A Conversation with Steffen Peters on Steffen Peters

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Steffen Peters leaves this week with the United States team for his first Pan American Games, the only major championship in which he has not yet competed. Steffen, born and raised in Germany, but as American as, well, apple pie, and thrives on life in San Diego, California, is an Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist, a World Cup champion and the only American to sweep the CDIO at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. At the age of 46, he is in high demand as a clinician around the world and is frequently tipped as the future American coach.

As an eyewitness to Steffen’s triumphs in the rcent years and an observer of his training sessions in Wellington, Florida, for several years, Kenneth J. Braddick sat down with Steffen to talk about the rider’s life.

Steffen Peters on Ravel in his most memorable moment -- the 2009 FEI World Cup Final. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Ken Braddick: Talk about your philosophy, your training, your life, your lifestyle–what makes Steffen Peters Steffen Peters?

Steffen Peters: I think early on my father was always very active in sports, mostly team sports, soccer mainly, then he was on a bunch of track and field teams. I learned early on that discipline is a big part of life. Or, as I like to say:

Discipline is the bridge between dreams and accomplishment. I try to think about that through a lot of things, not just physically but also mentally.

Physically I believe in fitness. I find it very productive to work with a personal trainer. That keeps the motivation up. I find myself in the gym at 7 o’clock on a Monday morning and that sometimes is the last thing I want to do. I do it, anyway. I frequently come home at midnight or one o”clock in the morning from a clinic but I make being at gym my routine. Most of the time I get on my bike–it’s about a four-mile (6.4 km) ride to the gym and there are some serious hills. That’s OK on the way there, but on the way back it’s sometimes a bit challenging but I feel like it’s part of the job. Let’s not forget that not only our horses are Olympic athletes but we are Olympic athletes, too, and we owe it to them to be in perfect shape. I find it very important not just to say you have to do your best, but you have to put yourself in a position to do your best. Physical fitness is a big part of that. The proper nutrition is a big part of that, and the right amount of sleep.

I really believe we owe this first of all to our horses, and also to our owners and sponsors to put yourself in that position to do your best.

I also like to think about the mental discipline. There are a lot of things that come to mind. They seem very simple but are very important. For instance, When I started as a Young Rider, 16 or 17 years old, I always noticed that my toes were sticking out a little bit. It was not just on the horse. Every time I sat down for dinner I’d make sure my toes were turned in. Creating and learning that awareness every single day–it starts with little things like your toes, having little moments in your workout with your horse each and every day to check up on your position. We all start slouching, for instance, and I find it so important when you pick up the reins it doesn’t matter whether you are doing collected work, but when you have a contact, sit properly on the horse, keep your shoulders back. What happens is that all those reminders become more subconscious. Once someone has to constantly tell us, ‘do this.’ ‘keep your toes in,’ ‘sit up straight,’ it doesn’t really become that natural. If we can create an awareness about ourselves I think we are in good shape.

For all these things I have to give my dad credit. Over all the years when you learn from people who teach you and push you, but I don’t thnk I ever had a situation where I had to get a really good kick in the behind. I’ve always done that myself. When I felt I didn’t ride as well as I could, it used to eat me up. I remember laying awake at night thinking ‘What can I do different?’ Especially in my early 20s it was pretty extreme. But that’s part of being a very competitive person. I think it’s important to be aware of that situation because we all know that once a person is frustrated that person can get aggressive. I always know when I need to be aware of this and I put myself many times in a time out. I analyze the situation, take a deep breath even if it’s just five minutes. I used be a bit more impulsive, but I learned to deal with that. When I ride now I just don’t make decisions because of an impulsive reaction. I have a tendency to truly listen to people and horses.

A lot of people take pride in whispering to horses. I do the opposite. I like to listen to them.

The same with people. I see so many people who talk so much about themselves in a conversation that sometimes I get a little bit irritated with that. I listen. It is the same with horses. I try to listen to them to see if they really understand the situation, not just blaming them that they don’t want to do it. I constantly ask them, ‘Do you understand the situation?’ ‘Do you understand the movement?’  ‘Do you understand the aid?’
I believe in the mental work of the sport from horse and rider is extremely important. I think that 75 per cent of the whole sport is truly mental. The other 25 per cent is fitness, teaching the horse, to be in better shape, to be stronger. I find that part to be a whole lot easier, the true mental connection between horse and rider is huge.

