Showjumping’s “comeback king” Flexible dies at 25

Longtime partners and perennial crowd favorites Rich Fellers (USA) and Flexible claimed victory at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League qualifier at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia, on Sunday.
Rich Fellers and Flexible winning the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League qualifier at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, British Columbia, in 2015. © FEI/Rebecca Berry

Leading showjumping stallion Flexible has died in Oregon at the age of 25. His rider, Rich Fellers, announced his passing this week, saying that he died on August 23 of “natural causes in his sunny paddock”.

Flexible was still in work and occasionally jumped, “which he loved”.

“He was a once in a lifetime horse who taught us all so many life lessons and brought so much joy to our family and everyone around him. Will forever miss you and carry you in our hearts sweet boy,” Fellers said.

Over his long career he suffered three major health issues that could have been career-ending. But despite these setbacks, the Irish bred stallion kept coming back. He and Fellers ended a 25-year drought for the US in showjumping’s World Cup, taking out the 2012 FEI World Cup Jumping Final in The Netherlands. That same year, at the age of 16, Flexible finished eighth individually at the London 2012 Olympics. He was also named US International Horse of the Year for 2012 by the US Equestrian Federation.

Bred in Ireland by Edward and Catherine Doyle, and by the famous Irish Sport Horse stallion Cruising, the first of Flexible’s three career-ending issues began in the fall of 2003, when he was seven. “He started going very lame on his right front about 15-20 minutes into a ride. After a few minutes of rest he would be sound again. Needless to say, there were many different diagnoses from different vets. As he lost fitness over time the issue became more severe,” Fellers said.

It was discovered that there was a blockage in the main vein that drained blood out of his right front leg. An angioplasty on Flexible’s vein was carried out “with little hope that it would help”. But after a few months of rest, he was able to start back into work.

The next major injury occurred in mid-2005. After competing successfully in Calgary at Spruce Meadows, Flexible went to New York for two weeks of competition. During a rest week at Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, Flexible fractured his left scapula in a grass paddock. He remained there for about six weeks until he was sound enough to load on a trailer and airplane to fly home.

This injury caused Flexible’s left side shoulder muscles to atrophy. Diagnostic work revealed damage to his Supra-scapular nerve. He had a condition known as “Sweeney Shoulder”

Speed class runners-up, Rich Fellers and Flexible for the USA.
Rich Fellers and Flexible in 2015. © FEI/Dirk Caremans

“In rare cases the nerve repairs itself and the horse recovers. Most cases the horse is a cripple for life. You know the outcome,” Fellers said.

In mid-2013, when Flexible was 17, he started going very lame on his right hind leg 5 to 10 minutes into a ride but was perfectly sound after rest. The lameness was similar to that of the vascular blockage issue Flexible overcame 10 years earlier, but this time it was clotted arteries in his right hind leg. The treatment this time was daily Warfarin, to halt the clotting process.

In 2014, Flexible was presented with the Grayson Comeback Award.

Flexible was retired from competition on May 6, 2017, at the age of 21. He had been owned by Harrie and Molly Chapman for his competition career, but after retirement ownership changed to Rich Fellers Stables, where he lived out his days.

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