This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. In April 2012, Rich and Flexible broke a 25-year drought for the United States by winning the World Cup Jumping Final in 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands.
The only thing big about Flexible is his heart."
That is Grand Prix rider Rich Fellers' favorite assessment of the 16-hand Irish Sporthorse with whom he finished second in this past spring's World Cup Jumping Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was the best finish by an American in 20 years, and it turned a third-string long shot into an international star who has since helped the US win the Nations Cup at Spruce Meadows in September and is targeting a trip to Las Vegas in 2009 to prove his 2008 World Cup Finals finish was no fluke.
A big heart is essential for any horse tackling international championship tracks, but Flexible needed it more than most. Prior to his success in Sweden, he came back from two rare and potentially career-killing soundness issues, and two more common conditions that also could have sent this elite athlete into early retirement.
A blocked vein in his right front leg in 2004 and a severely damaged left scapula (shoulder) in 2006 were Flexible's biggest challenges. In the same time frame, he also sustained a mild suspensory injury, which further complicated the yearlong process of diagnosing the blocked vein. His return from the shoulder injury, which involved bone and nerve, was temporarily set back by a torn inferior check ligament.
In both of the unusual cases, Flexible's treating veterinarians were not optimistic that he could jump again, let alone at the highest levels of the sport. Even Rich and his longtime sponsors, Mollie and Harry Chapman, began thinking they'd be lucky if their horse could return to a comfortable life as a breeding stallion.
"But Flexible had other ideas," says Rich. "He is a super-tough horse."
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."
Although Flexible's two biggest problems were extremely rare, each of his rehabilitations hinged on horsemanship qualities every horse owner has access to: time, patience and letting nature take its course.
The Odyssey Begins
Flexible's odyssey began in fall 2004. Rich had purchased him for the Chapmans a year prior from the barn of Irish show jumper Edward Doyle. Flexible had contested the Indoor Show Jumping Championships in Ireland with Edward, then competed successfully with Rich in the States for a year before any problems arose.
Signs first presented themselves while Rich was schooling at home in Wilsonville, Oregon, where he runs Whip 'N Spur Farm with his wife Shelley.
"We'd be working him just normally on the flat for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and all of a sudden he'd go lame," the rider recounts. Rich jumped off and took Flexible into the barn to summon a second pair of eyes. "The first few times it happened, just getting that breather while I found somebody else to watch him was enough to make him go back to work sound." Rich first thought Flexible had merely stepped on something or taken a wrong step. But over the next few weeks, the pattern recurred: perfectly sound at first, but eventually "three-legged lame" after 15 or 20 minutes of exercise.
Rich and the veterinarians treating Flexible were stumped about the source of the lameness. A mild suspensory injury in the same leg was eventually detected, but Flexible's "freakish" symptoms didn't fit that diagnosis. "It was so odd and unusual," Rich recalls. "At the time we were totally confused, and the vets were, too."
The right treatment requires the right diagnosis. Lacking that, Rich relied on common sense. "We didn't want to keep working him if we knew he was going to get sore," the veteran Grand Prix rider explains. They reduced his workload and, for one stretch, confined Flexible to stall rest. "We were trying to give him a chance to recover, but it was clear in retrospect that, as he lost his fitness, conditioning and muscle tone, his body lost the ability to deal with this buildup of pressure from the blocked vein." The less fit he became, the more quickly he would go off after just a bit of exercise.
A year of X-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs failed to reveal the cause. "We were getting a little desperate," admits the rider, adding that Flexible's spirits were even worse. "He had no enthusiasm for anything. He lost his spark and personality, like he had given up." Yet Rich suspects that the same trait that makes Flexible a great jumper, his knack for understanding the job description, also made him a good patient. "He has above-average intelligence. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he understood what was going on when he was in 'lockdown' during the stall rest."
In fall 2005, Rich dropped Flexible off at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Washington, on his way from Oregon to compete at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta. WSU is renowned for lameness evaluation and treatment. After reviewing Flexible's records, professor of equine orthopedic surgery Robert Schneider, DVM, MS, began to suspect a vascular issue. Vein blockages in horses' rear legs are somewhat common and are typically caused by worm larvae that migrate from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream and hinder the heart's ability to pump blood to the hind limbs. But vein problems in horses' front legs are extremely rare and would not be related to worms. "He's the only horse I've ever seen with this vascular problem," Dr. Schneider notes.
