By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
It has been said that gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness—and when watching the legendary Steffen Peters ride, one cannot help but feel a sense of joy. A three-time Olympic medalist, Steffen continues to excel in the dressage arena at the age of 57 with no signs of slowing down. Fresh off of a silver-medal-winning team performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games, Steffen inspires others with his talent, work ethic, horsemanship and kindness. Among the most striking of Steffen’s attributes, however, is the genuine gratitude he shows towards those who helped shape his career.
His story began in Wesel, a town in northwestern Germany that is known for its history and culture. Steffen was the younger of two children born to Hans Hermann and Doris Peters, both of whom worked in the clothing industry. “My family owned a department store right in the middle of town,” he said. While it may have been expected for Steffen to continue in the family business, fate had other plans when he discovered horses at a young age.
“It was all my sister’s fault,” Steffen said. “We had a summer vacation home near the Dutch border. There was a stable within a 10-minute bike ride from our home. My sister Anke, who is 15 months older, started riding ponies there, and she kept bugging me to come along.” Steffen obliged his older sister and tagged along; it changed the course of his life.
The Peters siblings soon began showing ponies in local competitions, but while Anke focused on dressage, young Steffen preferred three-day eventing. “I was more interested in jumping at that time. I actually found dressage to be rather boring,” he said. “But my sister’s pony was great in dressage, and when she aged out of the ponies, I took over the ride.” Steffen and the pony, Melange, rose through the ranks, ultimately competing throughout Europe and at the pony championships. This gave Steffen a great start in preparing for a team competition format, along with the pressures that come with an elite level of showing.
Dressage Olympic medalist Steffen Peters with his Tokyo dressage partner Suppenkasper, known as Mopsie, owned by Akiko Yamazaki and Four Winds Farm’s.
A Winning Partnership
A key turning point occurred in young Steffen’s life when his father purchased a 3-year-old KWPN gelding called Udon. Though green, Udon was a stunning horse—a huge, big-moving chestnut with hind socks and a narrow blaze. “Udon was originally purchased as a project for my sister to bring along,” Steffen said. “But she got married a couple of years later and started a family, leaving her with little time to ride. I was the lucky one who took over Udon.”
Steffen took Udon to Jo Hinnemann’s barn in Voerde, Germany. “Mr. Hinnemann did not say much at first. He just called one day and said, ‘We have an open stall. Let’s give it a try.’ So we did,” Steffen said. While training in Voerde, Steffen—who had only recently graduated from high school—was introduced to Laurie Falvo, an American trainer visiting from San Diego, California. Impressed by Steffen’s talent and work ethic, Laurie invited him to come and work for her in the United States. He spent that summer at Laurie’s farm, where he became mesmerized by the welcoming U.S. culture and its many opportunities. “I had always heard about the American dream,” Steffen said. “And I saw it there. I became fascinated with it—the idea that if you work hard at something, you can make it.
“My parents were very generous in letting me bring Udon, then 6 years old, to the United States when I came over to work,” he continued. That unwavering family support was critical to Steffen’s success and is something he continues to hold dear. As an example, when Steffen was preparing to compete in his first Young Rider qualifier at the age of 17, his parents bought him a fancy new tailcoat at a local tack shop. The jacket became known as Steffen’s “lucky coat” and would remain a special reminder of his gratitude to his parents in the decades to come: After 30 years of wearing it in international competition—including at the Olympic Games—he “retired” the coat to storage in 2011.
Steffen rides the “rave horse” Mopsie. The KWPN gelding earned his nickname during the Tokyo Olympics.
After spending the summer working for Laurie, Steffen returned home to Germany to fulfill the obligation to serve his country over the next two years. Eager to return to the U.S., he saved all his vacation time in an effort to return as soon as possible—this time on a permanent basis. Living in California on a limited budget would not be easy, but Steffen made the most of it by renting a $200 garage apartment and using a motorbike as his primary method of transportation.
Steffen looks back fondly on the time he spent working with Laurie and the doors that were opened to him during his early years in America. “I will always be grateful to Laurie for giving me such an amazing opportunity,” he said. “In fact, I still give her lessons from time to time. I never charge her a cent for these lessons—and I never will.”
