Anna Buffini was forced to retire Wilton after a series of perilous events. But two years later, she’s discovered a new connection with the gelding.
Anna Buffini didn’t want to give up on her horse. She had flown to Europe to search for her perfect dressage mount, and after months of searching, she thought she’d found the one: Wilton II, a 16-year-old KWPN gelding.
At first, things went well. Anna brought Wilton back to the U.S. and began her partnership with him. The duo competed in the U25 Brentina Cup Final and came away with a second-place finish.
But it soon became apparent to Anna and her three-time Olympian trainer, Guenter Seidel, that Wilton was a challenging mount — perhaps even a bit dangerous. “The first day I tried to piaffe him, he backed up from ‘A’ all the way to ‘C’ and went out of the arena,” recalls Anna. “I was like, ‘What is happening?’”
Within a year, Wilton had become a bigger challenge than Anna had anticipated. “Every day, he just got a little bit more dangerous and a little bit more difficult,” she remembers. “He basically went a little crazy.”
In the dressage community, foals by a specific stallion named “Jazz” are known to be a bit unpredictable, Anna explains. Wilton has proven no exception. “He has no self-preservation instinct, which basically means when he’s scared, he doesn’t care if he runs into a wall or falls off a cliff,” Anna adds. “His brain just shuts off.”
The final straw broke for Wilton at a competition in 2017. During the warmup, Wilton spooked — and flipped over backward with Anna onboard. “That was the day we all decided it was just getting too dangerous,” she says.
Deciding to retire Wilton was one of the toughest choices Anna has had to make in her career. “I think riders are always so gung ho and so brave,” she says. “So when it really starts to get dangerous, it’s hard to end something.”
A New Start
Almost a year after retiring Wilton, Anna was faced with a new problem: having no competition horses. Her longtime mount, Sundayboy, had been retired after a decorated career.
“We weren’t in a position to be able to purchase any more horses,” Anna recalls. “So we were like, ‘Hey, what if we try it with Wilton again?’”
Anna’s trainer had some reservations. If they decided to bring Wilton back, they would have to start from ground zero and work carefully. There was no room for error.
Under Guenter’s steady guidance, Anna restarted her relationship with Wilton. Their training philosophy was simple: Pretend Wilton knew nothing and treat him as if he’d never been ridden. They started slowly in a round pen and worked their way up to the dressage arena.
“Little by little, he started getting stronger. I started figuring out how to handle his spookiness and his explosions, and he figured out how I was going to react,” Anna says. “That really created such a strong bond for us during that restarting period.”
The process worked. Today, Anna and Wilton have returned to the show ring. And in 2019, the pair were crowned the U25 Grand Prix Reserve National Champion. Next year, Anna has her hopes on trying to qualify Wilton for more national championship competitions.
“I honestly know him better than any horse I’ve ridden,” Anna says. “You have to know every single thing he does, what he’s thinking, how he’s going to react. Otherwise, he’s unrideable.”
Tenacity through the Highs and the Lows
For some riders, dealing with a horse like Wilton would simply be too much. But Anna enjoys the challenge and says patience is the key to her success with Wilton.
“You have to think of (a difficult horse) almost like a child who’s afraid of a loud noise or something. It doesn’t matter how many times they spook at the same flower box. You stay patient and you keep training them and you keep the experience positive always,” Anna explains.
The unique challenges of the sport are what drew Anna to dressage. It seems the harder she has to work, the more fun she has.
“I love how much work [dressage] takes, in a funny way,” Anna says, laughing. “It’s so, so, so, so hard. It’s exhausting. I’ve done pretty much every sport there is and I’ve not found a sport more physically difficult than dressage. It’s hard because we’re all going for perfection, and there’s no perfect horse or perfect test. You can never be perfect. And I think that’s so motivating.”
She is also motivated by her close-knit family — “I’m blessed, I get to live at home with my family and we’re all best friends,” she says.
Anna is grateful for the support she has received along the way. “If you want to be a top rider and a top competitior internationally, it is impossible without support. I’m so grateful for the foundations like the USET Foundation that make it possible to do all of this. I think it’s incredible that people are able to come together and help fund a team that’s worked so hard to produce an Olympic medal. I thinks that’s so incredible.”
“No matter what you give, no matter what you do, it’s part of a bigger picture, and it really can impact and change lives,” Anna says. “No matter what you give, it’s going to make a difference.”