California Riding Magazine • August, 2008

A Conversation with Akiko

by Nan Meek

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for an e-mail interview with Akiko Yamazaki, owner of Ravel and Lombardi II, the horses Steffen Peters is taking to the Olympics. Join me for this behind-the-scenes look at the events leading up to the Olympics.

Nan: First, congratulations! How does it feel to own the National Champion and the top horse in the Olympic Selection Trials?

Akiko: Thank you so much. While we purchased Ravel in the fall of 2006 with the specific goal of going to the Olympics in 2008, the best way to describe my feelings at the moment is that I am stunned and somewhat in disbelief that Ravel actually made the team as the top U.S. horse!

Due to injury, Ravel had most of 2007 off, and as of earlier this year, we weren’t even sure if we could go through the qualifiers. Timing worked out such that his first Grand Prix test and first show ever with Steffen was a CDI-W and an Olympic qualifier! He surprised us by not only putting in two mistake-free tests, but winning both the Grand Prix and the Special. Since then, he has done a total of 11 tests, including the four at the Selection Trials. All have been first place. The scores have gone from 69 percent-plus at the first show to 79 percent-plus for the Freestyle at the Trials. I am beyond surprised and just stunned at what he has accomplished in the last three months. 

Nan: Please tell us about Ravel. What is he like? What do you like the best about him?

Akiko: When we bought him, he was an 8-year-old stallion. Steffen warned me before I saw him that he was “not a pretty horse.” When you see him in the stall, you probably would agree that he is not “pretty.” “Regal” may be a better- suited adjective!

When he first arrived and was in quarantine in Davis, he was like a fire-breathing dragon. He had to cover two mares live and that completely rocked his world! We made the wise decision to geld him (following Klaus Balkenhol’s motto that the best dressage stallion is a gelding) and he is now a floppy-eared sweetie. After every jog before the shows, I get a phone call from his groom, Rafa, or Steffen saying, “Ravel was perfectly behaved as usual and Lombardi was acting like a wild 3-year-old as usual!”

Steffen and Ravel celebrating their win at the 2008 Olympic Selection Trials.
Photo: Sheryl Ross

I have never ridden Ravel but Steffen describes him as a horse with a lot of intelligence and pride. He also says he has the rare and best combination of having inner peace while being extremely sensitive. It always amazes me to see him so calm in the show while all of us around him have sweaty palms and racing hearts. He walks to the warm up arena without even flinching an ear. The award ceremonies do not bother him in the least bit and yet, he is so sensitive to the aids that I have yet to see Steffen use a whip or a strong leg for
that matter.

What do I like best about him? His half passes, his piaffe, his passage, his extended canter, his collected trot, his very cool blaze that looks like a lightning bolt ... the list goes on! But what I like best about him is the fact that he is an incredibly competitive athlete in the true sense of the word. Physical movements come easy to him but even at a relatively young age and without a lot of experience, mentally he can also handle all the challenges. I believe Steffen when he says Ravel is a very proud horse. His pride and willingness to do his best is so rewarding to all of us around him. Since he was gelded late in his life, it is as though he maintained some of the charismatic stallion qualities. We have the best of both worlds. Every time he finishes a test, I want to say, “Thank you.”

Nan: You have had horses in training with Steffen for quite a while. What is it like to work with Steffen?

Akiko: I have known Steffen now for nine years. I got to know Steffen because I bought my horse, Legend, through him. My relationship with Steffen as a serious sponsor started when I sent Lombardi to him in 2004 while pregnant with my first daughter. In less than a year, Steffen was able to turn Lombardi into an international-level Grand Prix horse at age 14! Lombardi competed in Hagen and Aachen in 2005. In 2007, he became National Champion at Gladstone and went on to compete in Aachen again. He was fifth place in this year’s Olympic trials and is making the trip to Germany as part of the group of reserve horses. I am extremely proud of his accomplishments and grateful to Steffen that Lombardi was able to shine to his true potential.

