Horses and Hard Work meet Dressage Champion Anna Buffini
Her dad, Brian, runs the largest business coaching organization in America, and her mother, Beverly, was a member of the U.S. National Volleyball team for three years and an alternate for the 1988 Olympics, but Anna Buffini decided to forge her own path. Combining her competitive drive with her work ethic, she found a passion “in the highest expression of horse training,” dressage.
The sport is considered to be the creme de le creme of the equestrian world. Rider and horse partner together to show a series of memorized, choreographed movements. Think of it like salsa dancing with a 1500-pound partner. A far cry from the boardroom and the volleyball court.
After eight years of fighting the sports gravitational pull, Buffini, and her vaunted steed, Sundayboy, jettisoned stage one and broke into the equestrian elite, winning their first National Championship in 2014. The rise has only continued, winning again in 2016 at the U.S. Under 25 Championships. This time, Buffini not only garnered the top spot, but also the runner-up spot with her other horse, Wilton II, something that has never been done before at the National level of competition.
Even with the retiring of Sundayboy from competition, Buffini shows no signs of slowing down. Risen caught up with the twenty-two-year-old to learn more about her faith, family and future.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: What led you to horseback riding and dressage?
Anna Buffini: I did gymnastics and I was trying to go to the Olympics until I was about nine years old. We stopped that because it was a really negative environment and my body started to break on me. I had, thankfully, won state championships so that gave me a taste of winning and competition. It was also a judged sport. I loved that. I’m such a perfectionist. If you “nail it” they reward you! It’s validation that you did well. You can play a bad basketball game and still win, and I’ve done that. I loved having the numbers there to tell me the truth. Even though I loved the competition, I was over an environment where people were screaming in my face and my body was in pain all day long. I had always loved animals so when we got a referral to a barn, and I found out that dressage had the judging element I loved, was really competitive, and you could go to the Olympics for it, it filled the void gymnastics left and even took it up another level! I really loved it.
RM: Why did you decide to continue with it as far as you have?
AB: I love winning and I hate losing! My first horse was a little pony that bucked me off all the time, but we entered into our first show and won that show; it makes you hungry for more. Really it was reaching little championships and then seeing the next level to work towards. Each level you keep progressing, you keep learning, you keep winning. You even keep losing and you have to learn from that. Sometimes that horse doesn’t have a good day. You have to work through that.
RM: What was the biggest jump of skill levels you had to go through?
AB: For sure going from that little pony to Sundayboy, my champion horse! Before me, it was a man riding him. He’s really big, strong, powerful, and kind of dangerous. It was huge to be riding on something – that for the most part was under my control – to being on something that was really out of my league. It was huge to help me get to the next level; the next couple of levels actually. The horse also knew how to win. He helped teach me how to win.
RM: That’s interesting! How much in dressage is the person teaching the horse versus the horse teaching the person?
AB: It’s a little bit of both. When you’re younger you only ride horses that pretty much know everything called, “school masters.” Those are horses that teach you. When you get to a higher level, you get a horse that you are training. It’s extremely dynamic though. Oftentimes you are buying a horse with less experience and teaching them to compete up to an international or Olympic level.
You even keep losing and you have to learn from that. Sometimes that horse doesn’t have a good day. You have to work through that.
RM: What have your biggest successes been?
AB: The biggest win with Sundayboy was National Championships when I was eighteen years old (2014). That was huge for us. We were competing with young riders; that’s anyone 21-and-under in the country. Only the top twelve get invited to Nationals and we had gotten the scores to get in. Nobody really knew about us before then, on an international or even national level anyway.
I was going in as first in the country and I was prepared to win because of that, but I wasn’t assuming it. They tally up both days and we ended up winning both. Before that, no one really knew who we were. After it, we were Anna Buffini and Sundayboy. We gained respect in the community and had a ton of articles done on us. The coolest thing was that out of that it was the first time I got to share my faith in a public forum. We got to do press conferences because of the win. I would always start off the interviews with, “I’d like to thank Jesus first because He’s the reason I’m here.”
It took me nine years to get there though. I had maybe only met around ten other Christians in all the years I had been doing the sport. Getting to be open about my faith after all that time was even better than the win. We’ve had an awesome string of successes since then though.
RM: What have been some of the biggest hurdles you have overcome?
AB: Well, horses are athletes too. So literally right after that first Nationals win, we went to another National Championship and SundayBoy got hurt. We had to pull him out even though we were the favorite to win. The next year, he was injured the whole entire year. So 2015 was a scratch. The silver lining was we got to do two shows that year at the Olympic level because we weren’t in the normal competitions. That was awesome and we got to learn to ride the Grand Prix. But even still, it was really hard not to be able to compete.
