It’s 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning in June, and Arroyo Del Mar has been quietly humming for hours. Two horses are blowing off steam in the turnouts, while others, like Steffen Peters’ rising star Rosamunde, linger in their outdoor runs, keeping an eye on the action. Across the property, Steffen and his World Equestrian Games (WEG) and World Cup partner, Legolas, are alone in the manicured dressage arena, getting in one of their final training sessions before heading east for the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada. Assistant trainer Lientje Schueler and Steffen’s assistant, Dawn White O’Connor, are at a show with clients, and an air of calm hangs over the farm. It’s peaceful and orderly.
Tucked into a canyon a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, the facility is reached by way of a winding dirt road that does little to announce that up ahead is the home and training barn of one of the world’s top dressage riders. Steffen and his wife, Shannon, wouldn’t have it any other way. At the bottom of the hill, the 22-acre property comes into view, encircled by hills and planted with towering eucalyptus trees, a meandering stream running through the center. At the entrance, a small sign reads simply, “Arroyo Del Mar.” There’s a covered arena—complete with a state-of-the-art sound system that Steffen installed to help Legolas prepare for competition—a 65-stall barn, round pens and generous turnouts. A bridge leads over the stream to a sizable jumping arena and the dressage court.
Just up the hill at the house, Shannon welcomes a visitor despite having been up since 3:30 a.m. to tend to the couple’s 17-year-old dog, Fritz. Steffen soon joins her with Betty, their 7-year-old Labradoodle, close by his side. She follows him everywhere. “She acknowledges me,” laughs Shannon. “When Steffen leaves for a competition, she’ll wait by the door for at least a couple of days.”
The split-level, contemporary house is as low-key as its inhabitants—warm and comfortable with dark wood floors and rustic furniture and offices for each of them. Above the sofa in the high-ceilinged living room, Shannon has arranged a wall of awards and photographs from Steffen’s appearances at the 1994 U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, the 2006 WEG in Aachen, Germany, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, and the 2010 WEG in Lexington, Kentucky. The team and individual gold medals he won at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011 lie on a table, awaiting permanent placement. Steffen is visibly uncomfortable when his accomplishments are mentioned and he’s quick to credit the horses he rode on each occasion—Udon, Floriano, Ravel and Weltino’s Magic.
Family pictures are on display along with two impressive bronze sculptures—one of Ravel in piaffe and the other depicting Steffen and Udon. Charcoal drawings by Steffen’s late father line the staircase leading to the guest bedrooms. Steffen’s office, which he calls his “man cave,” has a TV and several recliners for watching football. If you didn’t know to look for them, you just might miss the framed letters from Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama acknowledging his participation on U.S. Olympic teams.
And then there’s the Christmas tree that stands near the dining area. “It’s the Easter tree, the spring tree, the fall tree, the Halloween tree, the Thanksgiving tree, the Christmas tree, the New Year’s tree,” Shannon explains. “It’s been with us for 12 years. We took it down once. But it was so empty that we had to put it back up again.”
The couple moved their business from a nearby stable to Arroyo in 2006, after the owner of their previous facility passed away and they had just 60 days to relocate. “We had 35 horses, so finding a place wasn’t easy,” says Shannon. She asked Steffen about Arroyo. It wasn’t for sale and the Stewart family, who owned it, hadn’t contemplated selling. But when she and Steffen met with them to discuss the idea, they said, “For you, we’d sell it.”
Lila Kommerstad, Steffen’s first sponsor, purchased Arroyo with the understanding that the couple would take on all financial obligations for the property. It was, Shannon concedes, “a big nut,” but she was convinced they could make it work. Steffen was less confident. “I’m extremely conservative when it comes to financial obligations, and I was scared out of my mind,” he says. “But Shanni kept saying, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ She was 100 percent right.”
They moved into the house in 2008. Wanting to put their own stamp on the place, they laid new floors, redid the kitchen, bathrooms and the pool, painted and later added the dressage arena. “We lived upstairs while there was a huge construction zone downstairs,” Steffen recalls. “That was right in the middle of the 2008 Olympic Trials—we won’t do that again!”
The house is private, yet close enough to keep track of what’s going on in the barn. “I have that ‘mother hearing,’” says Shannon. “I can hear if a horse is kicking in the middle of the night.”
A Life with Horses
The couple doesn’t micromanage, allowing ranch foreman Carlos Piñeda and stable manager Keri Homer to do their jobs. But Shannon oversees the day-to-day business of running the facility and the boarding business.
Having worked together for so long, the couple is typically united in decision-making. “We’ll talk about things over breakfast and then we’re done with it,” says Shannon. “It’s not a constant conversation all day long.” Notes Steffen, “A lot of people think I’m the boss around here, but it’s clearly Shanni.”
Their mutual respect extends to how they train the horses. “As much as we want to help one other, we both understand that we each do things our own way,” Shannon explains. “We’re both perfectionists and come from different backgrounds—I’ve been riding with Karl Mikolka for 18 years and I do things differently than Steffen does. For couples in this business, it’s one of the biggest things you have to learn.”
After meeting at a clinic in Denver, Colorado, Shannon and Steffen married in 2004. In the beginning of their relationship, Shannon recalls that Steffen would offer to get on a horse to address a training issue she might be having. “And I’d say ‘No, you’re not getting on. This is my horse.’ It’s been a longstanding joke between us that it takes me a week to fix what he can fix in one ride. He wants to help so badly, but he’s learned not to bother anymore. But every once in a while, I’ll ask him to get on for a second, and he’ll say, ‘Wait… what?!’”
