The US dressage star talks to Pippa Roome about battling back from “a very dark place” following a confidence crisis
“It’s easy when things go well, but when they don’t and people stick by you – how can you put that into words? There’s so much gratitude for that. Last year was tough.”
Sitting in the VIP tent at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) in Florida, Steffen Peters appears to be on top of the world. On the day we meet, he had won the World Cup qualifier grand prix the previous night. That evening, he would win the freestyle too. A glance at his FEI record a couple of months later shows that he and Suppenkasper were unbeaten during the AGDF season, winning 11 classes, with scores up to 83.5%.
But the emotion Steffen showed after those wins tells the story, which goes far beyond a mere scorecard. Because, despite being the holder of six Olympic and world medals, the 55-year-old has suffered from severe confidence problems over the past 18 months.
Oddly, Steffen’s issues started with one horse, his current top ride Suppenkasper (Mopsie), and yet that horse has also been the key to his return.
Heading to Europe
Let us start from the beginning. Steffen found Mopsie in the summer of 2017, through his friend Dr Ulf Möller.
“He had started to work for Andreas Helgstrand, so I called up and said we were looking for a top horse for Tokyo,” he explains. “He said he might have something and called back to say it was Suppenkasper. I had heard of him, so I looked at videos and loved him.”
Steffen was heading to Europe around the same time for shows, so he tried the horse with his former rider, Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg.
“She guaranteed that when I sat on him for five minutes I would want him, and she was right,” says Steffen. “His personality is the kindest and most generous you can think of and he has endless energy – which was a problem in the beginning because he gets very influenced by the atmosphere.
“But he has overall rideability and is extremely supple for an 18.2hh horse. He can easily go sideways, he has gigantic gaits, but you can make everything small if you need to. He’s an absolute dream horse.”
Buying Mopsie took around five weeks – X-rays were winging their way around, plus there was a show Helen wanted to do before she parted with him.
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to ride him during that time,” says Steffen. “Our training camp was three hours away, but I didn’t care – I drove three hours each way every day to watch Helen ride him for 30 minutes.
“If you have a sponsor who is so generous and willing to buy a horse, you have to do your duty – you have to spend every minute you can to assure them this could be a team horse.” The owners in question are long-time supporters of Steffen, the Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki.
In their first season together, the new partnership were selected for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, taking team silver.
“Tryon was Mopsie’s first major championship. The tension kicked in and, afterwards, I started doubting myself, whether I was riding the horse as well as Helen, whether I was doing him justice,” explains Steffen.
“That was a major challenge. If you tell me I’m not good enough to ride this horse, that’s not positive. But if you start telling yourself over and over again every single day, before you know it, you talk yourself into defeat.
“It’s very difficult to overcome that. My amazing wife Shannon took the lead, she said, ‘It’s going to be OK. Ride the way you usually do. Believe in the system that you have proved with so many other horses over the years.’”
Steffen ended up “in a very dark place”. He stopped riding other horses, although he “never gave up” with Mopsie.
“There were days when I just walked him because that anxiety took over so much,” he explains. “Slowly, things got better. I had good therapists, wonderful support from sponsors and family and my long term groom Eddie Garcia, but at the end of the day you put yourself in that place and you’ve got to dig yourself out of that rut.
“Shannon and Mopsie have been the best therapists and they didn’t charge me 300 bucks an hour! I wake up with so much gratitude every single morning – I go to Mopsie’s stall and feed him his cookies.
At 10pm, after dinner, I sit with him for 10 or 15 minutes. “It’s huge appreciation that a horse can be so therapeutic.”
Steffen says his mental health is now on a more even keel. “Once in a while I definitely feel some anxiety, but it’s so much more controllable. It’s at a level where you can say it’s here and you move on, accept it and don’t fight it,” he says.
“You have to get really comfortable with what you want to accomplish, without putting pressure on yourself. Some days won’t be as good, but the world doesn’t end.
“I was the king of holding on to frustration towards myself when I didn’t ride well. If you hold on to any negativity, it’s the first step towards mental illness. There’s this terrorist inside you that can be very destructive.”
Working in California
Steffen was brought up in Germany, where he met a trainer called Laurie Falvo, who invited him to spend the summer holiday after he finished school working for her in California. He had to return to Germany for two years of army service, but knew he wanted to live in America.
“I still remember when I was a kid when we talked about the American dream in school – I was fascinated,” he says.
“It was a dream with such a strong goal to be here, there was never a question that I would regret losing my German citizenship. I love the American people – they are so open and so much more friendly than in Germany.”
When he moved to the US permanently in 1985, his parents were “extremely supportive and generous” in sending with him a horse called Udon, who went on to be on the bronze medal-winning team at the 1996 Olympics. Steffen started his own business in 1991.
“For 22 years I gave clinics at the weekend and, because of that, I met so many people and sponsors, like Akiko and Jerry. They said we’d like to purchase a horse for you that can take us to the Olympic Games in Beijing,” he says. “That was one of those huge breaks.”
Steffen still “gets very emotional” talking about the horse they bought, Ravel, with whom he won the 2009 World Cup Final in Las Vegas, as well as two world individual bronze medals on home soil in 2010. He says: “The horse you win your first major championship with means so much to you. Your brain takes the biggest snapshot of the event, because there’s such a huge emotion behind it.”
Ravel is retired at Akiko’s property in North Carolina and Steffen visits him two or three times a year.
“If kids come in screaming, he pins his ears back and goes outside, but if you approach with an apple or banana, everything’s perfectly fine,” says Steffen. “I could be with him 24 hours a day, but not others; he needed his peace and quiet time and he deserved that.”
These days, Steffen and Shannon run a “big boarding facility” – essentially a livery yard – in San Diego with 20 acres, 13 employees and 70 horses.
“Everybody thinks I’m the boss, but Shani is,” he says. “I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Shannon running the business. Everything works flawlessly when I’m on the road six months a year. I do the budget and as long as I put the card in the machine and 20 bucks comes out, I’m pretty happy.
“Our property is in a very small hidden valley – most people say they had no idea this heavenly little place was down here. It’s exactly five miles from the beach and we get the cool ocean breeze even in summer. It doesn’t get more than 30°C and it’s one of best climates in the world for horses.”
Shannon is a grand prix rider too and coaches Steffen when he is at home, while he credits FaceTime for keeping their marriage of 15 years going when he is away competing.
Sticking to your principles
Steffen has a long viewpoint on dressage, having ridden at championship level for more than 20 years – he has been successful through the eras of Rusty, Salinero, Totilas and Valegro. He is positive about how the sport is progressing.
“Riders, horses and judges have improved,” he says. “Anyone who goes to a championship can see what quality horses we have now, but you have to stick to your principles.
“You don’t allow that identity gap where you say, ‘I love my horse,’ and then the competition comes around and you forget how much you love him and crank it up so much you might look back when you step on to the podium, and feel bad about that one particular day when you only rode the scoreboard, not your horse.
“If, when you step on the podium, you feel you always treat your horse in the most humane way, without the pressure getting in the way, a medal becomes even more valuable.”
The possibility of another medal may be a year further away after the postponement of Tokyo 2020 in the light of the coronavirus crisis. But if Steffen can maintain his form, he should be well placed to lead the way when the dressage world is up and running again.
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020