Steffen Peters spent the winter of 2020 in Florida with a consuming dream in mind: to return to Las Vegas for the FEI Dressage World Cup Final™ and ride again in front of the crowd that loved him when he won the trophy in 2009 on Ravel.
“There isn’t a better dressage fan in the world,” he said of the Vegas spectators, like those who had cheered him on at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Peters did indeed qualify for this year’s Final after achieving a personal best freestyle score of 84.395 percent while in the process of winning 11 straight competitions on Suppenkasper at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. Mopsie, as his horse is known, definitely was ready for Vegas. The vision of going down centerline in the arena he remembered so well came into sharper focus—and then it vanished.
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of the Final, it was devastating, At that point, however, Peters still had hopes for making the U.S. team that would ride at the Tokyo Olympics. Yet suddenly that, too, was no more, as the coronavirus swept away competition after competition, until it took the biggest one of all.
Despite the disappointment, the Olympic multi-medalist emphasized that while he’s back home with his wife, Shannon, in locked-down Southern California, “We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to be on a 20-acre property. We can work with our horses. We have access to amazing bike trails behind our house. Compared to millions of other people, we’re blessed.”
He is looking forward to taking Mopsie to a pair of California shows in November that are scheduled to be put on by Thomas Baur, who presides at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida.
“We’re hoping those are going to happen; hoping the world looks a little bit better by then,” he said.
In the meantime, he is enjoying training without the pressure of shows, which previously were a constant in his life. This way, he can further develop his relationship with Mopsie, who came into his life through Ulf Möller—a veterinarian, trainer, rider and top sales manager—who has been a longtime friend.
In 2017, Peters and his sponsor, Akiko Yamazaki of Four Winds Farm, embarked on a quest.
"We were looking for a top horse for Tokyo and possibly Paris [the 2024 Olympics]," Peters recalled.
"Ulf said, `I might know of a horse, but I need to make one quick phone call.' "
He reached German rider Helen Langehanenberg and got the green light for Peters to pursue Mopsie. In her last competition with the KWPN gelding in July 2017, Langehanenberg won the Grand Prix Freestyle at Cappeln, Germany, with a percentage of 75.975, on the heels of a 70.580 Grand Prix at the show.
As Peters remembered, "The first time I talked to Helen, she said, `I can tell you a lot about the horse, but I guarantee when you ride him for five minutes, you're going to want this horse' and she was right."
The son of Westphalian stallion Spielberg (by Sunny Boy, a son of Sandro Hit), who is out of an IPS Krack C mare made an immediate impression on Peters.
Among Mopsie's qualities, he cited, "the energy, the kindness. He's one of those extremely gentle souls. When you spend five minutes with the horse in his stall, you know his personality. There's nothing pushy about it. He's gentle, he wants to be surrounded by people."
While Peters noted, "I can ride through the whole Grand Prix in a snaffle and without a spur," he mentioned at the same time that Mopsie is "definitely an extremely hot horse." Happily, it suits Peters.
"Over the years, that's what I've been riding," he explained.
Although he was initially impressed by Mopsie, the veteran rider took three weeks to make a final decision while he was in the U.S. training camp during a tour of European shows.
"I rode him for one week, then Helen had a show in Germany, so I watched him. It was three hours from [the U.S.] training camp to her place every day. I rode Legolas and Rosie in the morning, drove to her place and drove back. I wanted to know everything about the horse,” he recounted.
Buying Mopsie involved a very lengthy process, Peters said, explaining, "Akiko and I have always been very careful when purchasing a horse. We don't make it that easy on the seller. You do your due diligence and make sure it's a horse I can produce.
"Our goal is to buy a horse who can make the team, and that is extremely difficult to find. Everyone knows that."
Mopsie did make the team for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, although he and Peters needed more time to work together than was available before this major competition. They were part of the silver medal squad, finishing 18th individually there, but didn't break 70 percent in the Special.
"He's a horse who wants to do so much, sometimes too much," Peters said. "Sometimes I ask for very little and those hind legs are going to the moon, one hind leg goes to the moon sometimes more than the other. Even in the piaffe, he wanted to do so much, which caused him to sway a little bit in front," he observed.
That all called for a different approach in terms of fine-tuning the partnership, "teaching him to do everything smaller."
Peters didn't drill the horse. He blended a lot of walking, some piaffe/passage and trail rides that provided Mopsie with a happy variety. Asked about what it was like getting on the same page with Mopsie, Peters recalled, "the biggest challenge was handling this endless energy.
"I believe in a ton of breaks. I might be on Mopsie for an hour, but the entire workload where he is collected might be 20 minutes. It really depends how much work your horse needs to get the job done.”
He also has some go-to techniques that improve his scores. Mopsie has a hard time with the halt, especially when he enters the arena for the freestyle, but Peters has learned how to cope.
"I scratch him right below the withers with my left hand, encouraging him to relax and stand still, while my right hand is saluting. He knows when I stop scratching, he goes forward."
Peters, who has battled depression successfully, considers Mopsie his best therapist. When groom Eddie Garcia was on vacation for 10 days this winter, Peters handled the chores himself, bringing him closer to his horse as he devoted more time to him. At home, Peters walks down to the barn every night and sits in the stall with Mopsie, feeding him cookies or his favorite treat, bananas, which the horse prefers over apples.
Peters' program involves meditating every morning, putting pictures in his brain, such as holding up the World Cup when he won the final, a vision he still enjoys despite not having the chance to return to Vegas.
"There was a time when I doubted I was good enough to ride this horse. That's extremely destructive. It's like a little terrorist inside of you. I felt with this amazing horse, I had to prove so much," said Peters.
"I'm telling myself now that I don't. You go in there [the arena], have the best time in the world if possible and if things don't go well, the world doesn't collapse and you move on."
His success with Mopsie in Florida was a real boost, but he is also realistic. Peters and Mopsie didn’t compete in any class at Global against Adrienne Lyle and Salvino, the USA’s top pair.
If they had, “the results could have been quite different,” Peters said. “Let’s not forget [Salvino] got an 80 percent [actually 80.17 percent] in the Grand Prix Special [which will be the Olympic test for team medals] and Mopsie’s not quite there yet.”
But time is on his side. Having an extra year before the Olympics are scheduled to take place in July 2021 should be a benefit, and Mopsie is only 12 this year.
“Mopsie being a hot, sensitive horse, I can’t help the thought that next year he will be more relaxed and seasoned and consequently, even better.”
He’s already thinking ahead to the next Final in the U.S., Omaha in 2023, the Paris Olympics the next year and beyond that to Vegas again—maybe 2025, when he perhaps could hold the Cup aloft once more?
“I still have that vision,” he said.
“I hope it’s going to happen there one day. You can’t give up on your dreams.”