Olympian and FEI World Cup™ Final winner Flexible thrives on routine. The 19-year-old
stallion is always suspicious of new things, but he's developed trust in his rider, Rich Fellers, and the barn staff. “He’s a little bit quirky,” says Rich, “but he’s a really intelligent horse. He figures things out. I think that’s why he’s been so successful.”
Flexible's behind-the-scenes support team works to keep him happy and in top condition. Here's a look at his care routine and the changes that have been made as Flexible has gotten older.
Occupation: Show jumper
Hometown: Wilsonville, Oregon
Breed: Irish Sporthorse
Height: 16 hands
Owners: Mollie and Harry Chapman
Rider: Rich Fellers
Groom/exercise rider: Michelle Negra
Major accomplishments: Flexible was the top-placed American jumper (eighth individually) in the 2012 Olympics and the first American horse to win the World CupTM Final in 25 years. He did the latter in the Netherlands, in 2012, one of the seven World Cup Finals he has competed in to date. That same year, USEF named him its International Horse of the Year. The stallion was a member of the winning U.S. Nations Cup teams at the Spruce Meadows Masters in 2008 and 2010 as well as the individual winner of countless other major grands prix over his long career. Still going strong at 19, he won last year’s $126,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ North American League qualifier at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia.
Background: Irish show jumper Edward Doyle and his wife, Catherine, bred and raised Flexible. Edward competed him in the Irish Show Jumping Championships before Rich purchased him for the Chapmans in 2003. The talented young stallion arrived in the States with several challenging behaviors. “He was super suspicious of any new people,” says Rich. “You couldn’t get a hand on him in the stall. He’d dodge around you. And he was very sensitive about having his legs touched, especially his right hind. He was also very difficult to mount. If you didn’t move slowly and carefully, he’d back up, run away or buck. He probably would not have been a successful Junior/Amateur horse, but that also might be why he’s such a careful jumper.”
Over the years, Flexi has survived multiple serious injuries from which experts didn’t expect him to recover. He suffered a blocked vein in his right foreleg in 2004, a severely damaged left scapula (shoulder bone) in 2006 and major blood clots in his right hind leg in August 2013. After overcoming all of them, says Rich, “we never looked back.” Flexible still competes in 17 to 20 shows a year and his jumping form remains excellent at age 19. “He has less strength and endurance, but his form is incredible!” As he’s aged, however, Rich has stopped giving him a long break in the off-season. “As with any older person, it’s difficult to start from scratch, to get his endurance, strength and stamina back up. So a few years back, I started keeping him in work year-round.”
Daily routine: Part of Flexi’s new fitness program is twice-daily rides, five days a week. Rich rides him first in the morning, doing flatwork primarily. Flexi is so experienced now that he rarely needs to jump at home. In the afternoon, Rich or one of his exercise riders takes him out for another ride, usually walking and trotting up and down hills behind the farm. “We’re really lucky,” he says. “Our neighbor has hundreds of acres and he mows trails for us to use.”
In between his rides, Flexi goes out in his paddock. “I learned a long time ago to only turn horses out after they’ve been ridden. That way, their bodies are warmed up, they’re more relaxed and even a little fatigued. So they’re less likely to run around and get hurt. We also irrigate our pastures so they have green grass. All our horses just put their heads down and eat.”
One day a week, Flexi goes on the Eurowalker before being turned out. On his day off, he is simply turned out.
Both under saddle and around the barn, Flexi is still sensitive to sudden, brusque movements. “If he has a bad experience, he can be switched off for a long time,” says Rich, “You have to stick to the routine and earn his trust. He likes to be groomed, but you can’t do anything real quick around him.”
Flexi wears Ice Horse® wraps after jumping, but the only time he wears stable wraps is after jumping at a show.
Having a breeding stallion in a show barn has a few added challenges. Flexi has semen collected only during the off-season, but Rich has to be the one who takes him to the collection station. He explains, “He’s high energy and can be a bit dangerous.” At home, the staff is careful to put him in crossties in the corner of the barn where other horses won’t walk by him. “He’s very talkative,” adds Rich. “He nickers and neighs all the time to all the horses, especially mares. But I never punish him for that so long as he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. And I do not allow any of my staff to punish him for that.”
Nutrition: When Flexi was 18, his stamina began to fade. “I couldn’t get two good classes out of him at a show, even with a day or two of rest in between,” says Rich, who toured Purina’s factory in St. Louis, Missouri, that year, which introduced him to two new products. The first is SuperSport™, an amino-acid supplement for muscle performance and recovery. Rich also switched Flexi to Purina’s Ultium® Competition Horse Formula. “It provides more energy, more calories and less bulk for super-high-performance horses.” The combined effect on Flexi’s performance has “been unreal. He got younger by two or three years. He’s raring to go, full of energy. He’s been jumping two good classes at every show, and the bigger class, his second class, is his best class now.”
The stallion receives two grain meals a day along with an oral joint supplement called Conquer®, and two meals of orchard grass hay.
Other care: Flexi has received a blood thinner since his blood clots in 2013. He only goes off it the week before the jog of an FEI (International Equestrian Federation) competition because it is not a permitted drug. A few days before the jog, he gets a daily aspirin dose to support his circulatory system throughout the competition. On the last night of the competition, he goes back on the blood thinner.
Last summer, for the first time ever, Flexi began overreaching at shows, cutting his front pasterns and heels with his hind feet. Rich thinks he is compensating for his lack of strength, brought on by older age. “He tries so hard.” To protect the right areas on his front legs, Rich found a special bell boot made by Acavallo® that fits tightly over his heels like a glove. His farrier also set his hind shoes a little farther back on his feet to speed up the breakover and shortened the heel ends of his front shoes to keep Flexi from pulling them off.
Competing at the elite level on the West Coast requires significant travel time. Besides his occasional trips across the country and internationally, Flexi’s regular trips to shows are as long as 19 hours each. “We break them up with a layover so the first day is nine hours and the second is seven to 10. The longest we’ll do in one day is 12 hours.” The stallion doesn’t receive any special treatments, such as anti-colic medication. “He’s a drinking fool,” says Rich. “He can drink two and a half buckets at a single rest stop.” His team did have to stop haltering and tying him on the trailer, however, because he had a habit of removing his halter en route. “We don’t know how he gets it off. He finishes the hay in his hay bag and then pulls off his halter so he can get the hay that fell on the ground. So his slot is always the cleanest one when we arrive at the show.”
Otherwise, Flexi receives significantly fewer therapeutic treatments than the typical international-level equine star. “No massage, no chiropractor, no acupuncture,” says Rich. “As a top show veterinarian once told me, the best thing we can do is put the horse away and let him rest.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.