Steffen Peters Talks About Daily Mental Therapy as he Seeks Place on 5th USA Olympic Team
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Jan. 14, 2020
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Six months after Steffen Peters disclosed mental health issues sustained after a quarter century among the world’s elite competitors, the rider reports he works daily on recovery, imprinting images of his 2009 World Cup victory on Ravel to control his thoughts and emotions as he seeks a place on what would be his fifth Olympic team for America.
Suppenkasper, the horse that was bought two years ago with the goal of going to the Tokyo Games, has become what Steffen jokes is a “therapist,” as recently he has spent several hours a day with the 12-year-old KWPN gelding.
In a change of focus on his life, Steffen who is 55 years old he hopes to team up with Debbie McDonald, the U.S. coach, to conduct riding clinics at a cost affordable to most riders with the extra bonus of talking about the ups and downs of life, with or without horses, as a way of giving back to the sport. He did two on his own and wants to do more.
And in a salute to Laura Graves and Verdades whose retirement was announced last week, the Olympic and world chamionship team mates were one of “my biggest standards” to aspire to since their first competition together, the U.S. championships in 2014. There, Steffen on Legolas took the title and the virtually unknown Laura and Diddy were reserve, “becoming a superstar overnight.”
Steffen, originally from Germany, moved to California and with his wife, Shannon, now own and operate Arroyo Del Mar, a dressage training facility in San Diego.
His first Olympic experience was capturing team bronze for the U.S. on Udon in Atlanta in 1996. He rode Floriano to team bronze at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. Ravel was his mount for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as well as individual and freestyle bronzes at the 2010 World Games in Lexington. He earned his second Olympic team bronze on Legolas at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 as well as being on the team at the 2014 WEG in Normandy.
World Cup champion on Ravel in 2009, only the second American to do so, was a career highlight. Debbie McDonald on Brentina in 2003 was the first.
He and Suppenkasper are at the top of the North American League that gets at least two starting places at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas in April. While he hopes to make the lineup in the same Thomas & Mack Center where he won the title 11 years ago, “if it doesn’t happen, the world and the universe won’t collapse. That’s the way I used to think, talking myself into defeat.”
At the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany in July 2019 Steffen disclosed that he was suffering depression so severe that although he had been the top American rider for much of the past quarter century he had considered giving up competing. He made the disclosure to dressage-news.com, he said, to share the experience so it might benefit others.
Six months on, at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida where he is campaigning Suppenkasper, who is stuck with the barn name “Mopsie” inherited from previous owner and rider Helen Langehanenberg, for one of three places on the American team at Tokyo. Akiko Yamazaki, whose Four Winds Farm owns Suppenkasper and several of Steffen’s top horses in the past, was in Wellington to provide support.
He was asked by dressage-news.com about his progress in the past six months.
“I’m doing good. It’s daily work. I prune my brain every single morning… a lot of great visualization. There are so many amazing video clips on YouTube… from the World Cup, raising the trophy, standing there with Shannon celebrating… in fact, (laughing) giving you (this correspondent) a big hug…
“That clearly produces the quality of thoughts. That’s how I start every single morning. I truly believe if you surround your thoughts with a positive network of cells in your brain that clearly produces the quality of thoughts that I want to live every single day.
Is it getting better?
“No doubt. A huge thank you to Mopsie. He continues to do better and better so that builds up your confidence again. It’s amazing what you learn in the process. That you really understand that no matter how amazing medications that are out there there’s nothing more self-healing than your own thoughts. The idea of self-healing and understanding a little bit of that self-healing, that’s incredible.
“In 54 years I’ve never learned as much as I have in the last year. My question is why don’t the teachers in school teach that… they teach you so much from the books.. teaching from the book and what they learn from the book but not what they learn in life–there will be struggles and there will be something out there that you’re going to suck at and how you face that.
“The biggest thing for me and why I’m better was not holding on to things. I was the king of holding on to frustration, anger, betrayal… I was the king of that. So many people will tell you that is the first step toward mental illness. I study successful people, like Denzel Washington, Jim Carey, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman … absolutely fascinating.
“It all comes down to pruning your brain every single day, not just with the dream, not with just the goal but with a pretty high emotion. I cannot tell you how many times in the morning I lifted that World Cup trophy and felt a really, really strong emotion. I know with the strong emotion and a goal and a dream that’s when your brain takes a really big snapshot of that situation. It might not know the difference of you holding that trophy and raising it or sitting here and talking to you. It’s fascinating the things you learn when you go through struggles. You have two choices—you give up or every single day you get a little bit better.”
How far are you from your peak?
“Hard to say. I take it day by day. I had a great time with Mopsie at Five Rings Farm, Christina Vinios’s place (in Wellington). The neat thing was Eddie (Garcia, his groom) was on vacation for two weeks so I had Mopsie to myself. I started walking him in the morning, got him ready, spent 10 to 12 hours a day with this horse that I never had a chance to do before.
“There are so many wonderful thoughts that go through your brain, what an amazing opportunity I have. Every day is a bit of a new challenge, every day is so rewarding to work with this horse.”
Has he become your therapist?
“No doubt. He’s a hell of a therapist and so far the cheapest one, extremely therapeutic. To judge where we are right now, peaking wise, I can only base that on the last week. That went really well. Debbie’s extremely happy. I’m having fun. It’s not that pure pressure any more–you have to make the team, you have to make it better. It is truly enjoying riding again, every single day.”
