California Riding Magazine • August, 2014

Horse People: Anna Buffini
Young Rider champion makes the most of many blessings.

by Kim F. Miller

On Custom Saddlery: "I would not be where I am without my Custom saddles," Anna reports. She rides Sundayboy in an Icon Coda and credits its Poly Flex tree with accommodating his big movements. "It sticks to him and moves with him as well and helps put me in the correct position." She uses an Icon Flight for her young horse and is grateful for it. "It locks you into position and I love that because he does take flight with me sometimes!" Support from Mushroom Matrix and Renew Gold have also been critical to Anna's success.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."

This quote from the TV version of Friday Night Lights summarizes 20-year-old dressage star Anna Buffini's approach to life in and out of the saddle. The Escondido resident is clear about her goals, full of gratitude for her horses, family, trainer and friends and, since early this year, it certainly seems that she can't lose.

After pursuing the sport for 11 years, Anna became the proverbial "overnight sensation" in February, when she and Sundayboy entered their first CDI, in Los Angeles, and won its two Young Rider classes. Winning ways continued through the spring for Anna and the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood, capped by winning the AGCO/USEF National Young Riders Championship at June's USEF Festival of Champions in Gladstone, NJ. She led the Region 7 North American Young Rider Championships standings, and her second place finish on team day at the NAJYRC Championships last month helped the squad defend its gold medal.

Anna and Sundayboy

Anna is the first in her family to jump into equestrian sports, but the Buffini clan is no stranger to elite athletic accomplishments. Her mother Beverly represented the U.S. in volleyball at the 1988 Olympics and her father, Brian, was a national collegiate soccer champion for his native Ireland. The oldest of Anna's five siblings, A.J., plays football for Southern Methodist University and all are successful in various sports. The youngest Buffinis, 12-year-old twins Amy and Alysha, are following big sister's footsteps with riding lessons at Savoir Faire Farms in San Marcos, where Anna calls trainers and sisters Sandy Burns-Gardner and Jeanne Burns, "my trainers for life."

Photo: Dr. George Kung

Along with her siblings, Anna was home schooled through high school and she's now working toward a business degree through an online college program. The family is very close and strong in their Christian faith, and the independent education track gives Anna a flexible schedule that's enabled her to spend many hours in the saddle and at the barn, where she's a sponge for knowledge.

Anna describes trainer Sandy as "incredibly in tune with horses," a quality she's determined to cultivate herself. "Sandy is a student of Dietrich von Hopffgarten and Johann Hinneman, people who are really like horse whisperers. She really listens and understands what each horse needs to do each day. She believes that there is no cookie cutter way to do things and that every day we need to train according to what the horse looks and feels like." Sandy also trains regularly with Guenter Seidel.

Homeschooling helped Anna understand that concept. "Homeschooling is all about finding a curriculum that works for you and in that way it's helped prepare me for what I want to be when I grow up."

Earning Her Gifts

Sensing what a horse needs is "a gift," Anna acknowledges. "But, it's also something you can and need to learn if you want to be the best and that's what I've been trying to do in my decade of working with Sandy." In addition to taking her own lessons and riding her own horses, Anna sits in on others' lessons, asks a lot of questions and hops on opportunities to be helpful around the barn.

Anna and her trainer Sandy Burns

Trainer Sandy Burns-Gardner sees that gift materializing in a student she describes as "like another daughter to me."

"With horses, it's all about experience – knowing when to push and when not to. Anna still rides her first horse, Holyman, a schoolmaster, and I see her development in the choices she makes for him." Anna's athletic abilities and competitive nature are a big help, but most of all Anna epitomizes the reality that there are no shortcuts in dressage. "She puts in the work and puts herself in the kind of hotspots in competition, where you have to make good choices with your horse."

Six to 12 hour days at the stable are the norm and that's not counting supplemental workouts. These ensure that her 5'6" frame can handle riding big sporthorses, now and long into the future. Pilates, her brother's football workouts, swimming and biking are favorite choices and rigorous sessions are her standard. She began a nine-year stretch of gymnastics at the age of 2, and excelled in volleyball and basketball for her homeschooled high school team at the Christian Life Academy, before devoting herself to dressage.