Everybody looks in from the outside and thinks it’s easy and we’re just winning; it’s not that easy on the inside. Every day I’m watching out for Sundayboy’s injuries; every day we have to take it easy. We weren’t even able to practice the things we were going to do in competition. It’s like going out to play in an NFL game without being able to run through any plays the week before. This is even after switching trainers last year to Guenter Seidel. He not only has won three Olympic Medals but he also used to own Sundayboy. He was really helpful in teaching me how to keep the horse healthy while I worked him. So even though it was a challenge, we learned to get the right help.
Another hardship that I’ve had to grow a lot through, is hearing hurtful, rude and gossipy things other people say about you. I receive a lot of love from people’s words so hearing the critics was a really big challenge. It hurts a lot and I would take it to heart. I would hear things like, “You’re spoiled and it comes easy for you.” Or, “You don’t work hard.” And, “You won’t win again.” I really had to learn to get over what people were saying and forgive. I ultimately developed a very, very short memory which helped a lot. This can also be a very lonely road too. Being a professional athlete, especially in this sport, we skip proms, we don’t have boyfriends, your friends are rare and they are really spread out. Chances are they are working the horse life too. So when you do find a good friend in the horse world, you have to put in a lot of effort to maintain that.
I think you actually have to be a good loser to be a good winner. It all comes with preparation.If you put the prep work in, and you know you gave it one hundred percent, you at least should be able to lose with grace.
RM: You come from a very successful and athletic family. How has this helped you?
AB: It’s everything to me. From day one we were raised to be competitors and have good attitudes. We were taught we weren’t going to win every time so we needed to be good sportsmen and good teammates. We lived it and breathed it growing up. We always heard Mom’s stories about being on the Olympic team and how hard she had to work. We also heard Dad’s stories about being down [in sport and business] and getting back up. They didn’t ever control our sports careers, but they did expect us to give 110 percent every time we were on the court, or field, or [on a] horse. We needed to respect our coaches and teammates.
They were always there though to teach us about our mistakes. We’ve had the underdog mentality, for sure, and that’s helped me to succeed in a [horse] world where people have been successful for generations and we’re first generation. When you’re competing against the likes of Forbes, Lego, Glock and Porsche, that all helps a lot.
RM: Those are definitely some household names, but dressage as a sport maybe isn’t. What is it about dressage you wish everyone knew?
AB: All the elite athletes work out like beasts! They work out like Olympic athletes themselves, as well as the horses. So thankfully there’s a lot of sponsors that help so there is a lot of opportunity if you’re good. If you work hard at your craft, you’ll stand before kings! Wealthy sponsors will buy the horses so the riders don’t have to be wealthy. They just have to be good.
RM: How has your faith in Jesus influenced you as an athlete?
AB: I think if you really embody the Christian life then it should influence everything. It shouldn’t be like; this is my faith when I’m angry on the basketball court. No. It should be when you’re putting your jersey on, to when you’re taking your shoes off at the end of the day. You should be a faithful person from beginning to end. It should come out everywhere. Even simple things to be faithful with. Getting out of bed. Being on time. It’s really simple, but it’s huge. Then being a person of character around your teammates and coworkers especially if things go wrong. When things go wrong, when my horse goes lame, you don’t see me just lose it and start cussing people out and lose all hope. You stay chill. You keep praying. You stay hopeful. You treat the conflict in a way that honors God.
I think if you totally lose it, and lose faith, it shows that you don’t trust God enough! You’re clearly not spending enough time in the Word and you’re not trusting Him. Pastor Rick Warren says that “Not trusting God is a type of atheism.” I need to trust God for my horse to be healed, or for any of my critics to be forgiven. This has given me the strength to truly sit with people, talk it out and move on.
RM: This is awesome, but you’re also a very competitive person. How you do you balance this with your faith?
AB: You know, I always do my best, but somebody else can still win. And that happened this year. It was devastating. I was in tears, and it hurt really bad. But instead of taking the low road, I congratulated my teammate and took the high road in press conferences. I think you actually have to be a good loser to be a good winner. It all comes with preparation. If you put the prep work in, and you know you gave it one hundred percent, you at least should be able to lose with grace. The next day I was able to pick it back up. It actually fueled my fire more to win with dignity and class.
RM: What are the biggest ways you have taken advantage of your God-given influence thanks to your sport?
AB: I’m a huge believer that the way you live your daily life helps you to be prepared to use your influence when you finally win big. My life verse is Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good works and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.” I believe that my whole purpose on this earth is to live in such a way that it points to God, not me. So, when I did make it big – and it took me eight years to become an overnight success, it’s not just like I bought an expensive horse and I made it, it was blood sweat and tears for years – every day, whether I was having a good day or struggling, people saw me being who I was. They saw me being patient, forgiving, trusting, positive and helpful. People noticed. They saw something was different about me when I made it big, and it didn’t change me. I was able to achieve my goals and stay the same person at the bottom as I was at the top. Regardless of the situation, all glory goes to God.
RM: That is such a hard attitude to keep, especially as a professional athlete. What do you do to refuel?
