Karazissis Kin Dominate The West Coast Hunter Scene

Jan 23, 2011 - 7:00 PM
Katrina (left), Nick Jr. (center) and Cassandra Karazissis all inherited their parents’ love of riding and training.

Attend any West Coast horse show, and you’re likely to hear the name Karazissis frequently announced over the loudspeakers. It’s partially because there are so many of them—at any given time you might see Jenny, Kost, Nick, Nick Jr., Katrina or Cassandra standing by the in-gate—but mostly because they’re so successful as trainers and competitors. Far West Farms in Calabasas, Calif., has become an institution, known for turning out top riders and horses.

“I’d known of them for years before going to work for them,” said Lisa Winn, who has run the riding school at Far West for 22 years. “I always admired them. The kids who come out of their barn—they come out with a great deal of loyalty and a great sense of good ethics. There’s always someone to go to, and they each have their own strengths.”

Never Any Doubt

Some people are born into the horse world, raised by riders and taken along on ponies from birth—others are slowly indoctrinated. Jenny Karazissis, originally from Northridge, Calif., is the latter. Though neither of her parents rode, she started begging for a pony when she was 7.

“They said I ought to take lessons first to see if it’s something I wanted to do,” she remembered. “Immediately, I loved it. Since starting, I’ve never stopped other than the two times I was pregnant.”

Jenny’s first instructor was her babysitter, Shari Rose. Rose had one horse and wasn’t a trainer but agreed to give lessons to her young charge. With the help of clinics from Ronnie Mutch, she took Jenny all the way through her junior career, including a win at the CPHA Medal Finals (Calif.) and a fifth in the ASPCA Maclay Finals (N.Y.).

After her junior years, Jenny worked briefly for Rose before joining up with her then-boyfriend Kost Karazissis at Far West in 1982.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I thought, ‘I need to see if [Kost and I] can work together.’ It’s just been great. We have a lot of respect for each other, and we always have. That’s not to say there aren’t times when he sets something, and I don’t really want to do it. We might have a disagreement, but all in all, I have a lot of faith and respect for him and vice versa. It’s just worked really well for us.”

Teaching eventually turned into Rose’s career, and she went on to coach other top professionals like Joie Gatlin, Candice King and Lise Quintero.

Born Into It

Unlike Jenny, Kost and his brother, Nick, were surrounded by horses from birth. Their father Nick Sr. and mother Grace bought a horse as soon as they could afford it after moving from Peru, where the boys were born, to California.

“[My mother] would drag me and my brother and sister to the stable where she would ride in a drill team,” Kost said. “That’s how it all began. Eventually she started keeping horses in our yard, and we were mucking stalls before going to school. Once you get horses in your blood, it’s pretty hard to stop.”

But Kost wasn’t immediately sure he wanted to devote his life to horses and spent time scuba diving, surfing and playing water polo.

“My brother was so into it, and I was a little more rebel-lious and kept trying to find other directions,” said Kost. “I eventually saw the light.”

Though Nick, now 62, was captivated by the sport and dedicated to it, he also stayed away from becoming a professional for several years.

“I made two promises to my mother,” Nick said. “One was that I would graduate from college. The other was that I wouldn’t become a horse trainer. After being a research biologist and teaching school for seven years and doing the horses on the side, I went and asked my mother, ‘Would it be OK if I just did the horses?’ When I asked to be released from that promise, both my parents were ecstatic and very supportive, and they blessed my decision.”

While Kost, 59, and Nick have always worked well together, incorporating as Far West Farms in 1972 and never looking back, there was a small amount of sibling rivalry when they were younger.

“There was a certain amount of jealousy on my part for Kost’s talent,” Nick said. “He was a really good rider, and he didn’t have to work too hard at it. He’s probably one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But I would say we’ve had an unbelievable working relationship, and in the barn it’s a really interesting dynamic.”

According to Jenny, that competitiveness is just part of the Karazissis’ temperament.

“Every family member is like that!” she said. “It probably has a lot to do with their success. Even when Kost goes golfing, he says, ‘I have to win today.’ Not that there’s much money on the line. He’ll come home and say he won a dollar. It makes me laugh—it’s just about the competition.”

The Next Generation

Through the years, other Karazissis family members have joined the family business.

“Kost says that you can’t swing a cat in Calabasas without hitting a Karazissis,” joked Jenny, 49.

Nick and his first wife, Diane, a top amateur rider who passed away in 2002, had three children. While Christopher opted for a career outside the horse world, Cassandra, 40, and Nick Jr., 31, rode as juniors and then turned professional. Nick Jr. works for Mike Edrick Stables in Agoura Hills, Calif., and Cassandra teaches at Far West.

“I was only coached by my family as a junior, and it got pretty hard my last year with my dad helping me,” Cassandra said with a laugh. “Jenny was new to the family, and I was riding her horse, Airwolfe, and since she knew him the most, she would help me. I was not the easiest to teach. I would always make her mad at me before I went in. Jenny jokes about it now, but we really get along great.”

Nick Jr. started with Edrick about seven years ago, after his first job out of the family with Ray Texel. He found the transition from Far West to Texel’s barn fairly smooth.

“The idea of balance in the flatwork was very similar,” said Nick Jr. “But going out and working for someone is different than working for family, even though they’re just as disciplined.”

