Steffen Peters excels at many things. He’s a natural athlete with a balanced seat and an inherent understanding of the horse. He’s calm under pressure and has a reputation for having ice water in his veins. But his most impressive, and perhaps most valuable, trait is his ability to see a forest through the trees.
Peters has had plenty of individual triumphs in his 21⁄2 decades in U.S. dressage. But every step he’s taken along the way—every Olympic appearance and hack around his farm, every hour in the saddle and every patiently endured recovery—was with a larger ultimate goal in mind: to finally have a year like 2009.
Peters and Akiko Yamazaki’s Dutch Warmblood gelding Ravel made history, winning 10 of the 11 FEI classes they entered last year and scoring unprecedented U.S. title sweeps of the FEI World Cup Final (Nev.) and the Aachen CDI***** (Germany).
“When you have a horse like Ravel, who would be anybody’s horse of a lifetime, everybody around him—Steffen and myself, my family, his family, the owners, our whole team here—hope and dream of that kind of success,” said Peters’ wife, Shannon. “But the year they had this year was, I think, beyond anybody’s hopes and dreams of what could happen.”
“I’ve always been realistic about my horses, but realistic about myself too,” Steffen said. “In the big scheme of things, riding horses might be relatively small, but it makes a difference in peoples’ lives.”
And Ravel’s success has certainly made a difference in the life of everyone at Arroyo Del Mar, the Peters’ San Diego, Calif., home base for the past four years. The business, a manifestation of Steffen’s long-term vision, thrives thanks to the team of professionals he and Shannon have assembled over the years. In search of the most dedicated, selfless caretakers for their horses, the team has turned out to be an amalgam of cultures.
Steffen left his home in Germany for San Diego in 1985, and naturally, given his chosen sport of dressage, he maintains many close ties with European clients, students, sponsors and employees. But Yamazaki, who’s of Japanese descent, was born and raised in Costa Rica, and several members of the Peters’ team, including Ravel’s groom, Rafael Hernandez, and his veterinarian, Rodrigo Vazquez, are Latino. The farm’s manager, Kate Gillespie, is an advanced-level eventer from South Africa.
“We’re kind of a stew of people,” Gillespie said. “It’s great. Everybody here works really hard, and there are no slackers. But everybody has each other’s back, and they keep it fun. They’re always making jokes and doing silly things. Anyone who takes themselves too seriously around here just ends up getting laughed at.”
There’s a laid-back Southern California vibe at Arroyo Del Mar, with ’90s On 9 XM radio pumping through the speakers across the 22-acre property. One might expect Ravel to be training to dramatic renditions of Bach or Beethoven, but he’s more likely to be found falling in step with Right Said Fred’s pop anthem “I’m Too Sexy” or Coolio’s “1-2-3-4 (Get Your Woman On The Floor)” during his workouts.
Hundreds of people and horses come in and out of the 60-stall facility on any given week for training, lessons and auditing, in addition to the occasional party. But the farm still feels like a Swiss train station—the schedule runs like clockwork, so what could easily dissolve into chaos is instead a model of calm, perpetual efficiency.
This finely balanced atmosphere has allowed Steffen to simplify his life even at this high point in his career, when there’s more stress on him than ever before. Instead of buckling under the pressures of his hectic schedule, he’s honed his focus on the basics, both in and out of the saddle.
“The tests always get more difficult in your career, but I think our riding almost has to become a little bit less complicated,” he explained. “When the movements get harder, you have to focus even more on really sticking to the principles.”
Likewise, that ability to prioritize the little things for the benefit of the big picture is one of Steffen’s biggest keys to success as a professional horseman. If you put your horses first and then build a team of people who are willing to do the same, everything else falls into place.
“I like to think we keep things relatively simple,” he said.
When it comes to priorities, Ravel is certainly No. 1. Steffen’s intense focus has undoubtedly helped him build the 12-year-old gelding’s confidence, layer by layer, since he got the horse in 2006. Yamazaki had sent him on a search for his next Olympic mount, and he found Ravel in Edward Gal’s stable in Harskamp, the Netherlands.