Exploring uncharted territory, Dr. Schneider used a fluoroscan to do a "contrast venogram," a procedure in which dye is injected into the bloodstream and its progress is monitored as it moves through the body. As the dye traveled through both of Flexible's front legs, the vein in his right leg taking blood back to his heart swelled to nearly three times the size of its left counterpart. Dr. Schneider estimates that flow in this vein was reduced to 30 percent of normal. It became clear that, as Flexible exercised, the subsequent increase in blood flow hit a major roadblock while traveling up the right leg. The procedure did not reveal the cause of the blockage, but it did pinpoint it high in the leg, inside and just above the elbow. Dr. Schneider believes a malfunctioning valve in the vein was to blame.
The rare diagnosis required a rare solution: angioplasty. Commonly performed on humans for blocked arteries, angioplasty uses small balloons, inserted into the vein, then inflated to stretch the constricted segment. Dr. Schneider has been an orthopedic veterinary surgeon for 30 years and had never seen a single case report of using angioplasty on horses. He credits Lynne Nelson, DVM, a veterinary cardiologist at WSU, for applying her experience with the procedure on small animals to Flexible's case. After consulting with other veterinarians and doctors familiar with angioplasty in humans, and doing the procedure on one of the university's teaching horses, Drs. Schneider and Nelson gave it a go on the show jumper.
Dr. Schneider wasn't confident angioplasty would work or prevent a recurrence. Because the problem had persisted for so long—an entire year—the veterinarian was relatively sure it was not going to resolve itself. Angioplasty seemed likely to "at least help and was worth a try," he says. "Any time you do something only once, it's hard to know what will happen." Three-plus years out, Dr. Schneider believes it's unlikely the blockage will recur, even though reduced blood flow in that leg remains evident in the form of swollen veins after exercise.
Maintaining light blood flow was the key to the first phases of Flexible's rehabilitation. He stayed in very modest exercise at WSU for a few weeks then returned to Whip 'N Spur, where he started with two-minute walks on the exerciser. "He was so unfit," Rich recalls. "But he made it for two minutes on the walker without limping. It sounds crazy, but it was pretty exciting!"
Next came the addition of brief turnouts in a small grass paddock. Dr. Schneider directed Rich to "let Flexible control his exercise according to the pain he feels." As the horse's fitness returned, so did his emotional energy and Rich balanced that with a sedative to prevent the horse from getting carried away.
Back at WSU, Dr. Schneider sought a surgical way to prevent a recurrence. As Flexible's energy, enthusiasm and fitness progressed every day, however, that idea faded. The short walks advanced to short workouts under saddle, then longer flat sessions and on to light jumping. By March 2006, Flexible was in Indio, California, campaigning in Training Jumpers. By that summer, he won a 1.45-meter class at Spruce Meadows.
On The Rocks
With Flexible back and star stablemate McGuinness at his peak, the Whip 'N Spur team trekked cross-country to contest the HITS circuit in Saugerties, New York. After a successful show, Rich and his wife headed home a few days before the horses, who were stabled at a farm in Brewster, New York. On a quiet Monday with only the Fellers' barn manager Robyn Zollner on hand, Flexible was turned out in a small pasture.
As is standard operating procedure at home in Oregon, Robyn brought another horse, Kettle One, to graze near Flexible's paddock. "We never leave horses out alone," explains Rich. "It prevents them from getting lonely and screaming and running around."
The plan backfired this time. Kettle One spooked at something, got away from Robyn and galloped down the driveway toward a major highway. Rightly, Robyn ran after Kettle One. When she returned with the runaway mare, Flexible stood on three legs, no weight on his left fore and covered in cuts and mud. Rich surmises that Flexible ran into a creek at the bottom of the hillside pasture, where he scrambled on rocks and boulders.
Diagnostic ultrasound at a nearby veterinary clinic indicated a fractured scapula. Flexible stayed in New York, confined to stall rest. To make matters worse, within three weeks of the already dire diagnosis, the muscles surrounding Flexible's left shoulder showed signs of extreme atrophy. The fear was that the suprascapular nerve had been damaged, meaning that no nerve impulses were getting to the muscles in that area. This condition, called "Sweeney Shoulder," can result in permanent muscle atrophy throughout the shoulder area. It is rare, difficult to definitively diagnose and certainly not good news in any horse, let alone an international jumper.
