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Keeping Up with Steffen Peters

For decades, Steffen Peters has been one of the most well-known names in American dressage. Originally from Wessel, Germany, Peters met U.S. trainer Laurie Falvo who invited him to work at her barn in San Diego in the summer of 1984.

Captivated by the lifestyle and the weather, Peters made a life-changing choice and moved to San Diego where he still lives today with his wife Shannon, an accomplished Grand Prix rider and trainer in her own right. He became a U.S. citizen in 1992 and rode his first of five Olympic Games in 1996. 

In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Peters, 58, has had the good fortune to have trained and ridden many remarkable horses, including his current mount Suppenkasper, otherwise known as Mopsie. Together, they helped the U.S. win team silver at the Tokyo Olympics.

Most recently, Peters and Mopsie finished fourth and were the highest placed American pair at the FEI Dressage World CupTM Final in Omaha, Nebraska. Two weeks after that event, he talked with Dressage Today Podcast co-hosts Stephanie Ruff and Aviva Nebesky.

Steffen Peters celebrates his freestyle ride at the 2023 FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Omaha, Nebraska.
© Amy K. Dragoo

2023 FEI Dressage World CupTM Final

DT: It’s been about two weeks since the World Cup.  How was your overall experience there? 

SP: In just the last few days I’ve been able to reflect on that because I was home for two days after the final, and then I went to the Midwest Horse Fair and was presenting there, and that was very busy. The last few days have been awesome just to go through everything, look at pictures and look at videos. Shanni (wife Shannon Peters) keeps sending me TikToks that people made of Mopsie. The “Rave Horse” had a big reputation to live up to, and I think we delivered. (Mopsie earned the nickname after a fan posted a TikTok video of Mopsie and Peters’ Tokyo Freestyle ride, saying to a friend, “Alex, come look at this rave horse!” The video went viral, garnering more than nine million views.)

DT: It’s good to know that he still has his reputation. 

SP: Yes, exactly. We had to step it up a little bit from Tokyo. At that time, Mopsie had already 70 million Google searches. But what do you do with a really good freestyle? It’s almost like writing a sequel to a very good movie. And so that’s why we came up with the ending. And even though the ending is only 15, 20 seconds at the most, it took us two months to get to that. But it was worth it. A huge thank you goes to (Peters’ Freestyle designer) Terry Gallo who made the final changes. (At the final turn down centerline, which is a piaffe pirouette, a few lines of hip-hop were added, spoken from Mopsie’s point of view referencing the state of California and a “super sweet” horse.)

It’s never easy to do that under pressure, but Terry delivered, and this is not the first time that she had to deliver in such a short time. In Tokyo, we did the sound check the day before the competition. The day of the competition, I’m listening to the music, and I’m saying to Hallye (Griffin), who’s our director of dressage, “Hallye, I sent the tower the wrong music.” That was at 4 a.m. Terry’s time. She picked up the phone and sent the correct music. It was literally while I was putting on my coat to get on Mopsie in Tokyo, that’s when they came up with the correct sound file. Otherwise, the Rave Horse would’ve never existed. 

DT: How was your experience overall at this year’s FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Omaha?

SP: What a great venue. Amazing footing. The stalls are just so close by the warm-up arena. The hotels are across the street, and I always dreamed of riding once more in my career in front of American dressage fans. And everybody stood up at the end and to hear that noise in the middle of the arena, that is hard to describe, but it was wonderful. That’s something I experienced in Las Vegas in 2009, and it’s just a wonderful, warm feeling.

DT: You were both the oldest rider and the only male rider in the dressage competition. How do you feel about that? 

SP: Well, the only male rider, that has happened frequently, and I don’t think people pay that much attention. There’s no doubt that in previous years the ladies have been very successful. And I think that’s unique about the sport that men and women can compete together. It’s great.

I hear quite frequently that I’m the oldest one. And honestly, I take a little pride in that because I’m almost 60 years old, and I can keep up with riders that are half my age. And that’s a wonderful feeling. 

Motivation to Keep Going in Dressage

DT: How have you managed to stay on the top of your game for so long mentally and physically?

SP: I’ve been so fortunate to have Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang on my side, who’ve been providing me with amazing horses since 2006, and I feel that I owe Akiko and my horses the best possible fitness.

I swim every morning. I don’t go crazy anymore, but I still put in at least 250 meters. Now I swim a hundred meters in two minutes, which is about a minute slower than your average Olympic swimmer. But that’s perfectly fine. It’s a great workout where I feel I’m working my whole body.

As far as the mental part, swimming puts me in a state of mind because I’m only counting the laps. I’m focusing on breathing, and that’s it. I swim 100 meters and then take a break where I take 20 to 25 breaths and let my heart rate come down, respiratory come down and then I go for another hundred meters. I find that very beneficial because that is about the timeframe of a dressage test, and I like to be super fit and ready for those seven, eight minutes. 

Of course, I work with weights, but to be honest, I don’t enjoy that whatsoever. I do it to work my core muscles. And then since about three months ago, I started working with a company named StretchLab, and it’s a wonderful company. The therapists stretch you, and they ask you how far you want to be pushed. I’ve been doing that once, sometimes twice a week, and that’s been very helpful.

DT: I don’t think the average person realizes the fitness demands of riding a Grand Prix test, but riding a horse like Mopsie at the level that you do, the amount of strength and fitness required is unbelievable. 

SP: I agree with that. And especially if you want to go back to the essence of dressage where we look for nice, expressive tests, but we want to make sure that the aids, especially the seat aids, are very much invisible. That takes a tremendous amount of core strength and physical fitness in the Grand Prix and in the Grand Prix Freestyle. But it’s even more demanding in the Grand Prix Special with all of those trot extensions.

