Anna Buffini thought she’d be watching the 2021 show season from the sidelines. She’d had major success as a U25 rider, winning the national “Brentina Cup” championship in 2016 and claiming the reserve championship in 2019.
But her top horses, Sundayboy and Wilton II, had retired, and she had no FEI prospects waiting in the wings.
Then two months ago she had the chance to purchase FRH Davinia La Douce, a 13-year-old Hanoverian mare (Don Frederico—Annelies R, A Jungle Prince) who’d competed Grand Prix with German rider Anabel Balkenhol.
“It really was like a corona miracle how I ended up with this horse,” said Buffini, 26, who had ridden “Diva” previously when she’d gone to the Balkenhols’ farm in Germany.
Buffini, who is based in San Diego, tested the waters with Diva in a national Grand Prix at the Spooktacular Halloween Dressage Show (California) where they earned a 71.73 percent. Figuring it was now or never, Buffini entered the CDI3* at Desert Dressage I in Thermal, California, and finished second in the Grand Prix (68.56%) and Grand Prix Special (70.31%) behind Steffen Peters and his 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) mount Suppenkasper.
We caught up with Buffini to learn about her new mare and talk about making the transition to the professional ranks.
Tell us about FRH Davinia La Douce.
She is so fun. I still can’t believe I have her. Basically, six weeks ago, I was horseless. Zero hopes for 2021. I was just expecting to ride only clients’ horses and sales horses and no competing in the near future for myself at all, and then [the Balkenhols] called, and they said, “Hey Davinia’s still for sale.” And we thought, well, we really liked her. I’m still looking for horses and talking to dealers, but we can’t go try horses, and I can’t buy a horse without trying it. This is literally the only horse I could possibly buy at this time. It happened to be a horse I really liked already, and it has such similar training because [my trainer] Guenter [Seidel] is trained by Klaus [Balkenhol], so it all worked together beautifully and seamlessly.
We bought her and shipped her straight over to New Jersey. I spent two weeks with her there. A lot of the time, you don’t go to the quarantine. You just let them take care of it, but I knew we had a very short window to get to know each other, so I stayed out there for two weeks and just tried to spend every second of every day with her and get to know her, and that made a huge difference in the partnership we have right now because we needed that time to bond together.
Then we brought her home, and we started training. Of course, there are so many things you need to learn about a horse, and Guenter always says it takes about a year to get to know a new horse, and we had one month before we did the first show. We just trained every day and tried to figure her out little by little, and thankfully the training that Anabel Balkenhol gave her was so incredible. That is honestly the only reason I’ve been able to show so soon and do well is because of her previous training.
[The first CDI] went better than I honestly could’ve ever expected. It was really kind of a dream first CDI with her. There’s so much to work on, but to have a first show like that and have her with me and be on the same page for most of the things was really, really incredible. We’re doing the [Desert Dressage II] CDI this weekend just to get more experience and get to know each other.
What did you like about her when you tried her before?
She’s hot. I love a hot horse. She’s super forward; she’s super powerful. [She] has a great attitude, and that’s just what I’m learning so much more about her now.
When you go into the show arena some horses get so tense, or they don’t try for you. She is a gamer, and she says, “Let’s go.” She is so ready to fight, and she is ready to go as soon as we get into the show arena, and that is exactly the feel you want to have in your show horse. I could feel a little bit of it when I tried her, but feeling how much she tries for me in the show arena is literally just blowing me away.
How did you fast track your partnership?
You have to spend so much time with them, so I was eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at the barn. Thankfully I’m friends with Belli Balkenhol, so I text her every day. [There are] a lot of things you don’t think of when buying a horse. You just think of the riding part, but the care part is just as important. She doesn’t like her ears being clipped, which is so important to know. What kind of shoes she wears, when her dentistry was done, every little detail, what she likes, what she eats, how she handles weather, transport, all those things you have to learn and just figure out as quickly as possible.
Riding wise, you just have to sit on them and go through the movements and the paces and feel every single little thing they do, try to figure out how to get more on the same page and how you can ride them in the best way, make it as easy as possible for them.
Did you ever think it’d come together so quickly?
No. Absolutely nobody did, honestly. Going into the show arena I had no idea how it would go. You try your best, but you don’t know, 30 rides in. It’s a little bit unpredictable, but [it] has all come together pretty well. Who knows how this week will go, honestly, I still have no idea, but we’re going to try our best.
What has training with Seidel added to your riding?
