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.
But once they’re cantering to the first fence, the pair frequently surprise even those who know them best. “Every time Flexible would step up and succeed at the next level, I’d scratch my head a little bit, including at the last individual round of the Olympics, which was huge,” said Morris.
“That horse hand-cantered it [and jumped clean], and my mouth sort of fell open, even after I’d seen him win the World Cup Final. Every step of the way, my mouth has hung open, because he’s a little horse and while he’s a tidy jumper, in the early days he maybe didn’t seem to have the scope. But that’s an example of a horse with such heart who is very careful and beautifully ridden and then gets the scope from that,” Morris continued.
Rich and Flexible might be slightly mismatched in height, but over 10 years together they’ve formed a bond that has enabled them to defy expectations.
“When he was younger, he used to be obnoxious all the way around the course, flipping his head up and down. But that’s one big thing George has taught me over the years, that you ride the back end of the horse, not the head,” Rich said. “That’s the motor. I don’t ever get distracted with what’s going on with his head and neck. If his hind legs are pushing, he always settles in at take-off. It works for him. He’s really powerful for his size. He’s very elastic and athletic in the air.”
Chapman has witnessed the meeting of the minds between Flexible and Rich over the years. “They are special together. I’m sure there are lots of good riders who could get on Flexible and have a pretty good trip, but I don’t know if anybody could get out of him what Rich gets out of him. I think that’s a unique, special relationship that they have between them,” he said.
I Hope He Can Jump These
Chapman recalled watching Flexible jump in his first attempt at the FEI World Cup Final, at Gothenburg, Sweden in 2008. “I looked in the ring and I couldn’t even see the footing, there were so many jumps in the ring and they were so big,” he said. “I thought ‘Nobody can jump those!’ But Flexible did. He’s never stopped surprising us. Every time I think something is maybe over his head, he just steps up and away he goes and he makes it look pretty easy.”
Rich remembers that first World Cup Final, too. Flexible was new to the top level of the sport, having had time off as a young horse to heal from injuries. In the summer of 2007, Rich’s top string of grand prix horses—McGuinness and Gyro—were sidelined, and Flexible stepped up to the big time, winning the West Coast North American World Cup League. “So, I kind of had to go to the World Cup. Whether he was ready or not, we didn’t know. I had no expectations,” Rich said.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I hope he can jump these,’” said Shelley.
Flexible showed Rich he was more than ready. The game little horse jumped to second place in the Final behind Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s great star Shutterfly. “I was surprised with him,” Rich admitted. “After that week in Sweden, we knew without a doubt that we had a legitimate 1.60-meter international horse that could be competitive anywhere. And he hasn’t had a bad season since. He’s matured in a good way, like you want every horse to mature. He just keeps performing and he’s more consistent.”
Flexible competed in the FEI World Cup Finals in 2009, ‘10 and ‘11, but didn’t crack the top 10 again. He was always improving, however. As 2012 dawned, Fellers decided to take a shot for the Olympic Games as well. Flexible and Fellers jumped into a tie for third in the U.S. Equestrian Federation selection trials for the U.S. team for the London Olympic Games in Wellington, Fla., in March, but once the subjective byes were added to the short list, they stood in seventh.
“At that point, I felt like the only way I was going to make the team was if I absolutely proved it without a shadow of a doubt,” Rich said. “Nobody wanted the World Cup Finals to be part of the observation trials because our country has done so poorly for so many years there, so nobody has much confidence there. But I just knew and believed that Flexible and I could perform there. Then, at the observation trials, I had extra motivation because I felt like I had more to prove than anybody else, being a bit out of the mainstream. I had a real underdog mentality.”
Flexible and Rich scored their big win at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final and then didn’t have a single rail in any of the required four observation classes for Olympic selection over the summer. In fact, they won all four observation events they contested to make it clear they belonged on the plane to London. Once in London, they helped the U.S. team take sixth, then jumped to eighth place individually, the best U.S. result.
Flexible answered the Fellerses’ question: “Is it really possible, being who we are and with the funding we have, to make the Olympic team? And then it was like, ‘I guess it is.’ I think that’s huge,” said Shelley.
By 1989, Rich and Shelley had built a thriving business in Southern California, and were steadily gaining ground on the big-time grand prix scene. But when Harry and Mollie Chapman offered them a job training their horses in Wilsonville, Ore., they knew that was where they wanted to be.
“We’d been in Southern California long enough at the time to know that that wasn’t going to be the lifestyle for us raising children,” Rich said.
“So we made a deal with them and packed all our stuff in our six-horse van and our horse trailer and our pick-up truck and we drove it all up here.”
By 1991, Christopher was born, and Savannah followed in 1994.
The relationship with the Chapmans thrived, and the two families worked together toward ever-more lofty goals. “They weren’t really knowledgeable about the sport at the top level, and neither were we, really, Rich said. “We all kind of learned a lot together, Harry and Mollie and Shelley and I, over the years.”
The agreement between the Fellers’ and the Chapmans has always been sealed with a handshake, not a contract. “He trusts us and we trust him,” Chapman said. “I’m an old geezer and I love doing business on a handshake. Rich is honest as the day is long, he’s hard-working and he’s just a nice guy.”
The Chapmans also don’t mind that over the years, the Fellers’ have prioritized family over fame. “To me, that’s one of his real assets,” Chapman said. “That’s what makes him different; he knows his priorities and he lives his life according to his rules. Family comes first for him. We’re the same way with our kids.”
While Christopher and Savannah were growing up, Shelley put her showing career on the back burner, and Rich kept the showing schedule light—15 to 18 weeks a year on the road—so he could still attend their sports games and other activities. The family vacationed with no horses in sight every year, also enjoying ski trips, camping and fishing. Despite that, Rich achieved much success in the grand prix ring, though he always joked that he’d get serious about riding when the kids were in college.
All Coming Together
2012 was the year that Rich was able to switch focus. Christopher had started college, and Savannah graduated from high school in the spring. “It definitely wasn’t a master plan. It just kind of came together,” Rich said. He felt comfortable spending more time on the road, making a real bid for the Olympic team.
With perfect timing, Flexible, then 16, also came into his own. Rich has discussed how valuable it is to keep a horse sound into his later years, when his experience and seasoning can pay off. “I think this year was a transition season in Flexible’s training in that I really got to the point where I could do a lot less with him,” he said. “All summer long, in all the observation trials and other classes, we didn’t do a lot of other classes. He never jumped to warm up for any jump-offs. I just worked him on the flat, made sure his muscles were warm, and went in the ring.
“He’s old. I can relate. Shelley and I can relate to him because we’re going through a similar change in our bodies where you just lose natural strength and athleticism. You sure have more knowledge and wisdom, and mentally and emotionally you’re better than ever to compete, but physically, you’re a little bit handicapped. Hopefully Flexible is going to defy some of those ideas and go for a couple more years at the top of the sport.”
Shelley’s also reignited her own riding career. She couldn’t travel with Rich to the World Cup Final, staying home to watch Savannah play a tennis tournament, but the family and all their friends were out in full force in London for the Olympic Games.
“It’s been kind of fun. She’s been driving to horse shows with me, which brings back memories from a long time ago,” Rich said.
Shelley is aiming to qualify for the FEI World Cup Final this year with her horse Revenge, looking to join Rich and Flexible on the plane to Sweden as they fly out to defend their title.