French Equestrian Magazine Grand Prix Interview with Steffen Peters

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The French equestrian magazine, Grand Prix, has published in its March edition an interview with U.S. dressage rider Steffen Peters. The magazine is published in French and distributed throughout Europe. Grand Prix gave permission for dressage-news.com to reprint the interview that was conducted by Kenneth J. Braddick.

Steffen Peters atop the medals podium at the World Dressage Masters Palm Beach with Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain (left) and Tinne Vilhelmsson-Silfvén of Sweden (right). © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Steffen Peters was born in Germany but became a United States citizen to compete on the American team at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, winning team bronze. In the quarter-century since then, he has become the leading dressage rider in his adopted nation and among the top in the world. On Ravel he was fourth individually at the 2008 Olympics, won the World Cup in 2009, CDIO champion at Aachen in 2009 and at the 2010 World Equestrian Games became the first American dressage rider to win two individual world championship medals. After becoming 2011 U.S. Equestrian of the Year for a record third time and capturing his second World Dressage Masters title in Palm Beach, Steffen talked to Grand Prix about his life.

Question: Have horses been your whole life? How did you start with them?

Steffen Peters: I started when I was 7, exactly 40 years ago. My sister, Anke, started riding ponies and kept bugging me to come along to ride with her. I was not that interested–dressage looked boring. Jumping looked more interesting, especially three-day evening with ponies. When my sister turned 16 and couldn’t ride ponies any more, I took over the dressage pony. I was 15. We did some international competitions, in Belgium and Denmark.

But it really all started when my dad bought Udon as a three-year-old Dutch Warmblood. After I moved to California in the United States in 1985 I worked for Günter Seidel who gave me a hell of a job and paid me really well. In 1991 I started my own business and that’s when Lila Kommerstad bought Udon. That was a huge step in my career. It was the first time I was sponsored… I had an official sponsor and I was one of those real lucky guys that I could keep riding the horse I had trained. I lucked out in two ways. I had enough money to start my own business and I still have a wonderful relationship with Lila. She owns a large part of Arroyo Del Mar where we now are. Lila and Robert Kommerstad also purchased Grandeur after the 1996 Olympics, which we competed in Aachen in 1999 for seventh place in the Freestyle and then seventh place at the World Cup in 2003. Floriano was the step into the world where I could play with the big boys in 1996 at the World Games in Aachen where he was fourth in the Grand Prix Special.

Q: Your career seemed to be in a bit of a lull from 1996 Olympics until the mid-2000s. When you look back on those years now what do you think?

SP: It was a very good time to learn what patience is all about. We qualified for the 2000 Olympic selection trials in Florida. We were good the first day, but the first night Grandeur had to have colic surgery. Within half an hour, things went from going well to Grandeur having to have colic surgery. It was a very sad but a good learning experience to deal with that much frustration early on. Thank God he recovered wonderfully. Not just knowing that injuries and colic surgeries can happen but Grandeur was an extremely spooky horse. A firm approach never crossed my mind. The patience in the saddle and on the ground was a wonderful learning experience when I look back now. At the time it was frustrating but I think I had to do a lot of growing up mentally and that helped a lot.

Q: After 2006 at Aachen when the U.S. team won bronze, it seems like you have succeeded at one major event after another. How do you see the what has happened from 2006?

SP: I call myself so extremely fortunate to have horses that took me there, I would not have had the horses without amazing sponsors, I don’t think I would have gone as far without the great coaching job that Shannon did and also the support outside the arena that I receive from Shannon. I say many times when I talk to Akiko (Yamazaki, the owner of Ravel and Legolas) and Jen and Bruce (Hlavacek, owner of Weltino’s Magic), “Thank you for my dream.” That’s honestly the way I look at the last six years. That’s exactly what I’m living. I have told Akiko many times, “I hope I don’t wake up very soon.”

Q: Right now you have two unbelievable horses–Ravel and the new and younger, Legolas, How do you feel about these two horses?

SP: The neat thing is, Ravel has taught me so much experience in the international arena and given me a good amount of confidence, not too much confidence but enough to deal with pressure at the Olympic Games, the World Cup, the World Equestrian Games, experience you cannot learn in the classroom. I am so thankful I have been exposed to that pressure. I know that, especially with Legolas being a very sensitive but spectacular horse, It will take a lot of patience and a lot of experience. There’s nothing I love to do more. In 2010, I went to Aachen to watch everyone compete. We decided that was the year we wanted to preserve Ravel for Kentucky. Hating is a strong word, but I absolutely hated being on the sideline. This was the time when Totilas had his very, very best competition ever–I have never seen him better–again just being sidelined and not getting a chance to compete was a very obvious sign that I am still very hungry and hopefully I will be in the Grand Prix arena for a few more years. The idea of retirement has not yet crossed my mind.

