Where Are They Now: Cisko A is Back to Being a Rookie

Sydney Elliott and Cisko A. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

In spring 2016, Eventing Nation wrote an article highlighting a pair of Rolex Rookies: Sydney Elliott and Cisko A, a 2006 Westphalian gelding owned by Carol Stephens. Eight years later, Cisko A is once again a rookie, but this time he’s back to the Novice level as he applies himself to teaching up-and-coming riders instead of tackling the top of the sport.

Sydney and Cisko had a very special relationship – he was her first horse that was imported from Germany specifically for her, instead of one that she brought up the levels herself. They were still competitive at the CCI4* level – then known as three-star – as recently as 2018, when they finished in the top ten at Fair Hill in Elkton, Maryland. During the height of their career together, they placed fourth at Rebecca Farm, sixth at Great Meadow, and seventh at The Fork.

Back in 2016, Sydney said of Cisko, “I’m betting I have one of the best cross-country horses out there.”

She wasn’t wrong. Throughout their five-year career at the upper levels, Cisko A had a total of only 33 cross country penalties – breaking down to one run out/refusal and activating one frangible device.

Sydney Elliott waves to her fans after a great test with Cisko A. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

These days, Cisko is embarking on an equally important career path, teaching young riders the ropes. His new pilot is Sydney’s working student, 16-year-old Ava Wehr. Originally from Maryland, Ava is now juggling online high school and life as a working student at Sydney’s base in Southern Pines, North Carolina.

“It was definitely hard at first, because I came here over the summer so I had the whole summer to get used to everything here. And now that school has started it’s a little bit difficult for sure. But Sydney is great with making sure we have a schedule and there’s time that I do school versus being a working student,” Ava says.

Ava has been riding since she was a baby on her parents’ farm in Southern Maryland, and for the past few years, she’s been competing in the Novice division with her 14-hand Morgan cross, Lyric. The move from pony to horse is a big jump for every rider, but it’s an even bigger leap when you’re transitioning from a 14-hand pony to a former 5* horse.

“It’s kind of a big move up to Cisco, and we weren’t sure if it was gonna work out well or not. He is a lot more powerful and just a lot more horse than I was used to, but it ended up working out really well.”

Cisko may be in his late teens, but in his opinion, he’s 18 years young, not old. While he does have joint injections to prevent wear and tear, Ava says he doesn’t need any special coddling to stay fit and healthy.

“He definitely still is pretty spicy. He gets very excited on cross country and all that stuff,” Ava says. “He loves his job. He gets so excited to go out there and work.”

Sydney Elliott and Cisko A. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Ava got the ride on Cisko in the fall of 2023 after he came back from Will Faudree’s farm, where he was being ridden by one of his working students.

“He was prepping for a one-star with the person who was leasing him, so he’s ready to go. He’s like, ‘this novice stuff is boring!’ I actually took him to his first Novice. He had never done it before, so it was kind of funny,” Ava says. “I mean, I’m pretty sure the first couple times we schooled some jumps, he was like ‘What’s going on? What is this?’ It’s definitely very hard riding something so different and completely opposite to my old pony.”

Back at the barns, Cisko is the same crotchety horse that he was in 2016, when Sydney shared that he has a special moniker in the barn. Nearly a decade later, the nickname has really stuck.

“In the barn, he’s a little bit grumpy sometimes. He’ll pin his ears at you, but he doesn’t bite or anything like that. We always call him the grumpy German,” Ava laughs. “He definitely likes to be brushed and groomed, but he can be a little grumpy sometimes.”

Under saddle, Ava has had to learn how to ride to his standards, as the Westfalian gelding can be unforgiving.

“He can’t really take a joke about things. He likes to be very professional. He wants to go do his work and get it done. I mean, I guess you could say he’s sensitive emotionally,” Ava says. “I took him back to Maryland for a bit around Christmas and we decided to dress up. He got so upset — he didn’t like it. He was like, ‘this is not my normal routine, this is not what I do.’ It was so funny. He’d much rather go do horse shows, do his normal thing, and that’s it.”

Cisko’s role as a professional and workmanlike ride has taught Ava a lot in a short amount of time. “Even just the fact that he’s a bigger horse was a really big thing for me. My old pony was only 14 hands, and so just learning striding and distance and everything was a big deal,” Ava says. “And then also he has so many buttons — he’s just such a cool horse. He’s one of those types of horses where if I’m not riding him correctly, he lets me know and he’s not going to do it for me. You need to ride. You can’t just sit there.”

Cisko A & Ava Wehrs Photo by Brant Gamma

Watching Ava learn from Cisko has been a great experience for Sydney.

“They are just such a good fit for each other and he’s teaching her how to be brave and confident on cross country. It’s a match made in heaven so far,” she says.

Ava is hoping to do her first Training level event this season with Cisko.

“We’re local to the War Horse Series and those are really great schooling shows. So, hopefully we’ll be able to do that series and slowly move up to Training over the summer.”

Of course, Cisko isn’t the only one Ava is learning from. She also says she’s learned a lot from his former rider, Sydney.

“Sydney is such an amazing person and coach. It’s really been great. I’m really one of the only people working for her, so it’s just a very small barn, just us, and then we also live pretty close to Will Faudree and we work with him a whole bunch. It’s really great. She’s such a great person and all the horses are amazing. I’ve learned so much since being here.”

As for Sydney, she says Ava is one in a million.

“There’s not many adults, let alone kids, that are quite like her. She loves all the aspects of the horses, from cleaning the stalls to bathing them – all the little details that make up why we do this in the first place – not just sitting in the saddle.”

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