Current holder of all three Australian Grand Prix records, Simone Pearce is a force to be reckoned with, writes KIRSTY PASTO.
Australia’s Simone Pearce competed at her first Olympics last year in Tokyo. Her tests were eagerly watched by dressage fans here at home, glued to the live broadcasts and keen to see how she faired.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go entirely to plan, but isn’t that so often the way. In the equestrian world, setbacks are unavoidable. Just ask any athlete who competes in any discipline at a professional level and they’ll confirm!
However, the trick to overcoming disappointments is to possess an equal measure of perseverance and resilience, which the 30-year-old farm girl from Echuca in rural Victoria, has in spades.
There’s not a time Simone can recall when horses weren’t a part of her life. “My parents are both into horses, so I was born in the saddle,” she explains. However, like many other Australian youngsters who grew up with a passion for horses, she often found herself at auction yards in search of an affordable prospect to bring on. “I remember going to the Echuca sales as a kid, and we bought some off the track racehorses to see if they could jump. I grew up riding every breed you could imagine, in every discipline you can think of. I tried everything,” she reminisces.
After 18 months together, their partnership is strong (Image courtesy Australian Equestrian Team).
So if you’re thinking that rising through the dressage ranks requires a financially secure or otherwise privileged background, Simone proves this is not the case.
But it was the time she spent developing her riding and training skills on any horse that happened to come along that has stood her in remarkably good stead. “My speciality here in Europe is that I can ride everything from three-year-old stallions, to Grand Prix horses, to horses in need of retraining. I think growing up with a different mentality, and learning to make it work with horses that maybe weren’t built for it, or weren’t trained for it makes you more holistic in your approach. It’s a great start and a great foundation for everything that you need to learn as you progress to horses that are on that next level,” she says.
Simone’s path to international competition has been markedly different to the road travelled by many young European riders. Financial security has a significant bearing on the quality of horses they are able to access, and entry into the FEI system usually occurs early.
In Europe, riders decide on a discipline when they’re quite young, which, of course, has a marked impact on the trajectory of their careers. Simone tells me that in Germany, where she is currently based, that decision can be made from as early as six years old. “Then you get a really good pony, then a good junior horse, followed by a good Young Rider horse, and then a good Under 25s horse. It’s all so disciplined. It’s just a different world,” she laughs.
In contrast, growing up in Australia Simone trained her horses to Grand Prix level herself. She carefully observed her dressage idols and imitated what she saw until she began to advance up the grades: “I had one Thoroughbred in Australia and I trained him in all the Grand Prix movements. He was definitely a horse that taught me a lot. I think that was a really great foundation for me, and it gave me the confidence to come to Europe and do the same here.” And it’s that ability to ride in a number of disciplines and on a variety of horses that sets her apart from her European peers.
However, her journey to relocate to Europe as a professional rider was not always clearly defined. Searching for an alternative to University, Simone decided that a gap year would give her some life experience before she made a decision on her future: “I first went to Europe to model, working as a nanny in between, and also in Spain at a jumping stable,” she says.
Although surrounded by horses in the jumping yard, Simone missed her time in the saddle and the sheer joy of riding. It was a fortuitous conversation with one of her mother’s friends that changed the course of her career. “She told me about some people she knew in Belgium who took on working students. So I got on a train from Spain and went to Belgium and started working in a dressage stable as a working student,” she recalls.
A working pupil position is not one that’s known to be easy. It involves long hours of physical work, little time in the saddle, riding greener horses, and typically low wages, or sometimes only a small stipend in exchange for tuition and board. Every year, many working students come and go in stables across Europe. It’s not a job for the faint hearted and it requires dedication to remain in the role long enough to reap the rewards.
But Simone, not afraid of hard work, embraced the life and took full advantage of the opportunity. “I think I have the sort of character which suits this lifestyle. I haven’t really had too much difficulty taking on new challenges and opportunities. However, when you start from the bottom – I was mucking out stables and only riding a little in the beginning – it takes a lot of grit to keep going and to keep pushing and pushing through the years to get better.”
Simone has now spent more than a decade in Europe producing horses. She competed in her first World Young Horse Championships in 2016, and enjoyed a very successful collaboration with Helgstrand Dressage in Denmark, an internationally recognised sales and training stables.
After recuperating from a serious injury sustained when a horse she was schooling suffered an aortic tear and collapsed on her, Simone’s stars aligned and her hard work paid off. Following the 2019 sale of her Grand Prix ride Scolari to Japan, she took up the ride on Gestüt Sprehe’s 14-year-old black Hanoverian stallion Destano. It didn’t take long for the duo to become a formidable combination. After only a short time together they set, and currently still hold, all three Australian Grand Prix records, which earned them a berth on the team representing Australia at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
When I ask her about her Olympic debut, Simone tells me that even though things didn’t go as planned, the experience has made her stronger. “It was really hard for me. It wasn’t like the Olympics you dream of as a kid. I am disappointed there were things that stopped me from performing to my best, but I am proud that I dealt with the adversity.”
Despite the Olympics being a challenging and eye-opening experience for Simone, she bounced back by competing in the 2021 World Young Horse Championships on three horses. She then finished second on Destano at the prestigious 2021 CSIO5* Grand Prix Special at CHIO Aachen. “A few weeks after the Olympics, I had to compete in Aachen and push myself to be back on my game. I think riding at this 5* level was a really big learning curve for me, and I really appreciate that side of the Olympic experience.”
Simone on Quando Unico at the Young Horse Championships (Image by Timo Martis).
It takes strength of character to succeed in the world of dressage and Simone makes a conscious effort to keep a smile on her face and look for the positives in any situation, one of the reasons she’s become an inspiration for many young riders.
So how does she feel about being cast as a role model? She breaks into her infectious laugh: “I can’t believe it! It is funny because I don’t ever think about it. I think of myself as normal and just doing my job. I’m always shocked when someone sends a message on Instagram telling me that I’m one of their favourite riders. I really hope that as my career develops I can maybe be more of an inspiration to people who are coming from a background similar to my own – riders with not so much financial support and really having to make it from nothing. I would love to inspire and be there for people like that,” she says.
And although simple, her advice to any aspiring dressage rider is perhaps not a surprise: work hard. “I think the thing I’ve learned is that you have to be really willing to do the hard yards. I’ve seen a lot of riders who’ve come to Europe from Australia, but have not been willing to stay long enough. But really, you don’t have to be here to make it, you can do that in Australia or wherever you are. But you do have to be objective and open to seeing yourself at the level you’re at, and be willing to take the steps to go up through the levels. I’m still far away from where I want to be and I am still working to get there. I think it’s all about grit, determination and not giving up.”
Although living in Germany, Simone is an Aussie at heart and readily admits missing her home and the sense of belonging. “To be honest, I really miss Australia at the moment. I haven’t been back as much as I would have liked over the years because it’s really hard in the horse business. If you go away other riders have the opportunity to take the ride on your horses. So I try not to take holidays and I try not to be away. But I miss my family and that sense of being at home.”
But along with the hard work and sacrifices, there are compensations. Simone and Destano are now 32nd in the world rankings – quite an achievement for the girl from Echuca. “Now we look to the future with new goals and bigger and better dreams,” she says. But like many riders, Simone does it all for the love of her horses, and for the magic moments she shares with them.
And no matter where her career might lead her, or what she might do, one thing is for certain: Simone will be there with a smile.
Feature Image: Simone and Destano took out the prestigious 2nd place at Aachen (Image courtesy Australian Equestrian Team).