That fall, Ravel was imported as a stallion but had to be gelded in quarantine, and a few months later he sustained what was then believed to be a possibly career-ending injury. But the notoriously patient Steffen gave the new horse an eight-month break, gradually working him from nothing up to winning form.
“He’s very empathetic to the horse,” Yamazaki explained of Steffen. “His standard is the Olympics and international-level riding, so it’s not like he’s not asking a lot out of the horse. But at the same time, it’s so clear by the way he rides that the horses understand.”
Ravel generally doesn’t do hard workouts more than two days in a row, and Steffen peppers his rides on all of his horses with multiple breaks for walking and stretching. He likes to give his horses’ muscles plenty of time to regain oxygen, so he may work on his piaffe for five minutes, then reward them with a free walk for two minutes.
“I’ve done several sports in addition to riding, and I know there’s only so much activity a muscle can handle,” Steffen said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think human athlete training and equine athlete training are that far apart.”
Steffen considers this routine to be one of the best recipes for soundness, especially for high-performance horses who naturally aim to please.
“Horses that have such a big heart and are trying so hard don’t necessarily show you when they’re feeling a little bit fatigued,” he said. “But that’s where the injuries can occur. I think those breaks are so essential for the physical health of the horse and the mental health of the horse.”
The Man Is A Machine
Steffen doesn’t seem to apply the same burnout-prevention tactics to his own work life, however. While he’s always sensitive to overfacing his horses, he rarely cuts himself the same breaks.
“The man is a machine,” Gillespie said. “It’s crazy trying to keep up. His natural talent is just horrendously good, but he’s dedicated like nobody else.”
Gillespie noted that 11- or 12-hour days at the barn are the norm for Steffen, in addition to lots of travel for clinics and competitions. He also makes his own fitness a high priority; he swims, cycles, plays tennis and works with a personal trainer, and he and Shannon are meticulous about their diets.
“He is a beefcake,” Gillespie said. “He works really hard. Both of them, actually. I mean they never fall off the wagon. It’s just silly.”
Immersed in all things equine 24/7, Steffen and Shannon might seem poised for imminent burnout, or at least an exhaustion breakdown, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Some people really need to step back from the horses, but we’re not like that,” Steffen said. “Shannon and I try to take one weekend a month off, but we live up here [on the farm], and it’s not like we ever dislike coming down to the barn. I’m not sure there’s ever been a day when I haven’t been down here giving Ravel a treat. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s such a big passion, and we absolutely love it.”
Steffen’s boundless energy and infinite patience make him the rare example of a high-performance athlete who seems to have been genetically engineered for success. The foundation of his consummate horsemanship—a deep-seated love and respect for animals—was laid at a young age.
“My mom told me even when I was a kid, if we’d be walking down the street and a dog began barking at us, I had a very hard time leaving that dog,” Steffen said. “I tried so hard to make that dog like me. That’s still in my personality today. It’s not just about competition—it’s a serious love for animals.”
Decades later, Steffen and his entire team still put the horse first, no matter what.
“Their horses get absolutely anything and everything they need,” said Gillespie, who, even though she’s an eventer, has been working for Shannon for the past 11 years. “That’s what I like about working for dressage people as opposed to anybody else. They really pamper their horses, and that’s what I do to mine.”
Steffen’s all-consuming love of the horse is rare enough, especially in concert with his superior talent in the tack. But those factors alone aren’t enough to sustain a lifelong career as an international-level professional.
“Obviously, you have to have amazing dedication, discipline, talent, all of the above—that’s almost a given,” Yamazaki said. “But I think equally important is being smart about what kind of relationships you develop over time. In that, Steffen has been very, very smart.”
Yamazaki has worked with Steffen for more than a decade, and his relationships with most of his sponsors, such as Lila Kommerstad, Peggy and Fred Furth, and Bruce and Jan Hlavacek, began long before.
