All-American Anna Buffini U25 Dressage Grand Prix Athlete Builds Her Own System of Training with Guenter Seidel and Debbie McDonald

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Monday, April 24, 2017

Twenty-two-year-old Anna Buffini of Del Mar, California builds an unhurried and steady progression for a secure and long-term career as a professional rider in dressage by honing in on three main focal points. First was the fine-tuning of her year's training with Guenter Seidel and with Debbie McDonald for three months this past winter season; second, she diligently prepared to successfully compete in the CDI U25 Grand Prix show-ring representing the USA; and third, she focused on her on coaching skills as an assistant to Lendon Gray. Anna shared, “There is no quick route. Anyone heading into the sport has to learn the basics and consistently return to the basics with intelligence because there is the team-mate aspect with the horse.”

Since 2014, Anna has been climbing the FEI levels step by step with her two horses, her remarkable Sundayboy (Kennedy x Eezelma) and Wilton 11 (Jazz x Olympia-W x Contango). Wanting more of a challenge in her division with Sundayboy, she decided to travel to Florida for the 2017 AGDF twelve-week series. Completing the series with a win on Sundayboy, the two were victorious in the FEI Grand Prix Nations Cup Freestyle 16-25 U25 CDIO with a score of 73.525%. Anna will be retiring the 1999 KWPN gelding Sundayboy on April 29, 2017 during the CDI competitions of the 72nd Del Mar National Dressage during the Evening of Musical Freestyles.

“This season has been amazing in experiencing Wellington and in knowing where I want to get to in my own training while competing. The year I had with Guenter really taught me and gave me a foundation. He helped me to learn what I need to do to ride as a professional and helped me in my own growing. It’s going to take a long time and I know it.” She continued, “The coaching I’ve had from Guenter and now from Debbie has helped me to become a fundamentally growing professional, rider and coach.”

After competing for the third year in the CDI ring, she said, “The first year, I honestly didn’t understand all that a CDI involves. I just went in there like it was a regular show and didn’t realize the huge significance of it. My eyes kind of opened at the North American Young Rider’s Championships in 2014. But, it was in 2016 that I really began to feel the pressure and understand what I was entering into. Since then, though, I remind myself that it’s just a 20x60-meter arena with sand and not to overthink it. I go in there and ride the way I’ve been training. I’ve learned that winning is through a rider’s training system and in the long-term preparation.” Before she started to work with Guenter and Debbie, Anna began her dressage training with Sandy Burns-Gardner. 

Anna is the second of six children in a very closely knit, sports-oriented family where faith, hard work and working smartly have always been emphasized. Her older brother, AJ, played Wide Receiver for the Southern Methodist University Mustangs, her younger brothers are looking into colleges for volleyball and basketball, and her teenage twin sisters play volleyball with their Mom encouraging them as the Assistant Coach. But, it is their highly accomplished parents who, by focusing on their children’s individual skill developments, founded their paths. “They’ve always encouraged us to believe in ourselves and to realize the value we represent on a team.” Being homeschooled by parents with solid positive mindsets, Anna explained, “If something started getting negative, they were on it right away.”

Their father, Brian played soccer for his native Ireland and was a national collegiate soccer champion. Their mother, Beverly, played volleyball for the Universities of Alabama and Tennessee, was the Assistant Volleyball Coach for both the men’s and women’s volleyball teams of the United States Military Academy at West Point, received several Southeastern Conference (SEC) individual and team championship honors, and set the NCAA record for service Aces one year. She also played volleyball for the USA team from 1985 to 1988, competed in the Pan American Games in 1987 and was an alternate for the 1988 USA Olympic team.

“My Mom always reminds me not to get too low or too high with my emotions and that ‘being an elite athlete you need to have an unbelievable toughness.’ Whenever I hit a roadblock of any kind, I know that both my parents have been through it. They’ll go back to pivotal times in their lives to explain that they understand.”Supporting and cheering for Anna Buffini - her brother Alex and her Mom - Beverly Buffini

Anna said it has transferred into her own riding, “It’s 100% what I do. It’s always that positive structure. It’s all mental. All the riding comes from your mentality and the way you think. Your horse can feel if you are negative or positive. Even if it is a tough ride because you are going to have tough rides, your mindset and the way you think have to find that positive note.” She continued, “My Dad says, ‘The best athletes are those with the shortest memories.'  You have to forget the bad. Learn from it. Omit it and move on to the next day.“

For a solid year, Anna has worked with Guenter on a daily basis. The three-time Olympian said, “Anna is such a great girl. You cannot help liking her and that is how she is on the horse and that’s how her family is. Her whole family comes with her and they are all just such great people. She is super dedicated, talented and great to work with.”