Q: In 2008 when you came so close to an individual medal at the Olympics, did you think you could be better in 2010 in Kentucky? Or another two years on, you would have the two horses you have, did you dream about what might happen?

SP: It’s hard to put into words just how extremely lucky I am. Some people are extremely fortunate to get a horse like Ravel once in their lifetime and that’s it. I think a lot of Legolas but he has to prove himself. He’s another world class horse. But I think about the horses I’ve had–Udon, Grandeur, Floriano, Lombardy… there have been so many horses I have been so fortunate with. Everything that’s been happening, especially since 2009, it’s been a little bit better than my dreams.

I get up every day on a beautiful farm in Southern California. There are many days where I poke myself and say, “This is amazing.” I wake up each and every morning with an amazing amount of energy and I can’t wait to get on Ravel and Legolas, Magic, Sun Dancer 8. So it is extremely exciting. I don’t mind working hard. I usually travel every single weekend and here and there we might take a Monday afternoon off. It’s all extremely rewarding I absolutely love what I’m doing and I continue to dream really big.

Steffen Peters and Weltino’s Magic after capturing individual gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Pan Ams were the first in which Steffen competed. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Q: Guadalajara, Mexico, last year was your first Pan American Games–small tour but as the world’s second largest sporting event behind only the Olympics, vital for the United States in the Americas. Was it small time for you or did you learn new things about yourself and competing?

SP: This championship was different because it put me into the position of really good teams like Germany or Holland. It’s been expected of them to win a gold medal. It adds a little more pressure. You need to experience it. It is quite a bit different. The U.S. was the “dream team” no doubt. But we were expected to do well. I’m really thankful to my team mates who put in three super performances. I’m a big sports fan so here’s what I mean. In the Intermediaire when the scores were announced I was jumping up and down, I was just so excited for Marisa (Festerling) because she was a rookie. It was really, really fun to see. It was like my favorite (NFL) team, the San Diego Chargers, scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. That’s how exiting it was for me. I was very happy with Magic, but just as excited for my team mates.

Q: Did you feel the same pride as at the Olympics, or the WEG or the World Cup?

SP: Any time you get to represent your nation it’s a huge honor. That, combined with competing with a hell of a team, made it just as special as the Olympics, the World Cup or the World Equestrian Games. The feeling didn’t just start in Guadalajara; it started after Gladstone, the selection trials. The feeling is so wonderful, it never gets old. It’s the same feeling as my first time on the U.S. team in 1996 in Atlanta. Every single time it brings the same excitement. All the things that go with it. You always get the team clothing right before the Opening Ceremony. It brings that excitement, that adrenaline hits me. I’m glad it is still that way. it is such an honor and I know I will never lose that feeling.

Q: How are you preparing for the Olympics? Shannon enrolled you in “Boot Camp” run by former Marines.

SP: I was in great shape in Hong Kong in 2008 and I want to be even better prepared for 2012.I’m older, Ravel is a little bit older. With Ravel it might be our last shot, let’s be realistic. So I’m making sure I am prepared.

Q: Do you dare to hope for a medal at the Olympics in London?

SP: Who hasn’t dreamt of an Olympic medal. Let’s be realistic. I have had rides on Ravel this past year that have been even a step up from last year. You can’t but dream about making it a little bit better than Hong Kong. I’m realistic and also very thankful about goals that we have achieved already. I think you can very easily get a bit too hungry where you want it too bad. The pressure you put on yourself is automatically being put on the horse. I’m very much aware of that situation and I’m not going to let that happen. I want it pretty bad but definitely not at all cost.

Q:  Do you have a life outside of horses? What makes up your whole life?

SP: I’m the type of person who analyzes a lot. I love gadgets, but I don’t talk about it much. I look at the video camera, trying to make things better, but I also have to be careful there that I don’t overdo it. I know it sounds kind of childish but I have a wonderful time with my toys. Anne (Gribbons, U.S. coach) doesn’t like it at all that I like motorcycles. She always looks at me very funny. Cars, yeah… but lately it’s been more the motorcycles. I have two, one for touring and one for the  track–Anne is going to love that when she hears that; she doesn’t know that. One is a BMW 1100, a beautiful motorcycle. There were only 500 of them made in 2005. It looks brand new and has only 6,800 miles (10,940km)  on it. That bike is for the track. I have a touring bike, an R1200RT. I call it the old gentleman’s bike because it’s very smooth and has a big old windshield in front. I enjoy it because you have to be very focused. I usually drive it mainly when I’m at home on Sunday morning. I don’t drive it at night or in the rain or on the freeway. I have some pretty strict discipline rules but I love it. We enjoy time on the boat, water skiing, wake boarding and recently wake surfing. There is definitely some time when I get a little bit away from the horses. It’s not that I need to go away from the horses I choose to because I tend to over-analyze and do things where I can’t think about anything else.

Q: So the bikes and other activities replaced the eventing part of riding horses that you did as a little kid?

SP: That’ a good way to put it.