Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

One To Watch: Simonne Berg Continues Fighting, All The Way To The World Cup Final

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As Simonne Berg left the arena in Las Vegas in 2021, her groom and friend Brent Kuylen dropped a giant statement on her.

“He said to me, ‘I think we can qualify for Omaha in 2023,’ ” recalled Berg.

Berg had just completed her first 1.60-meter course—and first World Cup qualifier class—in the $150,000 Longines FEI Las Vegas CSI4*-W on Nov. 21. She had three rails down, but the trip went well with her mount Cooper, and Berg felt confident in her ride. Still, she didn’t have Kuylen’s level of confidence.

“I looked at him,” she said, “and I was like, ‘What are you smoking because you’re nuts. There’s no way. Absolutely not.’ ”

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Simonne Berg has qualified for her first Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final this year in Omaha, Neb., with Cooper. Andrew Ryback Photography Photo

With the 2021 that Berg had, even competing, period, felt like a feat, and thoughts of the 2023 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final in Omaha, Nebraska, weren’t transitioning from the dream board to the goal board. But then she had shoulder surgery at the end of 2021, and when she returned after four months off, she started thinking of Kuylen’s words.

“I started riding and showing again in April, and I called him up, and I said, ‘OK, that might not be so dumb. I think we can do it,’ ” the 26-year-old said. “So we made that our goal, and I planned my summer around saving Cooper for the fall but doing enough shows that I could get him fit enough. And then we started the World Cup stuff at Sacramento, and we did really well there, and pretty good in Vegas and Texas as well. We were like, ‘Oh, I think I might have a shot.’ ”

Feeding The Dream

Various animal noises greet Berg as she makes her way through her oasis in Santa Rosa, California, with buckets of feed every morning. Though Berg has Kuylen at the shows, and someone to help with stalls at home, she does the rest of the barn duties.

“We have six horses at the farm currently, four cows, six goats, a pig, chickens and ducks,” she said. “Every morning, the alarm goes off to go feed in the morning, and then you’ve got to feed lunch, feed dinner, do turn out, grooming.

“I’m also juggling school full time as well,” Berg added. She’s attending Post University online, studying equine science. “I am not a big fan of school, but my mom really pushes to have a degree. So I figured, why not get one in a subject I know a lot about already, which has been quite nice. But it’s also hectic because at shows I have a groom, but at home I do not, so I take care of all the animals, not just the horses.”

Berg relinquished her amateur status at the beginning of 2021 to start Berg Equestrian Enterprises. Despite a brief period as a child when she wanted to be a chef, a life and career with horses always called to her.

Her start came in a western saddle, riding for fun with her father Harvey “Skip” Berg and older sister Madalyn Berg.

“My dad had me on horses before I could walk,” Simonne said. “Before I could even talk actually I would sit there watching my sister ride. I guess my mom would take me to the barn, and I would motion up to the horses.”

When Madalyn starting riding English, Simonne, as a little sister wanting to emulate the older in everything, did the same. She guessed she was 8 or 9 when she started in dressage, and she made it through first or second level before another forced switch—this time to show jumping.

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“I didn’t want to switch,” Simonne said. “My mom wanted me to ride more, and my dressage trainer at the time didn’t really have time to have kids after school because the way her life was. And so, my mom switched me to a jumper trainer, Meredith Herman at Sonoma Horse Park [California], really against my will.

“I was terrified to jump,” she continued. “She used to have to raise the jumps behind my back. I didn’t know how to count a distance. She took me all away from that to Young Riders and more.”

Then came a little Connemara named Limerick.

“He took me through 1.20-meter, and he won everything from here to the Paris Masters with me and at Spruce Meadows [Alberta],” Simonne said. “And I just remember on him, I wasn’t scared of anything—and he was quirky. He would spin, buck, squeal, all the things, but he would always win. He just gave me the most confidence.”

Later, as Simonne started forming her dream of Berg Equestrian Enterprises, Herman found her another important soul with four hooves, Cooper.

“I was in a meeting with my mom, and [Herman] texted me and said, ‘This horse is available. It’s a really cool, interesting-looking horse. We should go look at it,’ ” Simonne recalled. “And I said, ‘There is no way my mom is ever going to get another horse. No way. She said absolutely not. Not happening.’ ”

But to Simonne’s surprise, her mom, Brenda Berg, agreed to look at the horse. Simonne sat on him one time and instantly felt the connection. The next time she tried him, she brought Brenda along.