“He just knows exactly how much to tell me, so I don’t have to be micromanaging everything, which is something I don’t want to do,” Yamazaki said. “He’s very courteous, and he’s always inclusive, and he makes it very pleasant for everybody involved.
“And at the same time, he creates a lot of opportunities for himself,” she added. “You can be as talented and as dedicated and as disciplined as you want, but in the end, if you don’t have a horse, it doesn’t matter. If you want to be a top-level competitor, you have to also be able to find sponsors. In that, I hope younger people can take serious notes from Steffen and learn from his great example.”
In addition to fostering relationships with owners, Steffen draws on his people skills daily as he works with company representatives on sponsorship and endorsement deals, conducts media interviews and opens his farm for parties and fundraisers.
He may not have realized the all-consuming responsibilities of being a 21st century professional athlete when he was forging out in his 20s, but Steffen has since grown into the role admirably. Looking back, he doesn’t have a real explanation for the process, but, true to form, he makes it sound simple.
“In the early stages, every young professional has to prove himself, not just as a teacher, but also out in the show arena,” he said. “That pressure is tremendous, because at the end of the day, you’re selling yourself as a product, and you have to find a reason for people to buy that product. But I don’t think I ever let that pressure get a hold of me.”
Few athletes can honestly make that claim about their formative years, and even fewer can look forward to the challenges of the coming season with the same cool, calm confidence Steffen has.
Judging from 2009, however, he’s incredibly lucky. Because by all indications, the athlete he’s sitting on seems to be one of them.
Ravel’s competitive fire burns hot in the arena, but he keeps it well hidden in his home environment. The gelding actually spends most of his time lounging happily in his double-sized stall, which is at the crossroads of Arroyo Del Mar’s massive main stable. He keeps tabs on everyone coming and going in all directions, and because the staff has taken out his back dividing wall, he can look over one door into the center aisle and out another to the outdoor grooming stalls.
When he grows bored with the activity on either end, he retreats to the middle ground for some privacy and sips—very daintily, according to his groom—from his automatic waterer.
Ravel gets the VIP treatment every day. The grooming process is always slow and relaxed, with no elbow grease spared and no shortcuts taken. The gelding bares his teeth and nods his head as Hernandez massages his topline, and he often falls asleep while being clipped.
“He trusts you in everything,” Hernandez said. “He’s a really easy-going, authentic, sweet horse. He’s unique. There’s not another word to describe him.”
Sweet he may be, but Ravel’s healthy ego is also apparent wherever he goes. He knows what cameras are and loves being the center of attention, but, like a seasoned celebrity, his patience does sometimes run out.
“Then he’s like, ‘OK, we’re done. Bye. Let’s go,’ ” Hernandez said, laughing.
Although Kommerstad actually owns Arroyo Del Mar, the discriminating look in Ravel’s eyes when he’s out on his daily walks about the property makes it evident that he considers himself its proprietor. He’s truly the king of the farm, and no one crosses the king.
If Ravel deems it appropriate to stop and stare at the farm’s sprinkler system or watch another horse schooling, Hernandez waits patiently until the gelding has seen enough and chooses to walk on of his own accord.
“He just stops and says, ‘I’m not moving,’ ” Hernandez said. “So I just say, ‘OK, take your time.’ ”
And when he’s not busy surveying the grounds like a magnanimous overseer, Ravel is burying his head underneath his groom’s arm, burrowing into his pocket for treats. Rather than scolding him, Hernandez just laughs and promptly provides a tasty morsel.
To anyone observing Ravel off duty, he may seem just a bit spoiled.
But from the moment Steffen sets foot in his stirrup, it’s like a switch has been flipped; it’s clear the horse has happily relinquished the upper hand and is ready, willing and able to work to please his rider. The idea of disobedience never seems to even cross his mind, let alone manifest itself, in the dressage ring.
“It’s more of a bond rather than a dominance thing,” Gillespie noted of the Peters’ training philosophy, and especially of Steffen’s bond with Ravel. “People should have a relationship with their horse rather than try to make them do things.”
