If you follow show jumping to even the slightest degree, you have probably heard mention of a little chestnut stallion named Flexible.
Ridden by American veteran Rich Fellers, Flexible has an incredible resume that includes countless Grand Prix wins, an individual 8th at the London Olympics, champion of the 2012 Rolex FEI World Cup Final, and 2012 USEF International Horse of the Year.
When that big white blaze enters the ring there is often chatter amongst the crowd, excited whispers circulate as everyone is pulled onto their toes in anticipation. Rails are few and far between as he bounces around the ring, eating up the ground, and soaring over the massive fences with ease. There have been tournaments where Flexible has not dropped a rail, and many place him within the same category as the late Hickstead – both small in stature, but large in heart, and both capable of winning any class in the world. In fact, one of the most exciting classes I ever witnessed came down to a duel between small chestnut and bay stallions – both of them stood out from the crowd within a league of their own.
What you may not know, or may only know pieces of, is Flexible’s journey outside of the ring, and the trials and tribulations that he has had to overcome. Far from smooth sailing, Flexible and his team have had to fight heartbreak and work beat the odds time and time again. To learn more about this journey, along with some other fun facts about show jumping’s “Comeback King”, I caught-up with Rich during the last week of competition at the 2014 Spruce Meadows Summer Series where he graciously took the time to tell me Flexible’s story, and answer other questions that I had. Incredibly down to earth and friendly, Rich was a pleasure to speak with, and I cannot thank him enough for taking a pause within his busy day to speak with me. Many thanks also go out to his team who were friendly, accommodating, and quick to get Flexible ready for photos just for us!
Three career ending injuries couldn’t keep him down.
Having been a Horse Junkie for a longtime, I first read about Flexible in an issue of Practical Horseman years ago. In the article they spoke of his first two major injuries (this was long before the third occurred), and how the team had to rally to bring him back + the luck they required. Maybe this is what first got me really interested in Flexible, but I have had a special spot for him in my heart ever since. Therefore, I was very excited to speak to Rich firsthand, and luckily for us, he is a fabulous storyteller.
Back when Flexible was 7, he was just beginning his career in the 1.40m ring. Jumping well through the beginning of the Spruce Meadows Summer Series, he went home for two weeks for a rest before returning to finish the circuit. While working at home one day, Rich had him out in the grass field for about 20-25 minutes and all of a sudden he went very lame. This issue persisted with less and less time between starting work and the onset of severe lameness- poor Flexible was stopped in his tracks. After a frustrating year of searching for a diagnosis, it was finally discovered that Flexi was suffering from a vascular blockage in his right front leg. Basically, the blood could flow down into the leg, but was being blocked on its way back up. Angioplasty was performed (just like in humans!), but his prognosis still wasn’t good- hopefully he would be comfortable enough to retire and breed.
Luckily for Flexible, his people would not give-up on him. He gradually began to improve working on a walker, and amazingly, they never looked back. Unfortunately though, that wouldn’t be the only bump in Flexible’s road…
With the vascular issue seemingly behind them, Rich and Flexible were back jumping at the big shows, and decided to go to Saugerties for the new HITS classes. Arriving at a farm for a bit of a layover, the staff wanted to ensure the horses still got time on grass, so they would allow one horse to go free in the available paddock while they hand grazed another close by. One day when it was Flexible’s turn in the paddock, the horse that was being hand grazed managed to get away. Since the horse was heading towards a highway, the groom smartly went after it, leaving Flexible alone in the paddock. After catching the horse and returning up the hill, it was immediately seen that Flexi was scrapped up, covered in dirt, and on three legs. It was deduced that in his panic of being left alone, Flexi was likely running the paddock and failed to notice the big rock-lined ravine that was there to collect water runoff. The poor guy probably fell right into it.
Flexible was immediately taken to the vet where it was found that he had fractured his scapula. If the fracture itself isn’t bad enough, there is a nerve that runs over-top of the scapula that, if injured, stops feeding the muscles in that shoulder, leading to muscle atrophy and a condition called shoulder sweeney. Unfortunately, upon taking Flexible home, it was noticed that he was losing all muscle in that shoulder – things were looking bleak.
Hoping that Flexible could at least remain sound enough to retire and breed, plans were set in motion to possible send him back to Ireland for this purpose. It was during that time that, miraculously, they began to notice some improvement in muscle tone… Flexible wasn’t done fighting yet. Back on the walker, he steadily improved and, as they say, the rest is history. He would go on to become the horse that we all know and love- multiple GP winner, World Cup Champion, Flexible.
This is the injury that I knew very little about. Excitedly watching Flexible through the first part of the summer series last year, I was concerned when he didn’t return after the ‘Continental’ tournament. Where was he? Did something happen? Did they retire him? I thought he was jumping pretty well? Confusion set in.
Well, the poor guy was inflicted with yet his third career ending injury. How much can one horse take?!
This time, much like the first, it was another vascular problem. Presenting the same pattern of lameness, but this time in his right hind with quicker onset, the team immediately recognized what was likely happening. Using ultra sound, the vets found significant clotting within the arteries that was not allowing proper blood flow. The poor guy just couldn’t stop winning the lottery for bad luck.
Although a 5 hour surgery to try and clear out the arteries was suggested as Flexible’s best hope to be able to retire comfortably, his team was not willing to lay him down for that long since a) only about 50% of the clots were accessible and b) although young at heart, Flexible was 17. Therefore, they decided to go the route of blood thinners, something that wasn’t likely to solve the problem, but should stop the clots from getting larger.
“In my mind with this horse I was like, I don’t think so, he’s not finished, there’s got to be a way… We all agreed that we can’t give-up on this horse, he has defied the odds so many times and there is no reason that he can’t do it again.” -Rich Fellers
With that mindset, the team went back to the walker and rode him for very short periods of time. Miraculously, Flexible began to improve to the point that he was galloping and ready to jump by the end of October. Returning to competition at the end of November, Flexible was taken off of all of his blood thinners in order to be FEI legal. Jumping a decent round overall, he began to feel stiff towards the end, and cramped up afterwards. Realizing that he still needed some help, they put him on some aspirin (USEF legal), and he proceeded to jump a super speed class a few days later.
Heading down to Thermal in early 2014, the dream was that Flexible would jump a few GP classes and, if everything went well, jump the million.
“He jumped that and he jumped a fabulous clear round, and I think we all cried together after…” -Rich Fellers
Afterwards Flexible was taken back to the vets where the clots were reevaluated. Amazingly, 60-70% of the clots had vanished, leaving the “Comeback King” good to go full throttle ahead. Now, in order to be FEI legal, he is kept on blood thinners at home, but is taken off of them 7 days out from competition. Fans can rejoice though, their little stallion is back.
As a horse owner myself, and especially with a horse that has faced many road blocks and is unfortunately currently facing a pretty big one, I find Flexible’s story incredibly touching and inspirational. The horse was diagnosed with three, THREE, career ending injuries and at 18 has beat them all and comeback to jump with the best in the world. It actually brings tears to my eyes when I really think about it, and I give tremendous credit to his entire team for never giving up on him. He really is something special, and absolutely deserves all the recognition that he can get.
For those of you who would like more details, here is the interview with Rich:
Since this post is getting very long and I don’t want to detract from any of the details, keep your eyes peeled for a much lighter part two where we talk about Flexible’s quirks, his care routine, his future plans, and more.