CARMEL VALLEY — A narrow paved road winds down a small hill. Along the way, on the right side of the road, begins a white fence adorned with American flags on each fence post. The road splits off to the right, leading to Arroyo Del Mar — the boarding and training facility that’s home to Steffen Peters, an accomplished dressage rider and member of the USA’s equestrian team.
Peters, home from winning the Bronze medal recently at the Rio Games, emerged from one of the barn’s stables, he’d just finished his morning ride. Betty, his black labradoodle was by his side.
For the past three months, Betty has been waiting at home each night for him to return, Peters said.
During those three months that Betty was waiting for her owner’s return, Peters was in Europe, showing at events and preparing for the Rio Olympics.
On a Monday morning tour of the barn, Betty shadowed Peters’ every move.
As a kid growing up in Wesel, Germany, located in the northwestern portion of the country, his parents had a hard time keeping him away from dogs — especially if it was a shy dog. He explained that he’d always wanted to make friends with a dog, or try and get the animal’s trust.
“I still find that, nowadays, extremely fascinating to deal with animals that have a little bit of a fragile personality,” Peters said. “And for those animals to come around, I find that extremely fascinating.”
He found the same attachment to horses, too.
At 7 years old, Peters was introduced to horses. His sister Anke was taking riding lessons at a pony club near their house, close to the Dutch border. Anke urged him to come along, he explained, and one day, he did.
With very supportive parents, and a love for animals, riding and the sport of dressage became a priority.
While the sport of dressage was always a focus for him, he did some jumping, because, he said, the thought was that dressage was just for the girls in the beginning, because it wasn’t that cool.
Peters compares dressage to something like ballet or ice skating on a horse.
In dressage, the horse and rider perform a number of complicated and intricate movements.
“Everything is supposed to look extremely effortlessly from the rider’s communication standpoint,” he said.
Applying leg pressure shouldn’t be noticed, the horse is supposed to look very steady and happy, he added.
They’re judged on the expression of the movement, on the regularity of the movement and the harmony between rider and horse.
Historically, dressage was a military discipline. According to the United States Dressage Federation, it began out of the need of military horses to be obedient and maneuverable. Over the centuries, a training system for the horses was established, and in the 1900 Paris Olympic games, equestrian events, such as dressage, first appeared.
Peters is no stranger to the military either. In Germany, he served his mandatory two-year service as a driver of the Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 tanks.
It would take him two times, though, to earn his license.
One of the big no-nos of driving a tank on city streets, he recalled his instructor telling him, was hitting pedestrian curbs.
“Because it flattens (the curb) because of the weight,” he said. “And I was 10 minutes into my test and I flattened the curb. So I failed my first test. The second time I did OK.”
Peters was able to keep riding while serving, receiving encouragement from the military.
He knew before coming to the U.S. that competing in the Olympics was a very realistic dream.
Peters credits his parents for the opportunity to come to the U.S. as a 21-year-old with not much else except for a horse named Udon.
His parents, Hans Hermann Peters and Doris Peters, had purchased Udon as a 3-year-old, and it would wind up performing as an 18-year-old in the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Ga., where Peters earned his first bronze medal.
In 1984 Peters came to San Diego, renting a garage in Carmel Valley for $200. He had a motorbike that got him around. He earned $225 a week to start, working at Seabreeze Farms breaking horses. What he didn’t spend on rent, he used to make sure his horse had food and for his own meals — usually a carne asada burrito from Roberto’s on Carmel Valley Road.
“I ate there most of the time twice a day,” he said.
And he still goes there once in a while.
“The carne asada burrito is amazing. I think it’s the best in town,” he said.
In the Atlanta games, his parents were able to witness his son’s dream become reality, competing and winning the Bronze medal. His father passed away shortly after the games, Peters said.
Following the games, though, Peters thought that was his first and last Olympics.
But crediting the people that supported him, he was able to attend the London games in 2012 and most recently, this year’s Rio Olympics.
As for his Rio experience: “I loved it.”
He got a sense that Team USA was going to earn a medal while sitting in the stands, watching his teammate Laura Graves compete.
“I was sitting in the stands crying like a 10-year-old guy because it meant so much to me. It was 20 years ago that we won a medal.”
Riding his horse, Legolas 92, Peters and the team would go on to compete and win the Bronze.
“We didn’t lose the Gold. We didn’t lose the Silver. But we won the Bronze medal,” Peters said.
At 52, Peters admits that he’s in the downturn of his career.
Though he already has another horse, a 9-year-old they nicknamed Rosy, in the wings for a possible run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It would be a matter of whether, at the age of 56 when the next games are held, that he’d be fit and ready.
“Honestly, the last experience in Rio was so good, if somebody were to have to tell me, ‘Look that’s it for you,’ I would have been perfectly fine with that,” he said.
Prior to going to Rio, though, he’d heard all the media reports about the Zika Virus and mosquitoes. He said there were concerns about going over with the horses.
But at the venue, Peters said he didn’t see one single mosquito — he couldn’t even recall seeing a single fly.
His Olympic experience also included walking in the opening ceremonies, taking photos with Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps and his friend, Golden State Warrior and Team USA basketball player Karl Thompson.
Over his stay at the Olympics, he described one moment where he saw two athletes from North and South Korea take a selfie together.
“Just cool stuff like that where politics disappears for a moment completely,” he said. “You see this incredible tool, the sport itself, how much it can bring people together. To experience that, is just incredible.”
Though even after his earlier Olympic experiences, the pressure to compete in Rio was still there.
In the ’96 Olympics, Peters said he remembered the pressure being just incredible.
“Somehow I dealt with it, but I had a hard time eating, a hard time sleeping in 1996. To be honest, the pressure is still exactly the same,” he said.
However, after the first performance during the Rio games, Legolas produced one of the best scores of his career.
“There was this huge relief,” Peters said. “Some people say there’s a monkey on your shoulders. Honestly it was a 350-pound orangutan that’s on your shoulders.”
Being a veteran competitor at the Olympics, Peters said he’s learned to deal with the pressure. He was able to eat and sleep better this time around.
“And anybody who tells you they’re less nervous or they’re not nervous, they’re not telling the truth.”
Since the Olympics, Legolas has been rewarded with a vacation in Europe before coming back home where he’ll still be able to take it easy with another two weeks off, to get ready for the next season.
In the meantime, Peters will be riding Rosy for a little while, getting ready for the National Championships later this October.
His next two goals he said: The World Cup in Omaha, Neb., next year, and the World Games in 2018.