Shocking The World
From the warm-up arenas to the awards ceremonies, that bond was on display like never before in 2009, beginning in January at the Palm Beach Exquis World Dressage Masters CDI***** in Wellington, Fla. Steffen and Ravel topped the Grand Prix there (75.57%) and finished third in the freestyle (76.60%).
“Because of what happened in the World Cup and then later on in Aachen, we tend to forget a little bit about the World Dressage Masters, and the fact that that was [Ravel’s] first major win at the true international level,” Yamazaki said.
But ask her about the FEI World Cup Final, and it’s clear that that memory is one of her most cherished.
“Steffen may have other favorite moments, but for me, that Grand Prix was something that will always remain in my memory,” Yamazaki said. “He was just so beautiful and floating, and he had so much energy, and yet he was still relaxed. To me, that was a performance of a lifetime.”
Steffen later admitted he was more concerned about the atmosphere in Las Vegas than Ravel was. He still remembers the surprise he felt when, rather than tensing up as the crowd began cheering mid-freestyle, the horse bloomed with brilliance.
The competition was like a coming out party for the gelding. Suddenly, Team Peters had not just a naturally talented youngster on their hands, but an expressive, crowd-pleasing equine athlete.
Ravel’s sweep of both classes, with a 77.91 percent in the Grand Prix and an 84.95 percent in the freestyle, shocked the world.
“It all happened too fast,” Hernandez said. “It’s really hard sometimes to believe it.”
He clearly remembers standing by the warm-up ring in Vegas when Vazquez, Ravel’s tall, burly veterinarian, approached him with a friendly chiding. “Are you going to cry this time?” he joked to the diminutive, often-emotional groom.
Hernandez took the teasing in stride and admitted he probably would. But a few days later, when Ravel clinched the freestyle victory and the World Cup title, Hernandez turned from the arena to see Vazquez behind him, tears dripping down the veterinarian’s face.
“I said, ‘So, how’s it feel to cry, huh?’ ” Hernandez recalled with a laugh. “Of course he cried. Of course I cried! You see your work out there, and you feel like, ‘That’s my job out on display.’ It’s such a big responsibility. So when you see he’s winning, you feel good. There’s no pay for that. It’s just satisfaction for you. All the early mornings, all the late days, all the driving and all the sacrifice—it’s there. And I think that counts a lot for everybody.”
Nothing To Hide
For the next two months, the U.S. dressage community basked in the glow of Ravel’s historic victory, not to mention everyone at Arroyo Del Mar.
Then came Aachen.
It had been more than two decades since a U.S. rider had won the Grand Prix of Aachen (Robert Dover had been the last to score a victory there, in 1987 on Federleicht), and no U.S. citizen had ever been named the Grand Prix Champion of Aachen, the title that goes to the rider with the highest scores in all three Grand Prix tests.
With that kind of U.S. record at the famed German venue, Ravel’s chances of breaking through the barrier seemed nominal at best. Even after his stunning World Cup victory, doubts remained as to whether he really was the top horse in the sport.
“Now he was going against Salinero [Anky van Grunsven’s top horse] and all of the top riders in Europe in their back yard,” Yamazaki said. “He was really going into the lion’s den.”
“Several influential individuals kindly suggested to me not to go to Aachen,” Steffen admitted. “After the World Cup, the idea of going up against Anky again, and potentially against Isabell [Werth], which unfortunately changed, [she was serving an FEI suspension after her small-tour horse Whisper tested positive for fluphenazine], made some people afraid that it would be a really, really tough competition. And I said, ‘Well, just because of that, I’m going.’
“I didn’t think we had anything to hide if we showed up in Aachen,” he added. “And it turned out to be a pretty good decision.”
Heading back to his home nation for its most legendary competition, Steffen was far from convinced that Ravel would win. But he felt more ready than he’d ever been up until that point in his life.
They dominated in the Grand Prix test (77.83%), winning by more than 5 percentage points over Dutch rider Hans Peter Minderhoud and Exquis Nadine (72.46%).
