California Riding Magazine • June, 2012

Horse Of The Month: Flexible
World Cup Finals winner
just keeps getting better.

by Kim F. Miller

"Horse Of The Month" doesn't do justice to the 16 hh Irish Sporthorse that won the World Cup Show Jumping Finals in late April. "Horse of the Year" is a better description, even though 2012 is not half over and "Horse Of The Century" is not out of the question. Certainly, Flexible's rider, Rich Fellers, would describe him as a "horse of a lifetime."

And he's not done yet. After becoming the first Americans to win a World Cup Final in 25 years, Rich and Flexible rested just briefly before heading to the Del Mar National the first weekend of May. There they won both the big classes. The $50,000 Surfside Grand Prix, presented by ShowBiz Magazine, and the $100,000 Hermes Grand Prix, were both observation events for horse/rider pairs on the USET's list of riders in contention for a spot on the London Olympics jumping squad. Flexible finished Florida's grueling four-round selection trials in a three-way tie for third, and was placed seventh on the USET's ranking, before the World Cup Finals and the Del Mar wins.

Rich said they will tackle a final observation event this month at Spruce Meadows. It is hard to imagine the Olympic selectors could find a more prepared pair.

Photo: Cheval Photos

Flexible debuted on the world stage in 2008, when he and Rich finished reserve in the World Cup Finals. At 16, Flexible was the oldest horse contesting the World Cup Finals this year but Rich often says that he "just keeps getting better." They competed in every World Cup Final from 2008 on and, in between, have won Grands Prix up and down the West Coast.

It's a remarkable career for any horse and especially so for one that suffered two freak injuries and two more common, but still serious lamenesses. Any one of them could have sent a mere mortal equine into early retirement, but Flexible miraculously put them behind him.
In 2004, Flexible sustained a blocked vein in his front right leg. The extremely rare condition took a year to diagnose, but once treated, with angioplasty, he bounced right back. In 2006, however a freak pasture incident left the feisty competitor with a severely damaged left scapula. In the same two-year time frame, the stallion sustained a mild suspensory injury, which complicated the effort to diagnose the blocked vein. And his recovery from the shoulder injury was slowed by a torn inferior check ligament.

More Than Remarkable

The horse's recoveries are "more than remarkable," observes Mark Revenaugh, DVM, the many-time USET veterinarian who began treating Flexible after the vein blockage was resolved. "To me it illustrates how a horse, if treated and managed appropriately, can go on and do remarkable things. In each case, his recoveries are a testament to persistence and good, basic horsemanship."
Aside from the use of angioplasty to stretch out the blocked vein, the bulk of Flexible's recoveries were achieved through traditional techniques. Patience was chief among them. While recovering at Rich and Shelley Fellers' Whip N'Spur Farm in Wilsonville, OR, the Fellers and Flexible's owners, Harry and Mollie Chapman, never pressed for a speedy return to work.

The vein issue arose in the fall of 2004, roughly a year after Fellers had found the Cruising son in Ireland. Flexible would begin his work-outs totally sound, but within 15 or 20 minutes of flat work, he "became three-legged lame," Rich explains. Several times, Rich would jump off and lead Flexible back to the barn to get another person to watch him. Usually that little break enabled Flexible to resume work with a sound gait. The odd phenomenon continued and defied many attempts at a diagnosis.

A year later, Rich took Flexible to the Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, WA. The school is well known for lameness evaluation and treatment. Robert Schneider, DVM, MS and professor of equine orthopedic surgery, studied the case and suspected a vascular problem. Using dye injected in the bloodstream, tests revealed that the right leg vein taking blood back to Flexible's heart was reduced to approximately 30 percent of normal. The increased blood flow from exercise made the problem worse.

It was the first such vascular problem Dr. Schneider had ever seen in a horse. Which made it difficult to know how to treat it. A WSU veterinary cardiologist, Lynne Nelson, DVM, had used angioplasty on small animals and suggested it for Flexible. Given that the issue had not resolved itself in a full year, the veterinarians thought it was worth a try. Seven years and multiple Grand Prix wins later, the results speak for themselves.

Rich recalls that he and his staff were nervous when it came time to gradually return Flexible to work and fitness. But with each increase in carefully-monitored activity, the little horse showed no signs of recurrence. Miraculously, he returned to the show ring in March of 2006, and won a 1.45 meter class at Spruce Meadows that summer. The rest, of course, is history. His right leg will swell up a bit, but he's been sound and sturdy as a plow horse.

Flexible's physical recoveries are only part of his story. Rich describes him as a super smart horse who knows his job and wants to excel at it.

"He's smarter in the little, subtle ways that he can stay off the rails," Rich said a year before their big win in the Netherlands this year. "He has a clear understanding of the sport's objectives, and he's gotten more efficient in his jumping efforts. From the speed aspect, he's more maneuverable. He's looking through the turns and anticipating things and getting simpler for me to ride."

At nearly a decade together, the horse/rider partnership is one of the longest running in the sport. As Rich put it to reporters after their most recent tremendous win: "I love him and he loves me."