me!”
So would she like one? “I’d love one, and if Carl Hester is reading this, please consider me!!” she says with a laugh.
Her heroes include British star Hester, “because I think he is the best rider and trainer in the world.” But she has a special place in her heart for fellow-Aussie and double-Olympian Lyndal Oatley, who is based in Munster, Germany with husband and Swedish Olympian Patrik Kittel.
From the beginning
“She has been there right from the beginning when I started to have success as a Grand Prix rider. She’s so in my corner and a big support system to me, particularly since I don’t have family in the sport or a trainer or anyone. It can be hard to navigate and she has been great!”
Someone else she is grateful to is her Australian groom Emily Readave. “She’s been with me for the last six years, and she’s been the one pushing me to believe in myself so I owe a huge thank you to her,” Simone says.
Self-belief is important, and when you mix that with large dollops of talent, determination, ambition, and energy, then you have a recipe for a successful future. Simone wants others to know that so they, too, can follow their dreams.
“I think my life is like a lesson to every little girl out there – you don’t need money, you don’t need someone special behind you – if you really go for it everything is possible!”
She is living proof of that.
Follow her every move when the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final begins in Omaha (USA) on 5 April.
by Louise Parkes
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