Guenter spoke about Anna’s training, “The aha moments were all from Sundayboy for her. He is the aha moment. You can have good teachers, but the horse is at the end, the good teacher. The funny thing about Sundayboy is that I think a lot of people thought he was easy and did everything on his own. That is far from the truth. There is no such thing as an easy Grand Prix horse. They all have to be ridden well.” He continued, “It wasn’t me or Sandy, her former coach. We can help, but the horse is the one that really teaches the rider.”

He added, “One special horse will give you a lot. I had Graf George. He did the same for me. He changed the whole game for me. He gave that to me, no one else.”

He said about riding, “Learning the right thing at the right moment is something each rider has to learn. Doing the right thing at the right moment is the key.”

He continued, “It’s challenging and can be a very frustrating sport that can be especially hard on kids because they take any defeat very personal. The highs and lows can be quite extreme. You cannot let that get to you. It’s always trying to find that healthy balance. The rewards are great, but if you did something wrong in the show arena it’s not the end of the world. It’s important to keep it all into a healthy perspective.”

Anna shared about working with Guenter, “He is always focused on what is right in front of him. If something bad happens, you can see his brain trying to figure out where to go. He is so clever. Sometimes, he doesn’t have an immediate answer. He’ll stop me, think for a second and come up with a plan or exercise in order to progress forward with whatever the problem may be. He really wants to work with the horse’s brain.” Anna explained that “Debbie does the same thing. She will figure out a new way. If I say, ‘I am struggling with this part,’ she will come up with a way to work through it. She will create a whole new exercise that somehow builds the horse up. Both of them do not train with their emotions. They really train in a logical manner. That is what I have learned from them. If the horse does something bad, do not react to it. Do not get negative.”

Debbie McDonald shared her thoughts on working with Anna, “Anna hit the ground running this season. The first thing she did was integrate with Lendon Gray and her Winter Intensive Training Program so that she could help those kids a few hours a day when she wasn’t focused on her own riding. She really helped them in any way she could. She wanted to stay busy, involved and active throughout the season. She is such a role model for the generation coming up. She’s so inspirational. It has been nothing but pure joy working with her this season. She is a real testament of her parents and their whole family.”

She added, “That’s the one thing about Guenter, we are very good friends. We work very well together. We spent many years together on the road with Klaus Balkenhol. I cannot say that I added anything to their work other than an eye on the ground for her this season. Guenter has done such an amazing job with her. So, I take absolutely no credit to what Anna is. I was passed on a very well educated, well-schooled young woman.”

Assistant Coaching

While in Florida during the 2017 winter competition season, Lendon asked Anna to help with the fitness portion of her three-month Dressage4Kids Winter Intensive Training Program. Noticing Anna's passion, Lendon then asked  Anna to assist her in giving lessons to the students. Lendon in doing so, mentored her in coaching the young riders. “At first, she watched how I was teaching the riders,” Anna described. “Then, she started to ask me about each lesson and we’d discuss it.”Anna Buffini and Kaitlin Blythe share a congratulatory hug

“I felt so welcome there. They were my family this season.” She continued, “I went to see all of them show and they in turn came to watch me.”

“I’m a young trainer,” Anna professed. “I’m only 22 years old and basically, I teach from what I’ve learned. For instance, I would say, ‘You have to connect the horse from both legs to both reins.’ In the way I explained, it was exactly the same step-by-step way Debbie had been telling me. The funny thing is that the next time I’d ride my own horse I’d understand just what it was that she had been showing me. My teaching another allowed me to understand it for myself and was a huge help in my own training development.” 

Riding under the lights, she shared, “It was so surreal. My dream has been to compete under the lights and this was Sundayboy’s last competition ever and to come out with the win is unbelievable. I owe him so much and he tried his heart out. He’s such a star. He’s done everything for me. He’s given me his whole heart and that is all I can ask."

“This was Guenter Seidel’s freestyle. I didn’t have one and he said, ‘you can use mine.’ It’s fun and recognizable.” She continued, “We did a piaffe fan. I thought at that moment, ‘I cannot believe we are doing this.’”

Anna is grateful to many, “I’m so thankful to my parents, my brothers and sisters, and to Guenter, Debbie and Lendon. And, also to my grandparents for coming to Florida to support me and for bringing laughter with them. It’s all been so wonderful.”

“Sundayboy will go back to California. No one else will show him. We will trail ride him and let him get fat and happy for the rest of his life.”

L-R Sierra Keasler, Anna Buffini, Kaitlin Blythe at the CDIO U25 Nations Cup 2017