Anna is "not exactly sure of the whole picture," but international competition, especially the Olympics, is a big part of it. "I eat, sleep and drink it," she laughs. "But I also have a passion for developing horses and riders." She's inspired by the possibility of guiding a trajectory similar to her own: "taking a little kid on a feisty pony and growing them into an FEI Young Rider."

Anna is one of six siblings in Beverly and Brian Buffini's close and athletically talented family.

In pursuit of that, Anna now has a string of four horses, including a 7-year-old she's raised since birth: Roosevelt SFS, "Teddy," who now competes at Third Level. "He's really taught me how to ride a horse," she explains. "When you're on a trained horse, a pirouette or flying change is there. When you ride a young horse that's learning those moves, you learn where the flying change came from and how you need to gymnasticize the horse's body so he can do it." She's becoming a more effective rider, of course, and also accumulating the hands-on experience and knowledge to be a good trainer.

Sundayboy was a surprise find and is Anna's biggest star so far. He was not initially presented during a 2012 horse-shopping trip in Holland, but Anna had a feeling about him, strong enough that she and Sandy returned to try him on another visit. The hunch was backed up by Sandy's familiarity with the horse from the two years that Guenter Seidel competed him at Grand Prix in the States. Sundayboy returned to San Diego for Anna in June of that year, the pair spent a year getting acquainted and debuted on the show circuit in the spring of 2013.

From The Heart

Her trainer sees no limit to Anna's potential and is most moved by the way Anna's riding reflects her joy in the sport. "It's important to be technically correct, but the beauty and harmony that makes it dressage is the main thing and that's what stands out to me about Anna," Sandy says. "The beauty in her riding comes from her heart."

A freestyle performance set to traditional Irish music during this year's Del Mar National ranks high among many special moments in Anna's ascent. The music choice was in tribute to her dad, "who immigrated at 19 with $92 in his pocket" and is now a successful motivational speaker in the real estate industry. Karen Robinson helped Anna bring her Lord Of The Dance vision to life, and she and Sundayboy wowed the crowd and the judges to win the class. Anna's paternal grandparents happened to be visiting from Ireland, and they and her father were knocked out by the performance.

Anna and Sundayboy with key supporters, from left, Guenter Seidel, Kathy Schack (Sandy's sister and sponsor), trainer Sandy Gardner, Anna's mom Beverly Buffini and USEF dressage chef d'equipe Robert Dover.

Anna describes her parents as her "heroes and a huge inspiration." Athletes themselves, Beverly and Brian encouraged their kids' sports, but never forced them. "We were taught to give 110 percent and respect our coaches, but it was always 'If you don't like it, do something else – do poetry or art if you want to.'"

With six athletic kids, Beverly has an interesting perspective on how equestrian sports can help shape children. "I was brought up with all kinds of ball sports and they are great," she says. "But with riding, you have the responsibility of care and compassion for a living animal." She believes the sport helped Anna mature, while also providing an outlet for her competitive drive and desire to push herself. She's happy that her youngest daughters are getting serious about following in Anna's path, and Beverly even rides herself with the goal of "developing a good seat." Sharing time and a common passion and pursuit with her daughters is a another big plus.

Anna hopes to parlay her own successes into growth and appreciation for the sport. "I would love to help get more young people involved by helping show how beautiful the sport is, how much it can impact your life and how enjoyable it can be to do and to watch." She applauds Nike's sponsorship of fellow young rider Ayden Uhlir and the use of contemporary pop music – Usher, MC Hammer, Coldplay – by top riders like Steffen Peters and Jan Ebeling as great hooks for youngsters. Live scoring and access to excellent commentary, like that provided by renowned judge Axel Steiner, "are a huge help for the sport," she says. "Dressage should be on ESPN. Steffen should be on Sports Center!"