Jan 16, 2024

Sydney Elliott: Her Fortuitous Road to Eventing and the Pan Am Games

By Allie Heninger - Sidelines Magazine
Sydney Elliott with QC Diamantaire, known as Q, owned by Carol Stephen. Sydney and Q helped the US Eventing Team take home the silver medal at the 2023 Pan American Games. Pam Jensen Photography photo

This article originally appeared in Sidelines Magazine.

From the backwoods of the Bayou to Santiago, Chile, Sydney Elliott has certainly traveled far since her days riding with Pony Club in Benton, Louisiana. While the Pan American Games U.S. Team Member is “still Louisiana, through and through,” her recent move to Southern Pines, North Carolina, has helped prepare her for her latest experiences as a rider for Team USA.

Sydney’s very first riding experience as a child was at Holly Hill Farm in Benton, where she would remain for the rest of her riding career before moving her operation to her own farm just two miles down the road. Owned and run by Bobby and Tracy Hewlitt, Holly Hill and their Gator Bayou Pony Club branch served as the foundation for Sydney’s riding and horsemanship education. “We were just so lucky to find them,” Sydney said of the Hewlitt family and the Pony Club program. “We started there and I stayed involved in it all these years—I was even a co-district commissioner for our Pony Club until I left last year.”

“It's so important for these kids to come up through Pony Club,” Sydney noted. “It teaches them so many valuable life lessons. I know that I needed it as a child growing up, and I needed structure. I think it was very important for both life lessons and for horsemanship.”

Seeing herself as a bit of an anomaly, considering where she started and how far she’s come since, Sydney knows she was very lucky to find such a great support system as a child. “My mom dropped me off at the farm on the weekends and I would basically live with the Hewletts,” she laughed. “We'd ride ponies every day, all day long—do things we were not supposed to do without our parents watching—we were just let loose on a 200-acre farm. It was probably the best childhood for a child loving horses.”

Headfirst Into Eventing

Sydney wasn’t always living and breathing eventing, and at one point had actually wanted to venture into barrel racing and the Western riding world. When she was just 10 years old, her mother bought Fancy—a 14.2-hand pony who would become a very special partner for Sydney. “She was 3 years old—obviously a very bad decision—and we took her home. I started riding Western, and one day I was like, 'Mom, I think Fancy wants to jump!' I threw an English saddle on her, and we started jumping.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, Fancy was hiding a huge secret from Sydney’s family. “She ended up being pregnant—we didn't know when we bought her!—and she delivered twins out in the field. We just thought she was fat!” Sydney laughed. She ended up taking the little mare to her very first clinic with Olympic eventer Karen O’Connor, who frequented Holly Hill Farm. “When we had to sell Fancy because I outgrew her, it was one of [Karen's] grooms that actually ended up buying her. I think Karen said, 'Sydney, it's fine, you go get another horse. I have someone for her, I'm taking her to Virginia.' And she left. She was such a special mare, going from the Western world, being pregnant with twins, to taking me to my first Prelims at 14, and then selling her—there was a lot wrapped up in that little pony.”

Once Sydney decided that jumping was for her, it wasn’t long before Holly Hill initiated her into the eventing world. “I started off doing hunters at first, and then I was 10 when Holly Hill started doing the recognized events,” Sydney recalled. “So it was a natural progression for me, starting in the hunter world and then merging into the eventing, with that being basically my backyard.”

Karen O’Connor would become a huge influence in Sydney’s life as she progressed in her career, and was the one who helped solidify her love for eventing. “Little did I know as an 8-year-old who Karen O'Connor was—Karen Lende at the time—and they had her coming in for clinics two or three times a year,” Sydney explained. “My foundation beyond Pony Club was clinics with Karen, and then eventually David, coming to the area.”

In the beginning, Sydney was terrified to gallop. “I was such a timid rider as a kid, so when I first started eventing, I was absolutely terrified of cross-country,” Sydney laughed. “Now, I can’t wait to leave the start box.”

Bayou to the Pan Am Games

In 2013, Sydney began a six-year partnership with Cisko A. “Cisko is the love of my life—next to my husband! He took me around my first Kentucky, and he was the first horse that the current family that I work for—Carol and Arden Stephens—purchased for me,” Sydney said. She and the Westphalian gelding competed through the CCI5* level before his eventual upper-level retirement in 2019, and he has since packed younger riders around the Training through Prelim levels. “He has gone on to tote me around Kentucky, teach the owner's daughter and bring her up through Intermediate, teach another kid through Intermediate—he is worth his weight in gold, so he obviously holds a very special place in my heart.”

