Walking into the barn, you might not look twice at Flexible if you didn’t know who he was. His 16 hands looks even smaller standing next to him than it does when you see him canter into the ring. He doesn’t have an overpowering presence. He doesn’t scream “Rolex FEI World Cup winner.” But he is.
One can say the same about Rich Fellers. There’s no swagger to him denoting “I’m a famous Olympic rider.” His quiet yet warm personality doesn’t lend itself to boasting and he always seems a bit surprised when he’s the center of attention. But he’s become quite a star, both at home and abroad.
At Fellers’ home base at Whip N Spur, Flexible lives in a simple barn with tanbark and cement floors; there’s no brass or polished wood to be seen. Brushes are stored in milk crates hanging on the wall of the grooming stall. It’s simple—but workmanlike and neat as a pin. Fellers and his wife Shelley help tack up and untack their horses, and work easily together to organize the day while discussing each horse.
Flexible’s shoes get pulled for a few months in the winter, and when flatting in the indoor, he and Fellers make way for the small pony schooling over jumps. Judging by appearances, they’re like any other horse-and-rider combination. But they’re not.
Together, this mostly self-taught rider who has consistently prioritized his family life over his riding career and the little Irish-bred stallion who came back from two possibly career-ending injuries conquered the world. They were the first U.S. combination to top the FEI World Cup Final since 1987, and they followed that victory up with the highest U.S. individual placing—eighth—at the London Olympic Games. They also won six grand prix classes on the way.
“I don’t anticipate I’ll have another year like that, with Flexible or with any horse. If I do, that would certainly be special, but I’ve been around long enough and I’ve seen enough great riders and horses to know that putting together a string of results like that horse did is remarkable,” Fellers said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen again, so I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life.”
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Perseverance And Dedication
Rich grew up riding an Appaloosa and cut his teeth in the grand prix ring on off-the-track Thoroughbreds (see sidebar). The support of the Chapmans as owners has been essential for Rich and Shelley. “Neither of us came from wealthy families, so we had to have the backing,” Shelley said.
“Harry and Mollie have had the trust and confidence over the years to supply us with horses,” said Rich, who has returned the favor with hard work and many top wins on Chapman-owned horses, including Flexible.
Along the way, Rich based his program on wisdom learned during yearly clinics with George Morris. He’s been a faithful student for more than 40 years, taking notes at each clinic and putting them into practice all year long. “He has adhered to my philosophy of the forward seat,” Morris said. “He exemplifies it. And he has always, even way before I met him, been a winner. Whatever horse he’s been on, he’s been a winner.”
Rich’s ascent to the top of the sport is all the more remarkable because he and Shelley made a conscious decision to put family first over their competitive goals. “Rich would skip the Olympics for his family; that’s how family-oriented he is, in a nice way,” Morris said. In the late 80s, Morris brought Rich to Florida for the winter and offered him a job riding at Morris’ famed Hunterdon. Rich said no; he wanted to raise a family in the Northwest.
As he looks back at 2012, Rich sees that all the hard work, years climbing the ranks and difficult decisions were worthwhile. “It is very gratifying,” he said. “I hope that it’s inspiring and motivational to young people in the sport who don’t have millions of dollars behind them to help them get the finest professional training and ride the fanciest horses. There’s something to be said for hard work, perseverance and dedication.”
All of those qualities stood Rich in good stead when Flexible came into his life in 2002 as a 6-year-old. Flexible was bred to win, with both his sire and dam as top grand prix horses in Ireland, but his small stature put some buyers off, and he wasn’t an easy horse to train.
“He had a lot of fire and a lot of energy. He was difficult, but he was a jumping fool. It was tough to get him broke and rideable on the flat and over fences, but regardless of how you’d meet the jump, he’d find a way to get up and over. His jump kept me going with him,” said Fellers.
“Of course, then we got him home and we looked at him and said to each other, ‘Is he smaller than we remember?’ “ Shelley said.
“[Breeder] Edward Doyle told us he was 16.1 and we believed him. He’s never been a hair over 16 hands from the day we got him,” Rich added.
Ride The Motor, Not The Head
When Flexible trots into the ring with the 6-foot-plus Rich riding, many people echo the thoughts of Flexible’s owner, Harry Chapman: “Rich looks like a big kid on a pony.”
Flexible has a style all his own; he kind of scampers around the course, sometimes cross-cantering around the corners, and adds to the chaotic look by flipping his head.