Steffen Peters has dominated US dressage for the better part of the 21st century. Only departing US team coach Robert Dover has had a longer and more decorated career. Since becoming a US citizen in 1992, Steffen has been his country’s top performer at two of the past four World Equestrian Games and two of the last three Olympic Games. He was also the first American to win a world championship individual medal.
A chance meeting with Laurie Falvo when training with Jo Hinnemann in Germany led to a six-week stay with the California trainer. Steffen bought into the lifestyle and after finishing his national service, returned to reside there permanently in 1985. Together with his wife, Shannon, they run Arroyo Del Mar, a 22-acre training facility which employs five professional trainers and accommodates 70 horses.
I can imagine life must be pretty hectic; what’s it like to be you?
When I turned fifty, I cut down on my riding to five or six horses, and on the amount of travelling I do and the number of clinics I give. Our weekly routine with the competition horses is to work Monday to Friday. On Wednesdays we have a basic day for suppling work or trail riding. We take our downtime very seriously. There are so many fun things to do around San Diego and we do it all: boating, water sports, flying large model airplanes, and hang gliding. It’s just you and nature on the gliders, because there are no motors. We fly those on the coast; it’s a very peaceful time away from the horse show stress. Flying is something I’ve always enjoyed since the time I was eight. I remember the very first model airplane my dad and I built. It stuck with me my entire life and reminds me of wonderful memories of time spent with my dad.
What’s your earliest horsey memory?
My parents were in the fashion industry. They owned a department store right in the middle of our town. It was my sister who dragged me into the horse world. I blame her for it! We had a small vacation home near the Dutch border where she started riding ponies. She kept bugging me to go with her. Soon enough, we started with two competitive ponies, my sister on a dressage pony and me on a jumper. When she turned sixteen I took over the dressage pony and that’s when my dressage career started. The neat thing is in Europe where you have European pony championships, you get exposed to team competition and quite a bit of pressure early on. I think that is a huge benefit to learn how to deal with very intense situations at an early age.
Can you identify a turning point in your career when you realized you could earn a living doing this and reach the top?
When I first came to the United States to work, my parents were very generous in letting me bring my six-year-old horse Udon, which they bought as a three-year-old. The turning point was when Udon started showing successfully at grand prix. This led to my first sponsor, Lila Kommerstad. She and her husband, Bob, asked Reiner Klimke if Udon and I were worth sponsoring and he said ‘yes.’ The Kommerstads purchased Udon from my family in 1991, because pursuing an international career was certainly something I couldn’t do on my own. When Lila and Bob came into the picture, that was the point at which my attention turned to the international scene. Without generous sponsors like Lila and Bob and Akiko [Yamazaki] and Jerry [Yang] I wouldn’t be where I am today. And I will always be grateful to Laurie [Falvo] for giving me an amazing opportunity. I still give her lessons here and there and I never charge her a penny – and I never will.
Were sacrifices made along the way?
It depends on how crazy and passionate you are about the sport. It becomes your life. I love to spend time with my wife, Shannon. Time away from Shannon is a sacrifice. We are not the most social people, so we just like to hang out together and do our own thing. When you train from the Olympic Games to the World Games, it is amazing how much focus goes into that. Time shortens very, very quickly. If I look back to my first Olympic Games in 1996, that doesn’t seem like twenty-two years ago. So the sacrifice is that you speed up time without enjoying what other people consider a private life, but on the other hand horses are our life and our passion. It’s been a wonderful career and certainly there have not been a lot of sacrifices.
Tell us something about you that that would surprise people.
During my national service I drove a tank for two years in the German army, right in the middle of the Cold War. I think people might also be surprised that there are not too many days that I don’t show up at the barn and share a few jokes. I think life in general is very serious; having a sense of humour is huge. We always look so serious on a horse, but I love a good humourous life.
If you could relive six months of your life, when would that be?
My dad, Hans Herman Peters, passed away in 1997 from a brain tumour and I wished I would have had the six months before he was diagnosed. There were so many things I know I wanted to tell him, and him me. I would give a lot for that.
Horsepower and ultra-competitiveness aside, is there another ingredient that gives you an edge?