As Steffen worked up the levels with Udon, he was invited to participate in a clinic in Los Angeles taught by the legendary Dr. Reiner Klimke. There the duo was spotted by Bob and Lila Kommerstad, who were searching for an Olympic-caliber horse and rider to sponsor. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, Bob asked Dr. Klimke if he thought we were an appropriate pair to sponsor,” Steffen said. “And Dr. Klimke said, ‘Yes’.”
After a couple of weeks, Bob and Lila made an offer to purchase Udon from Steffen’s family. “It was the going rate for a Grand Prix horse—and more money than I could possibly imagine,” Steffen said. The Kommerstads would become Steffen’s first official sponsors, a decision that would bring immense rewards for all involved. Steffen and Udon—the horse he had developed from an unbroken 3-year-old—would ultimately earn a team bronze medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“Udon was a horse of a lifetime,” Steffen said. “After him, I became really hungry to compete more. It was incredible to me that I was able to take a young horse, break him, and take him to the Olympics with no Grand Prix experience. Udon was always well loved and cared for by our family. I’m very grateful also that he brought my family to a close friendship with the Kammerstads.”
Steffen and Suppenkasper were part of the silver-medal-winning U.S. Tokyo Olympic dressage team alongside Adrienne Lyle and Sabine Schut-Kery.
Udon retired after 15 years of competing, spending the remainder of his years at Steffen’s farm. “I can still remember him playing in the paddocks,” Steffen said. “He would wait for me to run in and then he would respectfully put on a show for me—rearing and bucking—but when he saw that I had the halter, he would walk over to me for a cookie. He truly was a horse of a lifetime.”
On the heels of his immense success with Udon, Steffen had firmly established himself as one of the nation’s top dressage riders. After working for several years for Olympian Guenter Seidel, Steffen opened his own business in 1991. The following year, he became a U.S. citizen—another opportunity for which he is forever grateful.
The Perfect Match
The decade that followed brought more success for Steffen with a variety of horses. But one of the greatest moments in his life occurred in 2002, when he was invited to teach a series of clinics in Denver, Colorado, for friend Michael Weiss. There he met a beautiful and talented rider by the name of Shannon Barnes. “It’s a funny story,” Steffen said. “Apparently, Shannon was always trying to get into one of my clinics, but they were always booked. This time, Michael needed a printer for a CDI he was organizing at the time of the clinic. He asked for assistance from a friend, who replied that he could borrow their printer, with one condition: her friend Shannon had to be allowed to ride in my clinic.”
As fate would have it, Steffen and Shannon hit it off immediately. Shannon ended up training in San Diego for six weeks, after which the couple began a long-distance relationship. They were married on September 18, 2004—which happened to be Steffen’s birthday. It has been a highly fulfilling union for the couple, both personally and professionally. Steffen and Shannon operate SPeters Dressage, a state-of-the-art training facility based at Arroyo Del Mar in the scenic San Diego hills, just miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Steffen’s favorite hobby is flying specialty gliders, an activity that traces its roots to his boyhood in Germany.
The Right Music
As his marriage to Shannon thrived, so did Steffen’s career. The list of his accomplishments is enough to fill a book, with numerous FEI victories and stellar accomplishments on the world’s stage. In 2021, Steffen made his fifth Olympic appearance—this time in Tokyo, Japan, where he won the hearts of the equestrian world as well as the general public. Some of these folks had never even heard of dressage, but were captivated by Steffen’s choice of music and the joy he conveyed through his performances.
Steffen’s love of music began in high school, where he often served as a DJ for friends. “I was always interested in music,” he said. “I had two record players, a mixer and a good selection of popular music. Before you know it, I was being asked to DJ at my sister’s high school and at various parties. It became a side gig for me, in between being a student and riding every afternoon.”
Naturally, he found a way in which to merge that love of music with his dressage freestyles. “Music became a nice lifelong hobby,” he said. “I remember we had a wonderful time at training camp in Southern Germany before the Pan Am Games in Toronto. I started mixing things and it became a heck of a party! Late at night, I would mix some exciting stuff for possible freestyles. I remember that one of my friends would look at me, roll her eyes, and say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ My advice is: If you believe in something, go for it—even if others don’t approve.”
Steffen ended up creating some crowd-pleasing freestyles that featured the music of Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and various other artists not traditionally heard in the FEI dressage arena. “I think the first one I did was Legolas’ freestyle, where I used some rap music but with respectful lyrics,” Steffen said.