DT: What motivates you to stay at this level of competition and fitness?

SP: Mopsie is still so strong. Hopefully there will be another Olympics. So that’s the number one motivation, to have such an amazing horse. And second, I have to say, I weighed 160 pounds when I was 25, and I’m weighing 160 pounds nowadays. I’ve worked hard to achieve this level of fitness, and it would be silly for me to let that slide.

Advice for Aging Riders

DT: What advice would you give to older riders who are struggling with physical issues or confidence issues? These are challenges that maybe they didn’t have when they were younger.

SP: My advice would be to ride and train the most rideable horse. And what I mean by that is, we all know what movements need to look like, but what about the self-carriage of the horse? How much does it take from a rider to get a movement done? How easily does a horse move forward? And how light can the horse be in the contact? When I’m talking about rideability, I’m talking about a horse that is easily willing to move forward or sideways. It’s willing to come back. It’s very adjustable in the frame because anytime a horse learns to work a little bit against the rider, even for me and I’m physically fit, that can be very uncomfortable. A horse should be so supple and in so much self-carriage that it doesn’t only look effortless, but it also feels effortless. 

That honestly goes along with your second question as far as confidence. When I ride every single day, in between the movements I do a quick scan and I say, “Is this the feeling I want to take into the show arena?”

I don’t like when trainers say, “I don’t care what it feels like. It looks really good.” That has never worked for me. I always like to have a very nice feeling, a soft back, a soft contact and a horse that’s reacting perfectly to the aids. That to me is the biggest confidence builder.

When we have such rideability at home and take this feeling into the show arena, then mistakes might happen. But honestly, I believe that mistakes can be minimized with the things I was just describing as far as rideability.

Memorable Moments

DT: How have you seen dressage change over the years? 

SP: In general, everything has gotten better. Horses are better. Riders are better. There’s absolutely no doubt that the judging has become a whole lot better. I still remember in 2008 in Hong Kong, Isabell (Werth) had a really tough go with Satchmo. He was quite resistant three times in a row. She still got very high points and received the silver medal at that time.

That is not going to happen today. I really think that the judges said, “We’ve got to change this. This cannot happen again. And I think since 2008 it changed drastically. We have a supervising committee for the judges. 

I think it’s wonderful that the stewards have more authority when they say, “Hey, listen, it’s a little too much. You’re pushing this horse a little too much, too long.” Everything is pointing toward a better sport, and we have clearly seen that in recent years. So, I’m very happy with the direction of the sport. 

DT: What are some memorable moments of your career?

SP: I still remember the same feeling as Omaha in Las Vegas. The only difference was in Vegas when the dressage test was done, the organizer asked us to stay in the arena until the score came up. Now in those days, computer systems were there, but they were not as fast as they are today. And I’m telling you, those were the longest three minutes of my life just staring at this scoreboard up on top. Then all of a sudden seeing the number one popping up. That was already after Isabell (Werth) went. And then Anky (van Grunsven) still had to go, but Ravel was ahead.

Peters, Ravel and the U.S. crowd enjoy their FEI Dressage World Cup™ victory in Las Vegas in 2009.
© Amy K. Dragoo

That is probably the most memorable moment as far as an individual competition, but it’s equally as exciting, if not even more exciting, to compete with the team. Watching the last rider doing the test, and with every single step, a possible medal coming closer and closer. That’s what happened in Tokyo.

We were already super excited after Sabine’s (Schut-Kery) ride that we might have the bronze medal. And then Charlotte Dujardin went in, had one mistake and that moved us into the silver medal position. I still remember standing with Adrienne (Lyle) in the grandstand. And we both were crying like little kids and just ran over to Sabine and Debbie (McDonald), and then Hallye confirmed that we had the silver medal.

That was an incredible moment because there were so many hurdles going to Tokyo with COVID. First the quarantine in Germany, then a fuel stop in Dubai and then the trip to Tokyo. Every single day we had to give a saliva test to make sure we were COVID negative. That meant also if you have zero symptoms, but you’re positive, you’re not competing. Every morning there was a little bit that fear if everything is okay. 

For all three horses to go through this with maximum expression and without a single mistake was incredible. A horse fights for you and wins a medal for you. That is an amazing feeling. 

Dealing with Nerves

DT: When you’re in the team situation, do you like being the last rider for the team? Which is harder, being the last rider or watching the last rider?

SP: Over the years, even when I was the last rider, it didn’t matter. I’ve been able to deliver at that time. It was the same in Omaha, even though it was an individual competition. I knew what was at stake, and it never bothers me to be the last rider.

When the placement of the riders is decided by the coach, I always say that everyone is an anchor rider. It’s not just the last rider who’s an anchor rider. And that’s honestly the way I look at it. But from a fun factor, I would say it is more enjoyable to get the test done and enjoy when that medal comes every single second closer.

DT: Do you get nervous watching your teammates ride?

SP: Oh my goodness, yes. In Tokyo, the rides were the difference between fourth and the silver medal. It was that close. You get a chance to do this only once every four years, and there’s no competition in the world like the Olympic Games. So yes, I get very, very nervous watching my teammates.

DT: What is next on the horizon for you and Mopsie? 

SP: He’s on a little break right now. We’re just doing very basic work four days a week, and we decided to keep him at home for the summer. I didn’t see a reason to send him to Europe. We’d like to save him for next year, and then we start the Olympic trials on the West Coast in November. And it’s been 26 years that I haven’t spent the summer in Europe, so I’m really looking forward to lots of boating and doing summer stuff that normal people do. 

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