After a month, Flexible was stable enough to fly home to Oregon. Regular ultrasounds revealed that the scapula was healing, but the status of the nerve remained a mystery. "In some horses, it repairs itself and in others, it doesn't," Rich relays. Happily, Flexible proved to be in the former category.
Located close to the Fellers' farm, Dr. Revenaugh's Northwest Equine Performance offers many forms of high-tech diagnostic and therapeutic technology. Yet it was good, old-fashioned horsemanship and judgment that carried the day.
"Every time we started talking about doing some interventional therapy, the horse was steadily getting better without it," notes Dr. Revenaugh. Shockwave and other physical therapies were considered, then ruled out for fear that the treatment's potential benefit of accelerating the healing process might not outweigh the risk of further damaging the nerve. Rest, cold therapy and topical, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories aided Flexible's recovery. "What we were going after more than anything was to reduce the nerve swelling," Dr. Revenaugh explains. "If the inflammation is allowed to go on indefinitely, there is the potential for permanent loss of nerve function."
"As a veterinarian, you love to think you are able to fix all these things, but really the best we can do is set the stage for the horse to fix itself," continues the FEI veterinarian. "That means giving it time."
Nature worked relatively fast to heal the bone and nerve damage in Flexible's shoulder. Rich describes Flexible as "out of it" through the late fall and early winter 2006, but the horse was ready to return to work in time to re-enter the Grand Prix ranks on the California circuit the following spring.
As in the first major recovery, "slow and gradual" were Rich's watchwords in returning Flexible to work. He was sound from the get-go and stayed that way until waylaid yet again by an inferior check ligament tear. This ligament joins the deep digital flexor tendon at mid-cannon bone and helps prevent the tendon from overflexing when the fetlock and coffin joint are fully extended. The tear was detected early and confirmed by a high-resolution diagnostic ultrasound. Managing the inflammation and a slight shoeing change that elevated Flexible's heel to lighten the ligament's load were the main treatments, followed by months of hand-walking then the now-familiar gradual build back to fitness.
Dr. Revenaugh describes Rich and Shelley Fellers as consummate horsemen. "Patience is hard, especially when you have a really nice horse like this and you keep having one frustrating episode after another."
"Flexible has defied a lot of real negative long-term predictions," says Rich. "The biggest thing I've learned is that you have to have patience and maintain a positive attitude. If you jump on the shortcut bandwagon to get back into the competitive arena, it usually doesn't last. It's better to wait it out."
The approach has paid off in the form of a happy, healthy horse, and his growing sum of successes has been icing on the cake. The summer of 2007 marked the start of Flexible's current comeback. Top placings at big classes against some of the world's best in Spruce Meadows inspired Rich to aim Flexible at a World Cup qualifier last November in Los Angeles. The decision was aided by the fact that his first- and second-string horses, McGuinness and Gyro, were out of commission at the time.
With a ride Rich describes as "a bouncy ball with an explosive jump," Flexible gave his rider a big win in Los Angeles and a big idea. "I was pleased, of course, and also a bit surprised. He's not a big super-scopey horse, but he is very brave and he's a 'tryer.' I knew he wasn't experienced enough for the Olympic Selection Trials, but I thought, 'Well, maybe he would be up for the World Cup Finals.' Flexible is the kind of horse that you just don't know what he can do until you try."
The rest is history. The pair went on to win another three World Cup qualifiers, all at the HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, California, in the winter and early spring of 2008, then headed to Sweden for the Finals in April. They'd handily won the West Coast league but, against the world's best, were definite underdogs. Rich initially hoped just to be competitive. When Flexible jumped clear and fast effortlessly for a fourth-place finish in the Final's opening speed round, the rider raised his sights. After just one rail in the jumpoff in notoriously tough designer Rolf Ludi's bigger, wider and technically exacting course on Friday, Rich fixed his eyes on the Final's big silver chalice. One rail on the finale's first round and a clear in the second put them in world-class company behind only the winner, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. "Every time I asked him to go higher and go wider, he just kept saying OK," the rider reflects.
Going into the run for next year's Finals, Rich says Flexible is jumping better than ever. "At the World Cup, he was trying so hard he kind of looked a little freaky. Now his jumping looks so much easier. He has a nicer, more consistently round shape over every fence." Flatwork aimed at better ridability between fences is the source of much of Flexible's improved form. "It's something that all upper-level show-jumping riders school for and it's a good sign that the horse is maturing in a good way." It's a good sign, too, that the ghosts of Flexible's injuries won't haunt him in the hunt for new international victories.