Ashleigh Luca-Tyson has been training with Steffen for nearly nine years and began working with Shannon soon after. The Arizona-based trainer spends anywhere from a few weeks to several months each summer at Arroyo with several clients as well as her competition horses, who include San Soucis K and Wellknown. Luca-Tyson stays with the couple and relishes the sense of calm she finds there. “They’re very peaceful people, and everything is very quiet. Everything’s tidy; there’s nice music playing, and Shannon has the coffee on every morning. I’m the mother of a toddler, so it’s a little like going to the spa. It’s nice to see two people who can do things separately but also work together for a common goal. They really respect each other and one another’s individuality.”
Luca-Tyson and her husband even named Steffen and Shannon as godparents to their 3-year-old daughter, Addison. “Shannon makes her behave and Steffen lets her do whatever she wants,” she says with a laugh.
No matter what success Steffen has had, Luca-Tyson says he hasn’t changed. “It doesn’t matter what he wins. It’s always about the horses. I’ll say, ‘Congratulations,’ and the first thing is always, ‘I have a really great horse.’ He never really takes credit for his own accomplishments but always passes it to the horses, Shannon and the sponsorship.”
Over the years, Luca-Tyson has come to rely not only on the couple’s coaching but on their professional advice as well. “Whether it’s a question about how to do a horse deal or how to manage something in the barn, they never judge. The help is positive and constructive at the same time.”
That’s not to say they don’t like to have fun, she adds. “Steffen and Shannon both have a very funny sense of humor, and the three of us text a lot of inside jokes to each other—funny pictures and things we find on the Internet.” The online brokerage firm E*Trade’s talking baby commercial featuring Bobo the Clown quickly became a favorite, and when Luca-Tyson celebrated her 27th birthday in San Diego, Steffen hired Bobo the Clown as a surprise.
But when he went to pick up Bobo from the entrance to the property, the surprise was on him. The clown he’d hired turned out to be a woman and she didn’t look like a clown at all. “Steffen was super disappointed,” Luca-Tyson recalls. “He said, ‘I thought I hired Bobo, and you can’t even tell it’s Bobo.’ I’ll never forget it. She made us balloon animals and I had to ride in my lesson with a big butterfly on my face.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
The couple obviously enjoys life at Arroyo. Most mornings Shannon rises at 4:30 to make breakfast and coffee for the staff and anyone else lucky enough to be in the barn. She then rides and teaches from 6:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Steffen also trains five days a week. “In the summer I’m on my first horse at 6; otherwise, I start at 7. Legolas still takes most of my strength and mental abilities, so I like to start with him. Then it’s usually Rosie afterward.”
Every year, Shannon makes Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at the farm, and the couple’s Christmas party has become an annual event that lasts late into the night. In 2009, after Steffen and Ravel swept the dressage classes at Aachen, they had a big party with Ravel’s owner, Akiko Yamazaki, bringing a cake topped with a model of Steffen and Ravel for the occasion.
But mostly they call themselves “loners,” content to go to dinner and a movie at the end of their busy days. “Spending time at a quiet restaurant somewhere, that’s what we love to do,” says Steffen.
Not surprisingly for two competitive athletes, the couple’s down time involves some pretty challenging pursuits. “We’re both passionate about other things,” says Shannon. “Maybe not as passionate as we are about the horses, but close.”
She works out twice a week, takes her Pinarello racing bike on grueling 25- to 50-mile rides and also plays a mean game of tennis. “I’m honing new skills and trying to change my swing from what it was when I used to play. It’s a work in progress!”
Steffen isn’t so sure. “I have yet to see the day when I can win a match against Shannon.” She laughs. “It’s the one thing I’m better at than you.”
She’s also a serious baker, making gluten-free scones, muffins, cinnamon cake or banana bread for the staff’s breakfast each day. “I would be a baker if I weren’t a horse trainer,” she says. “It’s been a fun challenge to do it gluten-free, sometimes vegan, and to make things that are actually edible.”
In addition to his workouts three times a week, Steffen jet-skis. But he’ll tell you that his favorite place on earth—next to Arroyo Del Mar—is the Torrey Pines Glider Port, perched 600 feet above the Pacific. When the wind is right, he heads there in the afternoons to fly radio-controlled gliders. “It’s a great way to be in touch with nature. You learn to read the wind, how to calculate your risks when the wind dies, how to judge your altitude.”
It all began when he was 7, building airplanes with his father in Germany. He picked it up again before the 2012 Olympics in London, starting with motorized planes and then becoming certified to fly model gliders. He even has a small hangar at Arroyo where he stores and tinkers with his planes—13 in all, including one with a 31-foot wingspan—and programs transmitters and receivers.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating hobby, though it can get slightly excessive,” he admits with a grin. “But I have a very tolerant wife, who is accepting of multiple airplanes and customized vans for transporting the planes. With horses, you have to accept that some days are not as productive because they don’t learn every single day at the same speed. To have a very productive hobby where you see the results is probably part of the fascination.”
It’s close to noon, and soon Shannon will be heading up Arroyo’s steep road for a long bike ride while Steffen will take off with his gliders for an afternoon of flying at Torrey Pines.
“We’re extremely fortunate to be in a beautiful place like Arroyo Del Mar,” he says. Adds Shannon, “Whenever we come home from somewhere, we’ll say, ‘There’s no better place to be.’ We love where we live and what we do.”