Steffen Peters Brings Out the Best in a Horse by Forming Positive Daily Habits

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Training - Thursday, February 18, 2016

Steffen Peters and Rosamunde Photo: Dressage Headlines

Steffen Peters, four-time Olympic athlete, individual gold and team gold Pan Am Games champion, two-time bronze medalist at World Equestrian Games, three-time USEF Horseman of the Year and currently placed 6th on the FEI World Dressage Ranked List is all about sequential training.

With a unique, layered approach in the development and training of a horse, Steffen enjoys helping riders who seek his tutelage and a thriving future in the sport.

During the January 5-9, 2016 Robert Dover Horse Mastership Week, Steffen spoke with the young riders in attendance preparing for divisions that included the Junior, Young Rider and U25 (under 25 years of age) Grand Prix. “It’s important that young riders understand that this sport,” he explains, "is about bringing out the best a horse can offer by gradually building its mind, body and strength.”

He defined the difference between the most commonly used training techniques, “There are two ways to training, one with force and creating tension, which does not create a motivated performance by the horse, and the other with the slow building in understanding.”

He illustrated the latter approach, “I've had a group of dog trainers come out to watch us ride and train. They're always amazed at how few rewards we give our horses. I totally agree with them. We have to train in a way that is motivating for the horse. This idea of dominating, creating more tension, or pressuring the horse to me is a very counterproductive way of training. I'd much rather encourage the horse out of suppleness and self-carriage.”

Discussing suppleness, Steffen explained, “Everyone talks about the physical strength of the horse, the physical strength in the extension, the physical strength in the half-pass, or riding forward in the changes. But for me, it’s always the question, does the horse first of all, understand when the rider makes the horse supple. It’s important to make sure we help the horse understand how to let go. Then we can ask for expression and strength because we can then control it.”

He continued, “Suppleness is 80% getting inside the horse's mind, gaining his understanding in being easily adjustable in any sort of horizontal and vertical way. I want to be able to move the horse into a higher frame if needed, or lower frame, forward or in collectability, or bending one way or the other.  It’s really the whole adjustability of the horse by the rider.”Steffen Peters and Rosamunde Photo: Dressage Headlines

Elaborating on the subject of expression, he shared, “It’s not about repeating a movement. If I can add expression to a movement by going straight after a few steps of half-pass before going back to it by allowing the horse to be deeper, rounder or longer in its frame, whatever the horse needs for that expression, I’ll do that.” He explained further, “If I feel the horse getting flat in the half-pass, I’ll move straight forward out of it and begin the half-pass again. That way, I make sure I have the cadence for that good score as I build its strength and understanding over the upcoming weeks.” 

Steffen added, “Expression doesn’t mean you ask for more than the horse can offer. The rider must first help the horse to understand what's being asked from it before pushing for the expression desired. If the rider first pushes for the expression before having that horse-to-rider understanding, the horse will actually learn a way to resist. I’ve seen way too many horses that were obviously taught to go for power without applying an ounce of suppleness. It’s usually obvious in the rider’s position because the rider will try to compensate for the resistance and then the horse will simply work against the rider.”

He cautioned, “Detect as soon as possible when the horse comes behind your leg. It becomes about the rider being quick and clear with the aids. The calf needs to be enough. If you have to use your spur then teach him something so that the calf is enough. Use the spur only once to make your point. And, that’s it. You want your horse to offer you its expression.”

To Steffen, suppleness also includes connecting on both reins, “So many trainers talk about the outside rein and I’m careful with that approach because I don’t want one side of the horse to be resistant when there’s contact on only one side.”

Forming Positive Daily Habits

“By forming daily habits, the horse begins to know exactly what to do for that 7 or 8 score,” Steffen said. “When it becomes a daily habit, it’s there for you in the arena. Take the opportunity to make the education every day.“Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 Photo: Dressage Headlines

Steffen spoke about how he starts a horse’s beginning education, “I like to find a horse’s maximum overstride in its walk so that I know that the horse will consistently be there for me. I see too many horses just being walked on a long rein and, yes, there’s a time and place for that, but a rider should take a little time each day to form a good, productive habit.”

“The second daily habit is going from the extended walk to the collected walk. I see horses that are resistant in this transition. That’s another habit we need to work on every single day. It’s a simple procedure to collect the horse from the leg, seat, hand.”

“And, another basic daily habit to form is the square halts. You can be the best rider in the world and ride the best transitions, but that still doesn’t mean a horse squares up. It needs to be taught. Even with a young horse we can begin to create a daily habit of halting square.”

“I also like to create habits in a horse’s piaffe, passage and pirouette by leg pressure and not a physical aid from a spur. If we can teach our horse just by the pressure of our legs with our heels down and maybe only occasionally use the spur as a reminder then, again, we’ve created a very positive habit of keeping it simple for the horse to understand.”Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 Photo: Dressage Headlines

It is clear why his training techniques support his victories, Steffen shared, “At the end of the day it’s about how the horse reacts to the aids. It’s important to keep the horse attentive and cooperative throughout a workout. The horse needs to be relaxed, but you still need to have a gas pedal.”

On his twenty-two acre Arroyo Del Mar training facility in San Diego, California, Steffen, his wife Shannon and a skilled staff consistently produce happy and successful athletes.