While Jenny and Kost’s son, Kyle, focused on hockey and golf, daughter Katrina also chose employment with horses and moved to New York for a job with Andre Dignelli at Heritage Farms.

“I’m working really hard and learning a lot,” said Katrina, 22. “Before, I was riding and teaching, and I had the right place and the right family. I think that I was comfortable on the West Coast—it was a little bit too easy. I figured I needed to see what the East Coast was all about.”

“After graduating from college, we all agreed that she needed to get out there, pay her dues and not have the safety net of working for family,” added Jenny. “I’m grateful for the opportunity Heritage Farms is giving her.”

Even the Karazissis family members who leave Far West maintain relationships with their home base, and they’re pleased to have found their own paths into the horse world without any pressure.

“My dad was very supportive at the time when it was either baseball or riding,” said Nick Jr. “He would put on his glove, and we’d go play catch, and he caught as many games as he could. He gave me every opportunity to do whatever I wanted.”

“My parents were really good about not pushing us into it,” agreed Katrina. “I started a little late, but then I became strongly passionate about it.”

Stronger Than The Sum Of Their Parts

Part of Far West’s success has been allowing members of the team to find their individual niches. Though they all do a little of everything, Kost is known as the go-to trainer for jumpers, Jenny specializes in the hunter ring, and Nick mainly focuses on equitation. With Winn running the riding school, preparing kids until they’re ready to buy a horse and move up to AA shows and other family members chipping in, all the bases are covered.

“We really lucked out when Kost married Jenny,” Nick said. “She is such a good rider, and she can get on any horse and make it look good. Kost was so successful in the jumpers, and he would still be riding in grand prix now if not for a few injuries.”

While Nick schools several horses a day when he’s home, he almost never competes anymore. Instead he judges, gives clinics all over the country, serves on numerous U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and U.S. Equestrian Federation committees and is on the Board of Directors at the California Professional Horseman’s Association. He earned the USHJA President’s Distinguished Service Award in 2008 and helped create the “Get Connected” DVD for USEF hunter and equitation clinics.

“It’s a busy schedule,” he said. “Sometimes I kind of shake my head and go, ‘What am I doing?’ But the sport has been so good to our family and so special to so many people, the only way I see being able to keep nurturing all these people is by donating your time and being involved.”

Kost takes some judging jobs as well but spends most of his time on the road with Jenny and the students, going to all the big shows.

“When we’re not on the road, I’ll do the weekend lessons,” he said. “We all do everything. We all contribute. I have so much respect for my brother and his commitment to the sport. My wife is inspirational. She’s not only gifted, but she’s so committed as well, and her passion just rubs off on me.”

In 2010, Jenny earned the HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.) regular working hunter championship on Lucy Stewart’s Sole Heir and Best Professional at Menlo Charity Horse Show (Calif.). She also topped the $10,000 USHJA Hunter Derby on Tonia Cook Looker’s Forbes at the Memorial Day Classic Horse Show (Calif.) and won the $10,000 USHJA Hunter Derby at Blenheim June Classic 1 Horse Show (Calif.) on Star Lane Farms’ Martel.

“In our barn it’s mainly about the students, and they own their own horses,” Jenny said. “Not too many people buy the horse just for me to compete. If I compete on a horse, it’s to prepare the amateur or junior to show it. But I do a lot of catch riding outside our barn, and I’ve been so fortunate to be able to ride so many fabulous horses and go so many great places.”

She also serves on several committees for the USHJA (High Performance Hunter Committee, Hunter Restructure Committee, Open Hunter Task Force, Junior Hunter Task Force Professionals Committee and World Champion Hunter Rider Committee) and the USEF National Hunter Committee.

Far West students have earned top accolades, too. The Karazissis family started international show jumper Ashlee Bond in their riding program. Jamie Taylor, now a professional, rode with Far West as a junior and topped the 2001 Washington International Equitation Final (D.C.), the 2003 USET Talent Search-West (Calif.) and was second in the ASPCA Maclay Finals (N.Y.). Her sister, Katie, also rode at Far West and won the LAHSA Rosewood Medal Final (Calif.) in 2002.

“It was great,” said Katie and Jamie’s mother Beth Taylor, Tarzana, Calif. “They have three main trainers and then a few others, and they all had different styles and pet peeves. The lessons were interesting because they were always a slightly different style. They had a little of everything. It’s a very family-oriented kind of place, and the kids were treated so well. Both Katie and Jamie were so opposite with their personalities, and I really appreciated how they trained them completely differently. If they had trained Jamie the same as Katie, she would have been terrified.”

In 2010, student Molly Peddicord won the THIS National Children’s Medal Final (Md.); Blake Lindsley won the Foxfield Amateur Medal Final (Calif.) and was second in the PCHA Adult Medal Final (Calif.); and Nina Vogel won the SFHJA 12 And Under Medal Final and the CPHA Child-Adult Medal Final.

“It’s fun to think that these kids, even Ashlee, started out in the riding school with Lisa [Winn],” said Jenny. “It’s all a team effort.”

The strong emphasis on teamwork is just one reason Winn enjoys her job at Far West so much.

“For all these years, I’ve never felt like I worked for them. I’ve always felt that I work with them,” she said. “There’s a lot of support and continuity. I feel like they’re my family, and they feel like I’m their family. They’re just good people.”

Category: Lifestyles
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