Like many before her, Kirsten Fada followed her dream to California, the place where she could learn new skills, take advantage of new opportunities and socialize with the rich and famous.
However, instead of Hollywood, the 2008 Elyria graduate set up shop in Coalinga, 60 miles outside of Fresno, and when she meets a new neighbor she’s more likely to offer a snack of fresh carrots than ask for an autograph.
Fada is an exercise rider at the Harris Horse Farm and Ranch and her new famous neighbor is Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.
Fada’s love affair with horses began when she was a small child.
“When I was really little I remember I always had an interest in horses,” Fada said. “I think I spent all of my parents’ money on pony rides at the Lorain County Fair too many times.”
Fada went from fair pony rides to actual riding lessons, showing horses and giving riding lessons to others. Since Feb. 10, she’s been one of four exercise riders at the Harris Horse Farm teaching 150 1- and 2-year-old horses how to gallop as they prepare for a career in thoroughbred racing.
The same training California Chrome received two years ago from Fada’s boss, head trainer Per Antonsen.
“I’ve learned so much since I got out here,” Fada said. “Even though I’ve been riding my entire life, this is an entirely different ballgame.”
Fada was involved in gymnastics and baseball as a child and ran two years of cross country in high school, but by her teenage years she knew her future had to involve horses.
“By my sophomore year in high school I had pretty much dedicated myself to the horses,” she said. “I was traveling to shows and I started working at the Crazy W Farm, in Elyria, where I kept my horses. They also have a multiple breed dog rescue there as well. So I spent most of my time there working with my horses or the dogs. I was always there.”
After graduation, Fada took some courses at Lorain County Community College before finally deciding to dedicate herself to her dream.
“I was working at Carra Farm in Columbia Station giving riding lessons and a woman there told me she had a friend who had racehorses at Thistledown,” Fada said. “I had never done anything with racehorses so I started spending a lot of time out there. It was really interesting to me because it was totally different than anything I had ever known.”
Fada quickly adapted to the racing side of the horse industry and after working at Thistledown for two seasons she followed the racing circuit down to now-closed Beulah Park and then to Churchill Downs — site of the Kentucky Derby — Indiana Downs and eventually Ocala, Fla., before landing at Harris.
“Horses are where I find my happiness,” Fada said. “Working with horses is almost therapeutic for me. Every horse is unique. So with every horse you experience different things.”
“Some horses might be scared. Some are more dominant and pushy, they all have a different personality,” she said. “It’s a constant learning process. That’s why I’ve bounced around to different disciplines.”
Until last month, Fada had never worked with a horse that was also one of America’s biggest celebrities. Less than two weeks after finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome, winner of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, returned home to where he learned to race.
“It was incredible when he got off the van,” Fada said. “Everyone was cheering and shouting, ‘Welcome home.’ Everyone who works here was so proud of him.”
Fada said it took a while for California Chrome to adjust to the peaceful surrounding of the farm after living life in the spotlight for the better part of a year.
“He wasn’t sure about things at first,” she said. “He had to check everything out again. He was looking around, looking at all of the other horses. There was a lot for him to remember here but eventually he settled into a stall and he’s slowing acclimating to the surroundings.”
Fada said California Chrome will stay at the Harris Horse Ranch until the end of this month. Then he will travel to Los Alamitos Race Track in southern California where he will begin training for his next race, which is expected to be the Breeders Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park.
Until then, Fada and California Chrome get to hang out together.
“He has a groom that works with him but I come down and spend time with him every day,” she said. “He’s used to receiving a lot of attention. I think he was a little bored at first but he’s getting adjusted to the pace of life here again. He really enjoys having visitors.”
Much like the horses they train, the life of an exercise rider often involves traveling from track to track, always adjusting to new surroundings. Fada doesn’t know where the horse industry will take her next but she’s prepared for whatever the future may bring.
“I’m happiest in the farm-type setting so I think I would like to have a farm of my own,” Fada said. “What type of horses I want to have, I really haven’t made up my mind. I really enjoy working with kids and giving riding lessons and seeing the kids progress.”
It’s what she’s always wanted to do.
“Horses are my happiness and this is my dream,” Fada said. “I’m going to go all out for it now. I’m not the type of person who was going to wait until they’re 50 years old to pursue their dream.”
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or email@example.com.