AB: I finish really late, so I usually just get home, workout, study, and I really recharge with my family. We are all really close. Otherwise, prayer is huge. I am also always singing, worshipping, and I write songs too. I’ll get home and play on the piano and sing pretty much until everybody else in the house tells me to stop.
Then, as soon as I wake up, I am putting worship music on. I have different songs that get me ready for the day. On the way to work I’ll put on music and sing. In fact, pretty much any time I’m in my car that’s happening. It just puts you in such a good head space and sets your heart for the day. If I’m just riding by myself and we don’t have lessons, I’ll stick my phone in my pocket and listen to worship too. The new Bethel album is amazing and that’s always on. Sundayboy loves Hillsong and Kari Jobe too. Family, friends and church are huge though too. I try and recharge half by myself and half with other people. It’s gotta be both!
I’ve always been focused on me and my dreams, and my goals. In a way it became an idol for me – the Olympics, the horses. Teaching helped me to step back and help other people. I know that’s what Jesus did.
RM: Most athletes “play” with and against other people. You work so closely, even intimately, with horses. What’s something you’ve learned from this that everyone could benefit from?
AB: Don’t make decisions emotionally regardless of what life throws at you! Horses can sense when you’re angry, or sad, or mad and it messes up your movement. They can feel it. They can feel it when your heartrate goes up through the saddle. Then it’s harder to get through to them. I find that so true for people too. If you respond too emotionally, too fast, it messes up your communication. That’s really translated for me.
I’m not the most patient person, and I can also be very emotional so this was a huge lesson for me to learn. I’m blessed with a great mentor. You also have to have accountability regardless if your sport is singular or with a team. My coach is German! He’s pragmatic, serious and he’s got it down. His emotions don’t show on the horse regardless of whether a horse is trying to flick him off or whether it’s trying to kill him. He’s been there. He’s been to the top and he understands what it takes to get to the top.
The other thing that is unique is that you are working with the horse, but you also have to be the boss up there. These horses do not always want to do what you want them to. They’re mad or they’re frustrated, or they are flat out trying to kill you. You have to be a boss up there and get it done. You have to do things in a nice way of course, but sometimes a horse needs a good spanking!
What is interesting about that is when you’re off the horse, it’s sometimes hard to turn off. There are a lot of riders with major control issues. I’ll go home sometimes and need a serious detox. It’s hard to turn off and on. But you have to be able to turn it on or the horse will just overpower you. Then again, you can’t just go around overpowering people. You have to find a way to turn that “beast mode” side of you off.
RM: You have a deep love of animals. Stewardship of our planet and the natural world is a huge topic for Christians. What advice or perspective would you give?
AB: This is huge in the equestrian world. A lot of people become vegan or vegetarian because they don’t want to harm animals. I don’t have any problem with any of that. God didn’t give us this world to trash it, but he didn’t give it to us to tip-toe on either. It’s that simple for me and it’s really similar to how I approach my faith in all things. Do the little bit that you can do. Take care of your surroundings and what God has entrusted you with like you would take care of your home. I definitely consider it an honor to be able to take care of and train the animals I’ve been allowed to. It blesses me too.
RM: You have parlayed your love of riding into a growing business. Tell us about this.
AB: Well my dad is really successful in business, but I was always encouraged to make my own way too. It’s been easy to see myself have a career in horses because I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It’s my passion. To be able to create my passion into something that generates income is huge! In dressage you have to be over 21 to be a professional and make money, so I was able to prepare for 11 years. All that experience has helped me to know how to make it in this business.
Last year in 2016 I was able to start advertising to work with clients, both training horses and riders. I love to work by referral personally. It’s kind of the family business so I just reached out to my personal database and from there I got all the clients I needed. I’m a big believer that if you’re faithful with a few, God will give you more. I just kept trying to be faithful with my first few clients. They recommended me to a few more. It’s grown from there. I really focus on that faithfulness with each client no matter who they are. Your name is the only thing you have in dressage, so that’s huge. I love it.
RM: It sounds like teaching others has become a real joy. What has it meant to you?
AB: Helping others reach their goals has been so fun! Seeing your student win out there, it’s like I’ve won. I’ve always been focused on me and my dreams, and my goals. In a way it became an idol for me – the Olympics, the horses. Teaching helped me to step back and help other people. I know that’s what Jesus did. I actually don’t have to have my own business right now, but I’ve chosen to because I see the impact it has on others. It’s also helped me become a better rider. I’ll teach someone something and see that it’s clever. I know I can use it for myself.
RM: Speaking of using it for you, what does the future look like for you? Any major goals coming up?
AB: My goals are always the Olympics, the USA team, and World Cup. I want to be the best in the world. It may take a while. I’m competing against really strong guys. Even my coach! He’s been to three Olympics but he’s still at it. I also want to help my clients continue to reach their goals.
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