KB: You give a huge number of clinics around the world. When you see people at these clinics do you make an assessment of the people, make an effort to instill in them your beliefs about fitness and focus?

SP: Absolutely. I encourage everyone about the fitness training. What’s more important, I try to figure out very early on how driven a person is, how far you can push the person. Some people need a kick in the butt. I know exactly when it’s time to take a step back and say, ‘You know, we’re just going to get into trouble if we go further.’ To me if you look at any successful coach there’s a huge benefit of psychological training. You have to be aware of it.

I aways find the positive, firm approach much better than the yelling kind, which was more of the kind of system that I came from, I never saw the productivity out of that.

KB; Did you ever think, or did you ever set as a goal, that you would become the face of American dressage, which you have become in the 21st century?

SP: That has always been a dream. I saw myself always as a really good team player. My first experience was with the team in the 1996 Olympic. I felt I made a good contribution to the team, not just with my performance (on Udon) but off the field, too, to be very supportive. I never believed in ruffling any feathers. I have to give Shannon, my wife, and my horses the credit for taking me there, to be the face of American dressage. I think I’ve been successful in picking horses that I can produce. I’ve said it many times, and some people argue with me about this, especially Ravel makes me look good. We all know how important the horse is. The fact of being up there right now was a process. It obviously didn’t come overnight.

Steffen Peters and Ravel at Aachen in 2009. © Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

KB: It didn’t come overnight? You mean you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be an Olympic athlete and the next day you were one?

SP: If you ask me what was the most memorable moment, it truly was that moment in Las Vegas (the 2009 World Cup Final). I still remember when the number “1” popped up. I think everyone remembers that very first major championship that you won. I think from there on I realized that Ravel and the whole Ravel team took me there. That again it was a learning process. But now there was a tremendous mount of pressure to maintain this. Let’s face it. You go to Aachen in 2009 and anything less than first place would have been a bit of a failure. Not medaling in Kentucky would have been a failure. Going to Gladstone and not winning the small tour National Championships and not winning with Ravel would have been a failure.

It is a whole new level that you learn to deal with. I’m just very, very thankful especially to my horses that they have given me the confidence in the show arena to deal with this pressure.

KB: There is a belief that to succeed you have to go to Europe. But you don’t actually spend much time in Europe? How do you make the decisions about your campaign schecdule?

SP: That’s correct. I like to listen to Akiko’s advice as Ravels owner, and sit with her and Shannon and really come up with a good plan. I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘this is the way it is.’ I like team decisions. I like to get everyone’s input. And that program has been working for us beautifully.

KB: Have you thought beyond competition? You give clinics all across the United States and in Australia, for example, where they seem to think the world of you and there is all kinds of speculation that you will become the U.S. team coach after Anne Gribbons decides not to do it any more. Or if the Americans don’t want you, maybe the Australians as they seem to like you a lot?

SP: I have thought about that a lot because now I’m definitely at the top of my career. Everybody knows it can’t go on forever like this. I thought I would be extremely satisfied with just coaching. But I had a profound insight… an epiphany.
Last year in Aachen I was watching and I saw dressage going to a whole new level with Totilas and Parzival. I personally think they were Totilas’s very best performances in all three tests (Grand Prix, Special and Freestyle). Being just a spectator, the first time since 1991 that I watched a major championship without competing.

I can’t even tell you how miserable I was. Hate is a very strong word, but I hated it (watchng and not competing at Aachen in 2010).

Steffen smiling on the outside but "hating" being a spectator with Todd Flettrich and Tina Konyot at Aachen in 2010. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

I did not like standing there, and I really mean right there. This whole idea of teaching and clinics, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it. But I knew at that particular moment last year how bad I still wanted to do it, how hungry to still be out there to do it with my horses. A lot of people have said, ‘before you retire from competition take a sabbatical and see how you like it.’ In Aachen I took a three-day sabbatical and that was enough. That was definitely enough.

Obviously, you have to be aware of physical limitations. If there’s a point when I see myself on a video and my position is not where it needs to be with all the discipline with all the physical strength and training that I’m doing… there will be a time when my body is telling me it’s not happening. But I tell you right now, my mind will be in the sport as long as I have the horses for it.

KB: How about Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu in the Beijing Games in 2008 at the age of 67.

SP: He is one of my idols, that’s for sure