Besides my parents, he is the biggest mentor in my life, not just training-wise, but who he is and how he handles himself. We have this rule: If you have a bad ride, you’re only allowed to mope and feel bad for yourself for an hour, and then you have to pick up and move on. Just little things like that.
He’s so patient with the horse. He’s so calm and kind. You could be a good rider, but if you are not patient and calm and kind it doesn’t matter because your horse is going to not respond well. He’s just so focused. Everything is classical, and everything is so correct. The better your position is, the better your horse is going to be, so every day heels down, hands together, elbows back, chin up. Everything is from your seat and your leg to your hand.
How did you navigate the transition to becoming a professional?
It is a huge jump. Horse-wise I was still on Sundayboy, and he’s so incredible. Professional-wise, it’s definitely hard being a young trainer and trying to get clients and teaching people who are two to three times older than you. It’s a very tricky road. You just have to be persistent. You have to work super, super hard and be very good at what you do, and it will come eventually. People will see you; it will come, but it just takes time and hard work.
What’s it like trying to find your footing when you are teaching people quite a bit older than you?
At first I was definitely more timid with my coaching, but people come to you for coaching because they want to get better, so now I give them every single thing they need. It’s very structured; it’s very demanding at the time. If you need to give your horse a half-halt at that second, you need to give it a half-halt right there. You need to sit; you need to have a good position. I think establishing myself as a rider helps anybody that I teach respect what I’m teaching them. You just have to have confidence in yourself, and you just have to really prove yourself to them and help make their horse better.
Also, you have to be willing to let them go to other trainers if it’s not a good fit. I think that’s actually a huge difficulty in this sport. If a rider wants to move on to someone else, let them go. Do your absolute best with the rider that you have at the time, but you don’t own them. We pay a lot of money for this sport; we work really hard, and they should be happy with whoever they are with. You just need to hold your students with an open hand, do the absolute best you can with them while you have them, and if they want to move on, then they get to move on because it’s their life.
What’s your client base like?
Right now I’ve actually lightened it a bit because I’m planning to go to Florida in the winter. Thankfully my clients are so gracious, and they know that I’m still competing myself. I tell everyone upfront that I may have to take off at some point if I get called for a show or I have to go to Florida, and they’re great. I have a couple other trainers that I’m able to hand them to.
I have anything from young horses to older horses, young riders, older riders. I teach jumper horses, jumper riders. I’ll teach anything and everything. It doesn’t matter what level as long as you work hard and have a good attitude. I just finished doing a lot of sales horses as well, which I really loved actually. I definitely want to do more of that in the future.
You haven’t done horse sales before?
It’s definitely newer for me, but I just loved it so much. You feel like Joanna Gaines [from HGTV’s] “Fixer Upper.” You get a horse in, and you fix it up, and you train it a little bit better, and you do the best you can with it, and then you’re able to show this newer, fresher trained horse to a different person, and it ends up being their dream horse. It’s really cool. I loved it.
You retired Wilton once and then brought him back to the show ring after basically retraining him. What did you learn from that experience?
Oh man, so much. Wilton is the reason I am the rider I am today. He literally is three different horses at once. He’s like riding a stallion and a mare and a gelding all at different times. He took so much patience. He took so much hard work. In order to ride him you had to learn new skills and learn to adapt and learn how to ride even better. If I didn’t learn how to be a better rider on him, then I would’ve had no chance.
They’re animals, so they don’t understand English, and they don’t always know what you want from them, and sometimes they have very strong opinions. You have to think outside the box, and he taught me to go outside the box. He made me very strong physically, mentally, emotionally. And as hard as the journey was with him, I owe everything to him in a way. I’m so thankful for him because I honestly would not be able to come out here and in 30 days get a 70 percent with a new horse. That wouldn’t be happening without Wilton.
Oh yeah! Every chance I can. I’m definitely way more careful now that I have [Diva]. I’m like, “How silly would it be if I tried to do a backflip off a horse and broke my leg?” So I definitely dial it down a lot when I have a competition horse, but I can only dial it down so much.
Do you have any big goals for 2021?
People keep asking me this, and I’m like, “Six weeks ago I literally thought I was going to have to take up bowling next year. I guess I could play pickleball; I don’t know!”
I think the next step is Florida. Honestly, with horses, you really can’t make plans. You never know, so we’re just going to take it one day at a time, and I’m going to hopefully be able to compete her in the Grand Prix in Florida, and then anything after that is just a bonus. Having a season is just unbelievable, and I’m so grateful.