The quality of horses I get to ride because of Akiko and Jerry. That right there is extremely inspiring and tells you what a lucky guy I am. So many wonderful horses I got to ride for them, and then another amazing quality horse in Suppenkasper. But also in terms of being competitive I have learned to manage myself. You don’t just learn to manage stress, you learn what it takes to be more conscious of enjoying the competition. Controlling your nerves, managing yourself better, is something you learn with age. Looking back twenty-two years ago at the first Olympic Games, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous. Thank God it worked out and we did get a team bronze. It’s just amazing over the years how you learn to manage yourself and because of that become more competitive.
How do you view yourself?
I would say I’m empathetic, not just sympathetic. I feel for my teammates when something goes extremely wrong and I’m easily the first guy to start crying when I see an amazing ride like Laura Graves’ [in Rio when she won the bronze medal]. That is a big part of my character, as is caring – deeply feeling when things go well and when things go wrong. Shannon tells me I am a big romantic.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, is there another profession that would have enticed you?
Since the [fashion sales] business was in the family for six generations, my grandfather had absolutely no doubt that his first-born grandson was going to take over the business, and my dad said that when he was young and had finished college he didn’t have a choice. He said he wanted his son to have that choice. So, without the horses being in the picture I definitely would have gone into the business. Being an ‘indoor’ job, I doubt I would be as happy as I am.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
There are two places. It’s a very hard pick. One is Torrey Pines Glider Port where we fly four hundred feet off the beach and the view from there is just absolutely incredible. Shanni and I also enjoy water sports and I don’t think there are too many places that are more beautiful than the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California. It’s called Needles and it’s stunning. We take the boat and spend a few days there often with friends.
When and where did you last go on vacation?
Our last real vacation was our honeymoon fourteen years ago! Now it’s just short breaks to go skiing at Telluride or out on the boat.
Do you have a health and fitness regimen?
I go to the gym between five and five-thirty a.m. As a rider, I believe you need to be as fit as your horses, certainly at Olympic level.
Can you recommend a book or movie from the last year?
I’m not a big reader, but I love to listen to educational podcasts and YouTube videos. I love anything about psychology and how the mind works. It’s absolutely fascinating. Besides that, I love to be entertained by a good action movie. Our most recent favourite was Mission: Impossible: Fallout. Loved that movie.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love ice cream, chocolate or Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche with half a shot of espresso on top. I try to keep it to a minimum and never have more than one scoop. I also love Ritter Sport dark chocolate hazelnut. I try and keep it to one bar a week, but that’s really, really tough.
If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?
That my dad would have seen my career after Atlanta. That’s my only wish. If the other two wishes could make that happen, I would be happy with that.
If you were having a dinner party and you could invite anyone you wanted, living or dead, who would you invite?
President Obama, President Ronald Regan, and my dad. I am a great admirer of President Obama; I think he’s a really good human being, family man, and gentleman. One of my proudest moments was when I got to shake his hand after the Rio Olympics. That was a really special moment. Actually, a newspaper in Aachen once asked me who my heroes were and I told them my dad and President Obama. They asked me what I would most like to do with him and I said ‘cook him a good steak and eat it with him.’ So I brought the newspaper to the White House, but of course you can’t carry anything with you when you shake his hand, so I gave it to one of the security detail and asked them to ask him to sign it for me; then I told President Obama that. He said ‘give your address to the secret service and I’ll sign it for you.’ And he did. Fabulous man.
Money or medals, what’s more important to you?
Money is very facilitating. Without money there wouldn’t be medals. If it wouldn’t take money to win medals, then I would say medals.
Do you have a burning ambition?
I wouldn’t say it was burning, but if it works out and I have the chance to get close to an individual Olympic medal, that would be incredible. It’s an ambition, not a burning ambition, because if you make it your focus and the biggest priority in your life it usually doesn’t happen, especially in this sport.
STEFFEN PETERS FAST FACTS
DOB: September 18, 1964
Birthplace: Wesel, Germany
Hometown: San Diego, California
Grand Prix String: Rosamunde, 11-year-old Rheinlander mare; Suppenkasper, 10-year-old KWPN gelding. Both owned by Four Winds Farm.
Major Achievements: Atlanta Olympic Games 1996 team bronze (Udon); 2006 Aachen WEG team bronze (Floriano); Lexington WEG 2010 team and individual bronze (Ravel); 2009 World Cup winner (Ravel); 2011 Pan Am Games team and individual gold (Weltino’s Magic); bronze team medal at 2016 Rio Olympics (Legolas 92). National Grand Prix champion seven times, USEF Equestrian of the Year three times.