Gladstone, New Jersey – Anna Buffini got an early birthday present in the form of a national championship title. The 19-year-old rider from Escondido, California was crowned the AGCO/USEF Young Rider Dressage National Champion this weekend at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions presented by The Dutta Corporation. Anna turned 20, June 17 back in California with friends and family and her horse safely delivered. “This is my birthday gift,” she said. Anna won both legs of the Young Rider competition with her partner Sundayboy, a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding. Their overall average score was 73.408 percent. The second oldest in a family of six children, Anna was raised in a family of super athletes. Her mother, Beverly, was a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Volleyball Team and her father, Brian, owner of the successful Buffini & Company, was a national soccer champion back in his home country of Ireland. It took awhile for Anna to find her passion, Dressage but once she did, there is no turning back.
“Athletics is very important in our family and our parents set the mark quite high for us,” said Anna with a laugh. All of her siblings are involved in sports and most of them quite seriously. Before becoming a young rider, Anna was an up-and-coming gymnast with an eye on the Olympics. “I was a gymnast for nine years and I was winning championships but the environment wasn’t positive or encouraging for me so I tried other sports – track, volleyball, etc. but I didn’t have a passion for any of them.”
Then one day a friend of her father suggested the family visit Savoir Faire Stables in San Marcos, California, home of dressage riding sisters Sandy Burns-Gardner and Jeanne Burns. No one in Anna’s family had experience with horses before visiting the stable. “My family isn’t really animal people. We had a dog but she died at six months and we never got another but I’ve always loved animals and horses especially,” Anna said. The moment she stepped into the stables at Savoir Faire, it was all over. “It just clicked for me. It was one of those moments in life when the light bulb goes off and you know that you are in the right spot and where you belong.
I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Like the rest of her siblings, Anna was home-schooled by her mother, which meant she had a flexible schedule that allowed her to devote much time to her growing passion for riding. Burns-Gardner has been her instructor from the get-go and started Anna out on a German pony. Eventually, Anna’s mother acquired an FEI schoolmaster on which Anna learned even more but while he was a good teacher, he was older and not really suitable as a young rider’s competition horse. “So my parents got together and put together the funds to get a young rider horse,” Anna said.
Her partnership with Sundayboy was a somewhat accidental one. She and Burns-Gardner went to Holland to look at horses. They tried many of them but none really clicked for Anna. On their final day in Holland, they passed by Sundayboy on their way out of a barn as they were heading off to airport. The connection between Anna and Sundayboy was instant but there was no time to try him. “We actually had to fly home to California and then go back to Holland later to try him,” Anna said. On the second trip over, her mother joined Anna and Burns-Gardner.
“When we first went over, it was our first trip to Europe so we really didn’t know what we were looking for. They didn’t show us Sundayboy because he was more upper level than other horses that we were trying and he didn’t fit the picture of what we were looking for that we gave to the sales rep. But after my first ride on him I knew he was the horse,” Anna said. Sundayboy made his way to California and to Anna in 2012, but it was not his first time in California. The horse had previously been in California under training with Guenter Seidel. From Seidel he went to a sales barn and ended up in Holland. Anna and Sundayboy spent their first year just getting to know one another. “It took time. There is a difference between riding a schoolmaster that is helping teach you how to ride and riding a young horse that you plan to compete. Sundayboy really taught me how to compete and how to ride an upper-level test.”
The pair came out onto the California show circuit in the spring of 2013 and they have been zooming along ever since. They did their first CDI in February in Los Angeles and earned two wins in the CDI Young Rider division which they followed up with other wins throughout the spring season. “It’s been an amazing journey this past year,” Anna said. “This horse has given me everything. I love him.”
Anna has now been involved in dressage for 11 years and says a big part of her joy in the sport comes from her trainer and barn mates. “Sandy (Burns-Gardner) has been super. She is unbelievable. She knows every answer to every question and has provided me with a good foundation. She and Jeanne have really made the barn into a true family. All of my barn mates are very happy for me and supportive.”
Anna’s short-term goal for the future is focused on competing this summer in the North
American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Her long-term goal is to operate her own dressage training business and continue on as a competitive rider. To that end, she is attending college and planning to earn a degree in business from Thomas Edison University through an online program. “The online program provides the flexibility I need. I now have four horses that I am riding and I’m at the barn 6-12 hours a day. I started as a pysch major but changed to business because I realized how much business knowledge I’ll need to be successful in the horse business. Of course, my dad is a great businessman so I’m sure he’ll be a big help.”
With her talent, it’s clear that Anna could go in many directions with her riding but she’s adamant that she’ll stick with dressage. “It’s so beautiful and artistic and it requires that you must be in tune with your horse. There must be trust between you and the horse. Also, I am a perfectionist and I think striving for perfection and excellence every day is really what drives me in this sport. Obviously, nothing will be perfect but the goal is to get as close as you can.”
Anna is also determined to see dressage grow in popularity in the U.S. and one of her other goals in life is to help make that happen. “I can already see that more young people are learning about dressage from being around me. I think that there are many ways to draw more attention to the sport and I hope that I can help do that.”