At the end of October, Sydney traveled to Santiago, Chile, as a Team USA Eventing Team member to compete in the Pan American Games aboard Carol Stephen’s gelding QC Diamantaire, known as Q. “He is the horse of a lifetime,” she gushed. The big Oldenburg certainly has his quirks, and a personality full of sass, but is good-natured and loved by everyone on Sydney’s team.

“He’s a family horse through and through,” Sydney said. “He’s the best; quirky as the day is long. You can put anyone on him, but you can't take a rag to his face.” Sydney and Q have since returned home with pride, as Team USA returned home from the Pan American Games victorious with team silver—Sydney and Q themselves finishing in eighth place.

The pair has competed for Team USA before, including contributing toward a team silver in 2021 at CHIO Aachen before competing in the FEI Eventing Nations Cup at Boekelo in the Netherlands the following month, where they were fifth overall, the highest-placed U.S. rider, and again took home a team silver. “I'm so driven and goal-oriented, and I feel like I'm such a late bloomer, too,” Sydney explained. “My goal had been to get to Europe and compete in the Nations Cup for years, so when that finally happened with Aachen, that was probably the highlight.”

Sydney and Q went back to Germany for Aachen in 2022 as well, leaving in 17th place in a large field of the best in the sport—and she couldn’t have been prouder. “It's just been one thing after another; we set one goal and that goes well, we find what we can do better and then we get to the next goal. It's been a great process so far.”

Like many others in her position, Sydney has her sights set on those five rings. “Long-term goals would be the Paris Olympics next year,” she shared. “I think it's very much a longshot, but the Pan American Games are a stepping stone—and what a privilege to be on that team—but it's definitely a pathway to be on future senior teams as well. And the Pan American Games are definitely the peak so far of our goals that we've set. We'll just see what comes after this!”

Leaving Louisiana

If there’s one thing that Sydney claims above all else, it’s her home state. After living as a Louisiana native her whole life, she finally made the decision to move her home base to Southern Pines, North Carolina, in January of 2022—not a decision she took lightly at all. “I still am very persistent that I will not change my address or license!” she laughed.

“We do have the horse community in Louisiana, even though it's not a thriving horse community,” Sydney explained of the decision to leave her home state. “We have such an amazing group of people there, and I had a wonderful business all these years in Louisiana. It just got to a point where I was on the road so much with these horses, and I'm always traveling by myself, so it was just too taxing on me and the horses to go back and forth—commute that far. I tried as long as I could, and I had such a successful business for 15 years. The community is next to none; they are just so amazing and I miss everyone so much.”

Sydney’s new location has quickly become a home as well, thanks to the many mentors, trainers and friends she’s made over the years in the industry through clinics, competing and various equestrian connections. “It's like my second family,” she said. “All the people in Southern Pines, I've known since I was a child—since I was about 12 years old—so it really is just an extension from home.” She is now happy to have many of the influential people in her life as neighbors, including coach Bobby Costello as well as her best friend, fellow eventer Will Faudree.

Despite her fairly new setup in North Carolina, Sydney has kept herself very busy. Even with a barn full of promising young horses and several moving up the levels, she still does everything herself—from mucking stalls and feeding every meal to holding horses for the vet and farrier. “It's very long days, but I think that also is what makes me successful, because I have hands on these horses every single day,” she said, describing how she loves the tired feeling she gets each night, knowing that she spent her full day with the horses she loves. “I just recently got a working student in, who I love so much, but it took a lot of convincing and communication for me to agree to take someone on! We wake up and we get the horses done and ridden, and then the teaching happens throughout the day when I can fit it in between the riding, or in the afternoon when we're done. But I get so much benefit.”

Sydney is definitely a believer in hard work, a trait she attributes to the many people in her life she has taken after. “I don't know if I would want it any other way,” she said. “I have this conversation all the time with the kids that come in and out of the barn. It's hard work no matter what aspect of life you're coming from—whether it's in Louisiana, or you're lucky enough to be in the middle of it on the East Coast, it's always going to be such a labor of love.”

From the clinicians that taught her growing up to the coaches and members of the teams she’s competed on, Sydney carries the knowledge she’s gained with her into the saddle every day. “I just think you can pull information from so many different people and use it at different times throughout your career, if you tuck it away,” she explained. “It's been like a melting pot of people that made me successful; I pull from a lot of different people and all of their information over the years.”

Sydney stresses that no matter your beginnings, the kind of rider you become is a reflection of those you’ve learned from. “I've been very, very blessed with the opportunities that I've had,” she concluded, “and am blessed to have been smart enough to take advantage of them.”

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