“What’s amazing about Ravel is that, while the other horses are settling in during the Grand Prix and may not be able to put in their best performances, he always comes right out of the gate doing his best,” Yamazaki said.
But their Grand Prix Special margin of victory wasn’t nearly as comfortable. After seeing his leading score of 76.91 percent and dismounting, Steffen and his contingent ran to a big-screen TV to watch van Grunsven and Salinero perform.
Aachen broadcasts a movement-by-movement comparison of scores between the overall leader and whichever horse is currently in the arena. Throughout the test, their overall scores are also continually tabulated and compared on the Jumbotrons.
“It was exciting and fun and nerve-wracking to watch, because Salinero and Ravel were constantly going back and forth between first and second,” Steffen recalled. “And it honestly came down to the last centerline. In the last piaffe, Anky was ahead, and then she was still ahead after the passage. It came down to the very last movement.”
Unluckily for van Grunsven, Salinero has a reputation for blowing that last movement, the halt. True to form, he barely paused at G, and those low marks tipped the scales in Ravel’s favor. Van Grunsven took second, just .33 points behind.
It was the closest she would come to beating him, as “the Queen of the Freestyle” lagged 1.1 percentage points behind in the final class. The German crowd shot to its feet after Ravel’s stunning freestyle, which secured his winning sweep with a career-best score of 85.60 percent.
“The win was definitely a little bit of a surprise, especially being ahead of Anky with Salinero,” Steffen said humbly. “Through the past few years we’ve always had the impression it was going to be Isabell or Anky, but it shouldn’t always be known before who’s going to win. That was exciting, and I think that’s good for the sport.”
There’s A Wide Open Field For 2010
With the international dressage landscape so recently and dramatically altered, Steffen Peters isn’t naïve about his chances of repeating last year’s huge wins in 2010.
“If you go to a competition and you don’t want to win, you shouldn’t go,” he said. “But let’s be realistic here. Ravel can score in a Grand Prix around 77 or 78, and some European horses can go over 80 percent at the moment. But I think that’s what’s so neat about the sport nowadays—there are five horses in the world that can do extremely well and have a chance at winning.”
Peters is referring not only to Ravel, but also to Anky van Grunsven’s Salinero and Adelinde Cornelissen’s Parzival, both of the Netherlands, and British rider Laura Bechtolsheimer’s Mistral Hojris. And then, of course, there’s Moorlands Totilas.
In the latter half of 2009, the Dutch superhorse burst onto the European scene with Edward Gal, setting a new world record freestyle score (89.40%) and then summarily shattering it twice (90.75% and 92.30%).
Peters managed to break through the proverbial glass ceiling of absolute dominance that van Grunsven and Isabell Werth had kept intact for so long. But just as he did, it seemed that Ravel and every other up-and-coming talent were totally eclipsed by Totilas. The young stallion’s extravagant movement and incredible marks made him a huge spectator draw and a global YouTube phenomenon.
“It’s a wonderful horse,” Peters conceded of Totilas. “I think Edward certainly does a super job with him, and people have asked me many times what I could do to move close to his scores. But let’s not forget Parzival either, or Laura Bechtolsheimer’s horse.
“Those are three wonderful horses. All I will say is that if I get the chance to compete against those guys, I will ride on that particular day up to what Ravel offers,” he continued. “I would never risk that he might lose his confidence by me pushing him a step too far. If we end up in third, fourth or fifth place, I’d still be very happy with that, if it was the very best that Ravel could’ve done and I could’ve done.”
It’s likely that these horses will all finally go head-to-head at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky this fall. But Peters is far from giving up a hope of winning, especially since Ravel has already dramatically improved his scores from a year ago, when they averaged in the low 70s. Further development isn’t out of the question, and Peters also plans to add a few more touches of difficulty to Ravel’s freestyle.
“But I always appreciate Ravel for what he is,” he said. “And that is a horse of a lifetime.”
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