Steffen’s memorable performance in Tokyo last year aboard Akiko Yamazaki and Four Winds Farm’s bay KWPN gelding Suppenkasper—known at home as Mopsie—led to worldwide acclaim. His choice of upbeat, modern music spurred celebrities such as Snoop Dogg and Kevin Hart to discuss Grand Prix dressage on their shows and podcasts, with Snoop Dogg famously (and hilariously) describing a half pass as “crip walking.” Steffen and Mopsie became viral sensations on TikTok, with Mopsie being affectionately referred to as “the rave horse.”
In 2021, Steffen made his fifth Olympic appearance where he won the hearts of the equestrian world as well as folks who had never even heard of dressage, but were captivated by Steffen’s choice of music and the joy he conveyed through his performances.
“Kevin Hart’s producer called us and asked if we could bring Mopsie to the studio in Burbank for a segment on the show,” Steffen said. “Mopsie is over 18 hands and Kevin is, as they say, ‘vertically challenged,’ so they thought it would be a very amusing segment. It never happened due to insurance issues, but we are still in touch. Maybe one day Kevin will come and sit on Mopsie. We’ll see.”
In addition to becoming worldwide celebrities, Steffen and Mopsie were part of the silver-medal-winning U.S. dressage team alongside Adrienne Lyle and Sabine Schut-Kery. “I often catch myself going through picture books from the Olympic Games,” Steffen said. “It has been such an honor to ride on amazing teams with incredible people.” Though it was his fifth Olympic appearance, the experience was extra special. “Tokyo really was the ‘icing on the cake’,” Steffen said. “I’m not sure what you can sprinkle on top of that icing. Anything after that I can’t even put into words. It was one of the best experiences in my career, if not the best. When I’m asked to put the Tokyo experience into words, I still get choked up.”
In what little spare time he has, Steffen enjoys exploring the outdoors, whether that involves boating, swimming, riding motorcycles or driving dune buggies on the beach. But his favorite hobby is flying specialty gliders, an activity that traces its roots to his boyhood in Germany when he built model airplanes with his father. “I find it so fascinating that you can fly without power for hours,” he said. It also provides a special connection to his father, who passed away in 1997. Steffen maintains a small hangar at the farm where he stores his many assorted gliders, including one plane with a wingspan of over 31 feet. Flying these planes, alone in the beauty of nature, gives Steffen a chance to reflect on the opportunities he has been given.
“When I look back to all the years since I came here in 1985, I keep thinking what an incredibly lucky guy I am to have met and worked with so many wonderful people,” he said. “I feel such enormous gratitude to so many people—Shannon, my family, my teammates, Mopsie’s groom Eddie Garcia who has been with us for 12 years and works such long hours, Akiko and Jerry and all of my wonderful sponsors … the list is endless.”
Steffen and his wife Shannon operate SPeters Dressage, a state-of-the-art training facility based at Arroyo Del Mar in the scenic San Diego hills, just miles from the Pacific Ocean.
True to his generous nature, Steffen finds great satisfaction in helping others. “I really enjoy giving back,” he said. “I enjoy supporting a talented Junior rider, for example, who may not have the money to compete at a high level. I feel I still have a lot to learn and share with younger generations.” In recent years he served as an inspiration by publicly sharing his struggle to overcome anxiety and depression, common battles to which many can relate.
Despite the tremendous success he has achieved thus far, Steffen continues to look toward the future. “A couple of years ago, I did a podcast and was asked, ‘When did you think you made it?’” he said. “I told the interviewer that it was probably after the Atlanta Olympics—but now I realize I was wrong. I still have not ‘made it.’ After Tokyo, I thought of retiring and that did not go well. I’m never quite ready to say that I ‘made it.’ I have so much more to experience and learn.”
As for the years to come, Steffen Peters has plenty of goals, both in and out of the dressage arena. First and foremost, that involves continuing to be a kind and grateful person—something for which he is widely known. “It’s not really about the medals and prizes,” he said. “I just love to inspire people. That is truly the best gift to humankind.”
Steffen is grateful to be living the American dream, and in 1992 he became a U.S. citizen— another opportunity for which he is forever grateful.
For more information, visit www.spetersdressage.com
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com