Like before Atlanta in 1996?
“Right. Exactly. What an amazing learning curve it has been. On one part I’m grateful that I’ve learned all that but not quite sure it had to be that big of a struggle before. It is so miuch better. I tried some medications before and always had some resistance to that medication and I believe in the anti-placebo effect—you don’t believe in that suff so good luck making it work. I always had that resentment. I drink a relaxing tea at night, it’s called, Get Some Zzzs. We’ve been drug tested with it so we’re good.”
At the time of this interview, Steffen competed Suppenkasper in the CDI3* Grand Prix to kick off the 2020 Global circuit, winnng the Grand Prix with a disappointing result then rebounding two days later to capture the Grand Prix Special with their second highest score for that test. He was upbeat and positive when he talked afterward about the competition that was the first in six months.
What effect do you think the retirement of Verdades will have?
“It’s hard to say. I felt obligated not just to text Laura but to leave a voice message. I really wanted to tell her from the heart how much of an honor it was to ride with her, how incredible the feeling was at least twice where we sat and watched her performance that with every single step we came closer to a medal. There was this real gratitude, this real appreciation of a friend and team mate, and a hell of a horse. I left her a really long message. It can’t be easy right now.
“We need to wait until everybody goes into the arena. We haven’t seen Adrienne’s horse (Salvino), we haven’t seen Kasey’s horse (Dublet)… At the end of the day we need to be there to pull for each other and do the best we can. It is called a team sport but at the end of the day you go in there as an individual—we’re a group of individuals.”
Steffen said he’s getting “more and more of a kick out of encouraging people” who may have doubts. He relates a story told by the actor Denzel Washington: When it’s your time to go, your time to die there’s going to be a bunch of ghosts around your bed. All those ghosts represent your talents. At that time they’re going to speak up and say, ‘I wanted to go to the Olympics with you. Why didn’t you call on me? I would have been there for you.’ I find that part of a stronger purpose I have now.
“It’s great if you make it in life, but I think it’s even better if you make a difference in life. I find that ideal of serving without necssarily the financial reward behind it is much more important, You come to that stage where you serve a bit more.”
As an example, he and Debbie McDonald conducted two clinics recently with a lecture at the end.
“Debbie and I talk about that quite a bit, the prices of clinicians, that we want to be affordable.
“I told both organizers, the money’s doesn’t matter so much to me. I want people to be able to afford to ride in the clinic and I want to share with them what it takes, not just to make the Olympic Games but what it takes in life in general if you go through struggles. I feel that is a really, really strong purpose… to make a difference. Not just teaching about dressage and riding but about life in general. What a struggle it can be. How you truly can covercome that. How rewarding it can be.”
The United States has created amazing team spirit that is so obvious whereever it competes in the world, not just the team riders, owners and grooms but pretty much every American who has a chance wants to be there to show support. Did you feel that?
“I think I was too stressed out to enjoy that team spirit. It was more making the team, being there for the team. Of course it was wonderful, afterwards. The training camps preparing for Rio, for Tryon were one of the best weeks and days of my life. Not just the preparation but sitting there in a group and watching that seamless transition between Debbie and Robert (Dover), pulling for each other… and the celebrations after. After Tryon, I have pictorial evidence of how incredible that was. We were sitting in this tiny little town outside of Tryon, sitting at this Mexican place, we’d had a few margaritas. There was a stop light right outside the restaurant. Anybody who stopped and looked over we stood up and showed off our medals. People were honking horns. We went home and everyone played car karaoke. Incredible memories. That’s something I really learn to treasure more and more. That’s what life is all about.”
At the age of 55, if you make the team could this be your last Olympics?
“I don’t think so. I just know how much I love it, how much I love riding, how much I love competing, Mopsie will be 16 years old by the time of Paris (in 2024). I think that’s a realistic number for me. I had a scan done of my brain and my spine and the doctor said he hadn’t seen a spine that looked that good for a 55-year-old man. So physically I’m in good shape. I can’t think that Tokyo will be it. I thought that for some time, but I love competing.”
Los Angeles in 2028? Just joking, but…
“Mopsie will be a bit old for that but if there’s another horse that comes along I wouldn’t say no to that.
What do you think of dressage horses today from those when you were first starting out?
“We have better breeders, more scientific breeding, better riders, better trainers and, of course, we have better horses. Therefore, it’s so important to learn from the better riders and not just sitting on the sideline and wishing something will go wrong so your score will be higher, but enjoying that with an open mind saying that’s the standard that’s what we need to live up to.
“To be honest one of my biggest standards was Laura and Diddy. I remember that first day in 2014 when she was becoming a superstar overnight. Some judges had her at 75 others were still at 69. The judges truly have become better. They are trying more to get in sync. I really believe in the good nature of judging and they’re not just out there to get you.
“It’s amazing how the sport has evolved and I’m honored to be still part of that. I know I have a hell of a horse that I believe in. I know there’s a huge score in there, I dream of it, I feel it, I imagine it, I visualize it, I prune my brain every single day. I dream of that and visualize what type of pen the judge used to write 80% on that test, or for a person to type in an 8 and a 0.
“I truly know if you don’t believe in it, imagine it, it’s not going to happen. for sure. Self doubt is definitely not the answer.”