“My mom came with to watch, and I was actually really mad at her because she wasn’t watching the trial at all,” she said. “Afterwards we were heading back to the airport, and I was like, ‘You didn’t watch one jump. Why didn’t you watch anything?’ She’s like, ‘Oh I saw the first jump, and I knew I was screwed. We’re getting the horse.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I was shocked.”

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Simonne Berg and partner Cooper will contest their first FEI Longines Jumping World Cup Final this year in Omaha, Neb. Sara Shier Photo

Almost Walking Away

As the 2021 season started, Simonne had an exciting vision for how the year would hopefully unfold. She had a serious boyfriend, Shane James, who worked at the Desert International Horse Park (California), and she had officially embarked on a professional career with a promising horse to take her to the top classes.

But on Jan. 24, James died in an accident on the horse show grounds.

“I almost walked away from everything altogether,” said Simonne.

“Shane and I had such a strong connection through the horses, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this without his support,’ ” she added. “He was always there on the side of the ring videoing and cheering and at the barn helping me. It was a really, really big adjustment, obviously, to have to watch the person that you love the most die at the place that you loved, which made it even worse.”

In the wake of the accident, Richard Spooner showed Simonne’s horses, and he gently encouraged her to put a foot in the stirrup.

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“The first week after he competed with my horses, it was Sunday, and he said, ‘Why don’t you take them on a trail ride? Get them out. Take them on a trail ride,’ ” said Simonne. “And I said, ‘I don’t really want to. I don’t really want to ride; I kind of just want to be on the ground.’ He said, ‘You know, your horses were really good. They deserve it. Take them out.’

“I remember I got on Cooper, and I was walking him around the Horse Park,” she continued. “Richard came up to me and was like, ‘Oh, how does he feel? Did you trot a little?’ [I said,] ‘I don’t want to; I don’t even want to be on a horse. I don’t want to stay in the business.’ He said, ‘Well, just keep walking. Just have fun.’ The second week came around, and it got a little better. And then there was an off week, and then I started competing again after that.”

Though she considered leaving the industry, the nonjudgmental presence of horses, her dog Brutus, and the messages after James’ death showed her a greater support system than she could have imagined.

“I have so many friends in this industry, and some of them are really close, and some of them I don’t see very often or talk to very often, and some of them I don’t even know,” said Simonne. “But when Shane’s accident happened, I probably had 800 messages—text messages, Facebook messages, Instagram messages—of people just like being like, ‘I’m sorry. We’re here for you. Let us know if you need anything.’ I just felt like this sense of community that I had never felt before. How can I leave that?”

The day before the one-year anniversary of James’ death, Simonne’s dad died of dementia. To Simonne, her father was always the advocate and champion of her equestrian passion.

Simonne described the last two years as “hell,” but she continues powering through.

“The world has tried to chew me up and spit me out,” she added. “But I keep fighting.”

Riding For Herself

Though Simonne plans to build her business with more sale horses and clients, she took the last two years to focus on herself. So, in addition to teaching up-down lessons on her mother’s pony, she geared Cooper towards the World Cup qualifiers.

“It’s just really made me focus on not only what’s important in life and what people are important to me,” she said. “It really narrowed down my goals of, ‘OK, I have this amazing horse. What do I want to do with him? I can’t just keep jumping the regular 1.45. We’ve got to have a goal.’ ”

She focused on the fall of 2022. She placed sixth in the $228,000 Longines FEI Jumping Sacramento CSI 4*-W (California) and ninth in the $150,000 Longines FEI Las Vegas CSI4*-W. And like Kuylen predicted, she and the 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Viento Uno W—Sjanette, Voltaire Pref) bred by A.E. Langens, earned a ticket to the 2023 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final in Omaha, April 4-8.

“I remember watching McLain win there in 2017, and I’ve watched every World Cup Final probably in the last 16 years,” she said. “I honestly never thought it was something I would ever achieve in my life. I think it’s a huge honor to represent the United States on that level. I know there’s going to be nerves, but I’m just going to try to enjoy the moment and have fun with my horse.”

Her family group chat continues to explode with excitement about Simonne donning the pinque coat for the first time. And after years marked with tragedies, that shade of red fabric carries even more weight to Simonne.

“For me it symbolizes that I know what I’m doing,” Simonne said. “I can make it on my own, and that I am heading in the right direction.”

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