(left to right) Jane Forbes Clark, President and CEO, USET Foundation;
Jim Wolf, Executive Sports Programs, USEF;
Akiko Yamazaki, owner of Ravel and Lombardi II;
Anne Gribbons, FEI O Judge;
Shireen and Jeff Fuqua, USEF Dressage Festival Sponsors.
Photo: Alicia Anthony

Steffen is a magician on a horse, not merely a rider. He is known for being able to ride the most difficult horses and he actually enjoys it! When you see Steffen ride, you obviously see a person with an uncommon talent, but his intelligence and self-discipline are what make him so successful. He always has a game-plan for the moment, for the next two minutes, for the week and for the year. And he carries through with the game plan with amazing discipline.

Steffen is also surrounded with amazing people, starting with his talented wife, Shannon Peters, who is a horsewoman in the true sense of the word. She is well-educated in all matters in the care and training of world-class horses. Rafael Hernandez, who we call Rafa, is Ravel and Lombardi’s groom, and so dedicated to them. He cries every single time Ravel finishes his tests. We tease him that he needs to pack an extra supply of tears for Hong Kong. We wouldn’t be standing here today without Rodrigo Vazquez, vet and good friend, someone I’ve known for 10 years now since my first horse, Maurice. He brought Ravel back with the latest and greatest in medicine. Tom Meyers is the therapist who has been with Steffen since his years with Grandeur. Tom is not only able to make a horse supple; there is a special quality in Tom that allows you to think, “Everything will be OK.” 

What Steffen is to dressage, Stephane Tournier, the farrier, is to shoeing. He is a magician shoer. And behind the great shoeing, are the amazing Epona shoes, developed by Monique and John Craig, equipped with Stanford PhD’s. Jon Zucker is probably the only security guy who knows what a great pirouette looks like! It takes a village to have a horse performing at the international level, and we have a great team. I have learned a lot from all of them and enjoy their company very much. 

Nan: What are your thoughts going into the Olympics?

Akiko: For the moment, I am only taking one day at a time and trying to keep good thoughts about the horses’ safe travel. They have a long journey through Aachen and then on to Hong Kong. There are a lot of logistics involved getting everyone to the right place at the right time, so we are busy with logistics. My home office looks like a war room with a giant board with everyone’s itinerary, hotels, ground transportation, etc.

In my Japanese upbringing, it has been pounded into me that the journey is always more important than the end result. Obviously, it would be nice to have a great result, but the last three and a half months, which is all that Ravel has been showing since I’ve owned him, have already been an incredible ride. It is hard to imagine that we can be rewarded with even more exciting things to come. It is almost too much for one year! We have all had bad luck with our horses. It seems 2008 has been designated as my good luck year with them, so I am trying to enjoy the good karma.

Akiko shows her Team Peters support.
Photo: Alicia Anthony

Nan: What are your plans for Ravel after the Olympics?

Akiko: It is hard to imagine that Ravel could improve even more but he will. He is only 10 years old and has only done 11 Grand Prix tests total. The second time he does his own Freestyle will be at the Olympics!

For the main events, we are hoping to take him to Las Vegas for the World Cup in 2009 and Kentucky for the World Equestrian Games in 2010. But as we all know, it is one day at a time with horses!

Nan: With a new baby, what are your plans for your own riding? When will we see you back in the show ring?

Akiko: I got back in the saddle about two weeks ago. I had a c-section this time, so it is a little slower going but as it was with my first baby, I learned a lot visually during my pregnancy. One of the reasons why I became a sponsor was so that I could benefit from having first-hand access to world-class riding and training. It is amazing how much one can learn from just watching. I am hoping to be back in the full swing of things after Hong Kong.

Nan: Finally, thank you for your support of dressage, both here on the San Francisco Peninsula and in supporting the United States in international competition.

Akiko: It is an honor and a pleasure.