America’s premier dressage rider’s routine includes grueling workouts, meditation, gliding above San Diego’s cliffs, and lots of time with Mopsie, his trusty equine partner.
After nearly 30 years in the sport, Steffen Peters has found mental fitness is even more crucial than physical stamina to staying on top.
Steffen Peters has been in this game long enough to know exactly what it takes to get to the podium: discipline, perseverance and a whole lot of training — both in and out of the saddle.
Steffen also knows just how challenging it is to stay at the top of the sport once you’re there. So, as the 55-year-old German-born rider trains to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he’s working as hard as ever to stay physically fit, maintain a strong bond with his mount and preserve and strengthen his mental focus.
Continuing A Dressage Legacy
With four Olympic appearances to his name along with numerous victories at top dressage competitions across the globe, Steffen is well-acquainted with the core requirements of the job: being in prime physical condition and building trusting relationships with his equine counterparts.
Most days, Steffen starts with a grueling core, cardio and strength training workout. “Working out has always been part of my process,” he says. “I’m a very energetic person — sometimes a little too much — so that keeps me at a very good level.”
He’ll have his breakfast and prepare for the day, then head out to the barn at 9 a.m. to ride Suppenkasper, a.k.a. Mopsie. “He’s one of the kindest horses I’ve ever met,” Steffen says of the 12-year-old, 18.2hh KWPN gelding.
Mopsie was purchased with the goal of being Steffen’s Olympic mount for Tokyo. For the past three years, Steffen has devoted countless hours to bonding with the gelding.
“I think that it’s so important when you have a special horse like that that you really manage your time perfectly,” says Steffen.
All their quality time together has paid off. In April, the powerful duo recorded a personal-best score to win the Del Mar National World Cup Grand Prix Freestyle, marking Steffen’s highest score in more than three years: an impressive 80.990%.
A Mental Game
Excellence in dressage takes more than just physical fitness. In fact, Steffen says, the split is probably closer to 40 percent physical and 60 percent mental. And as he’s faced intense pressure over the years, Steffen has learned how to cope with stress and mental fatigue.
“I love meditation,” says Steffen. Adding the practice to your daily routine can be as simple as searching for a video online, he says, although it takes time to truly feel the positive effects.
“Anything that you do, especially meditation, you have to practice it for a little while,” he says. “But if you do it for two to three weeks, it certainly makes a difference.”
Meditation became critical for Steffen in 2018, when he struggled with severe anxiety and depression.
“I got into this really negative rut still doubting myself,” he told dressage-news.com. “I told myself, ‘Listen, you’ve done four Olympic Games — that’s a lot of pressure. How could you possibly be anxious and have so many side effects?’”
During this difficult time, Steffen made three trips to the emergency room, sought treatment from eight different doctors and dealt with bouts of tunnel vision and paresthesia, or nerve-tingling. The emotional distress created so many physical symptoms, Steffen was convinced he had a brain tumor — the same condition that had taken his father’s life.
After a negative brain scan, Steffen enlisted the help of a psychiatrist and tried taking anti-depressants, which his body didn’t tolerate well. Meditation and hypnotherapy finally helped him “retrain” his brain to calm down and create a positive network.
Today, Steffen feels much stronger and knows how to catch himself when a negative thought tries to poison his outlook. He’s also better at channeling his energy and finding balance between work and play.
“Right now,” Steffen says, “I pretty much have the life that I have always dreamed of.”
Living the Dream
That includes time for Steffen to devote to his hobby: flying small glider planes off the cliffs near his farm in San Diego.
“It’s you and nature,” he explains. “You have to learn how to adjust to the wind. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing sport and hobby.”
On a typical afternoon, if the winds are good, Steffen will head out to the cliffs after lunch and spend a few hours flying his planes. Afterward, he’ll return home to dinner with his wife, Shannon, a fellow dressage rider. And then? Back to work.
“During the show season, I hit the gym again from 7 to 8 o’clock at night,” Steffen says. “When you want to go to the Olympics, you’ve got to take care of all that. It’s not just the training. At the end of the day, you only have one body.”
And as Steffen trains tirelessly for his fifth Olympic bid, he remains mindful of the depth and breadth of support that has helped him get this far.
“I’ve been competing in Europe since 1993,” he recalls. “How could I possibly put into words how grateful and appreciative I am for that? When I see all the expenses — the flight, transportation in Europe, a hotel — it’s just mind-boggling. I’m so appreciative to the (United States Equestrian Team) Foundation and all of their supporters.”
Steffen is also grateful for Akiko Yamazaki, his sponsor of 15 years. “The support I’ve had over the years is amazing.” Akiko has provided Steffen with many wonderful horses – Ravel, Legolas and, of course, Mopsie – over the course of their relationship. “It feels so good to pick up the phone after a test and say, ‘We got 76% from one judge, almost an 80%’. “That real team effort—it’s very, very little about me.”