Notes from the Steffen Peters symposium

Steffen Peters Symposium 

Dallas, TX 

Oct. 16-17 


Steffen Peters was so laid back I wanted to question whether he really was German. Maybe he’s lived in California so long he’s completely taken on the California surfer “no problem, dude” mentality. 😉 


While he was demanding of  horse and rider – the demands were not heavy-handed or delivered in a “my way or the highway” attitude.


He got on two horses during the first day of the clinic and the transformation he created in one of them was nothing short of amazing. The horse was a nice horse, but not a ‘wow’ horse under its regular rider. But Steffen got on, and with about ten minutes of  quiet riding, the horse’s frame was totally different – he lifted his back, his neck came up and he looked like an International prospect!  Now, the horse did protest a little “this is really hard!” he seemed to be saying – but stopped protesting within just a few minutes and seemed grateful to be ridden so sympathetically. And unfortunately, Steffen is such a quiet rider, I couldn’t SEE him actually DOING ANYTHING to achieve this small miracle.  He had a good sense of humor, too. After riding the second horse, and then handing him back to his owner, he said, “Now, all you have to do is ride like me.”  That brought a huge laugh from the crowd!  


His philosophy was to calmly and methodically make everything black and white to the horse so they would immediately know when they were doing the wrong thing, and to make instantaneous corrections so the horse did not continue to do the ‘wrong thing’ for more than a stride. It was not something that any of the demonstration riders were used to doing. “You missed a training opportunity there,” was Steffen’s way of saying that the rider did not make a correction quickly enough.


Another often-repeated theme was self carriage. He said more than once, “at the end of the day, it’s all about self-carriage.” And that it was up to the rider to create that self-carriage and lightness because “the horse won’t do it on his own.” 


He also stressed having a ‘playful connection’ – test the horse by giving the reins, keep a ‘conversation’ going with the reins so the horse does not get ‘stuck.’  Riders who did not do this were said to have ‘stubborn hands.’  And when they were holding too much, he would tell them,  “you’re accepting too much contact.” 


He wanted the horses at or in front of the vertical but recognized that a horse’s conformation entered into this – if a horse tended to go with his head up (“he’s climbing” is how Steffen told the rider his horse was going above the bit too much) he did not mind if it went behind the vertical for brief periods. However, if the horse WANTED to stay behind the vertical, he would have the rider push the horse forward, or even lightly tap with the whip to get the horse to go forward into the bridle and lift his neck. He wanted the horse to do the opposite of what it naturally offered in this instance.


He also had opinions that were counter to common convention. He was not a big fan of starting out with the horse long and low and stretching. He said he did not want them cruising around on a long rein for ten minutes, and having to take another ten minutes to get them ‘up.’  He said you must find the right frame for each horse and did not think ‘long and low’ was right for every one. He also expressed concern about soundness, saying the #1 job was to get the horse off his front legs/forehand and he did not think riding a horse low and stretching for long periods of time was productive toward that end.


He did encourage riders to take frequent breaks to let the horse walk on a long rein – he said he thought that was helpful to prevent soft tissue injuries – to make sure the horse was not overworked in the same frame for too long.


He also wanted the horse consistently connected at the walk before progressing to trot or canter.


He also thought that each horse learned best in different gaits – generally the gait that was easiest for that horse. Transitions within gaits were used to create self-carriage and lightness. But he urged riders to make those transitions in 2-3 strides – not 5-6. When working on a pair’s canter pirouettes, he would have the rider do leg yields at canter to get the horse attentive before doing the canter pirouette. He also would have the riders ‘refresh’ the canter by riding forward to a bit of lengthening every so often. He cautioned against spending your entire riding session in collection.


Even if you have a young horse, Peters said you could ask for collection. Use movements that increase collection to develop strength – small ‘bursts’ of collection increase strength. A horse does not have to be strong to do small moments of collection. He urged riders to test more advanced movements – to ‘play’ with them – that is the way to move up the levels. For instance, to start canter pirouettes, first you ask the horse to canter in a circle in renvers (haunches in.)  Gradually you make the circle smaller – and eventually you have a canter pirouette. But you can start with haunches in on half a 15 meter circle.


Many of the demo riders used their aids too much – ‘deadening’ the horse to them. He reminded riders that aids are not supposed to support the horse in daily training. He understood that sometimes you needed supporting aids in a test – but you should not tolerate having to use aids every stride in daily training. The leg aid makes them quicker behind, and the horse must respect that. He stressed that the spur was for ‘emergencies’ only. Horses were asked to work off the rail so they would have to stay straight without the ‘help’ of the rail.


Interestingly enough, Peters said he was not a big fan of counter canter. He feels it is unnatural, and he is always looking for exercises to create the best canter possible, and he does not feel counter canter achieves that goal. When working in half pass, he said your shoulders should mimic the horse’s shoulder position. Start half pass with the outside leg at girth and start with neck bend and manage the shoulders first.  If you have enough bend in he neck to begin with, you’re less likely to push the haunches out during the movement.

I can now understand how riders like Steffen Peters have horses going GP at 7 or 8 years old.  There is not ONE minute of training time wasted. The goal is crystal clear and the horse is not allowed to take more than one step that is not ‘on the path’ toward becoming a GP horse. It is an incredibly focused method of riding, and, of course, one must be talented enough to immediately recognize and correct the mistakes in the first place!


Whew A lot of info. Although sitting on my butt for two days watching other people ride is not my idea of fun, I really didn’t want to miss the opportunity to watch one of the best riders in the world almost in my own backyard. Sometimes the best riders are not the best coaches, because they have trouble actually articulating what they are doing. Or, they have such a huge ego, they’re rude to the riders.  I am happy to say Steffen Peters can coach and ride, and he was kind and respectful to riders and horses. That’s MY idea of the ideal Olympian.




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