Eight months ago, Flexible’s career was supposed to be over. The winner of the 2012 Rolex FEI World Cup Final couldn’t trot for more than a few minutes without going dead lame.
But on March 8, the little horse that could showed he’s made yet another remarkable recovery as he and Rich Fellers jumped to the win in the $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix at HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, Calif. Eight days later, the bouncy little chestnut stallion claimed seventh place in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix.
“He jumped around the Million so easy,” Fellers said. “When I came out of the ring and saw [his wife] Shelley, we both broke down crying. It’s just unreal.
“He just enjoys it so much. I think it’s his life; he eats and drinks and breathes so he can get in the ring and compete.”
It was an outcome Fellers could only have hoped for when Flexible started coming up lame in late June 2013. He’d jumped at the Spruce Meadows (Alta.) summer series, but after returning to Fellers’ farm in Wilsonville, Ore., he started having problems. He’d go severely lame on the right hind after just a few minutes of trotting, but there was no evidence of an injury, and the lameness would disappear upon resting.
The symptoms were eerily similar to the events of 2004, when Flexible had a blocked vein in his right front leg. That condition was potentially career-ending, as was a broken scapula Flexible suffered in 2006, but he made remarkable recoveries from those injuries to win the World Cup and jump on the U.S. team at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Fellers shipped Flexible to the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where the stallion spent three weeks as vets tried to solve the puzzle. They ended up diagnosing him with blood clots in four arteries in his right hind, including the aortic and femoral arteries.
“They were just about completely blocked,” Fellers said. “He had very little blood flow to the leg. After 2½ minutes of trotting, he’d just go crippled lame on the right hind. It would basically cramp up, we know now, because the muscles couldn’t get the supply of oxygen they needed to do their job.”
End Of The Road?
Vets presented Fellers with the possibility of operating to try and resolve the clots. “They said if he survived the surgery and it went well, we could put him on blood-thinners and he might have a happy, comfortable retirement,” Fellers said.
But the surgery would be long—more than five hours—and Fellers wasn’t willing to put Flexible, then 17, through the procedure. “It’s quite an ordeal and there’s a chance he wouldn’t have survived. I said ‘Let’s just put him on the blood thinners and see what happens.’ So that’s what we did,” he said.
And how did Fellers take the news that the vets considered a comfortable retirement as a successful outcome? “It was really disappointing, but I just never give up,” he said. “This was the third time I’ve been told he’s finished, so it didn’t worry me too much. I know him. I just thought ‘There’s got to be a way forward.’ ”
The blood-thinning medication seemed to alleviate Flexible’s symptoms, and by the fall, Fellers slowly put him back to work. In October, the vets at UC-Davis examined him again and said the clots hadn’t resolved, but gave Fellers the green light to try jumping him.
“That was disappointing, that nothing had changed, because I was thinking that he was going to defy the odds and blow all those clots out of those arteries,” Fellers said. “They said that they don’t really see this particular situation much in horses, but that a horse can develop collateral circulation–small vessels that detour around the clot. If they develop enough of those, then they can be comfortable.”
In the middle of November, Flexible jumped at the Las Vegas National (Nev.) in 1.35- and 1.40-meter classes. “I pulled him off all the medication because I wanted him to be back where he was and jump [under Fédération Equestre Internationale rules]. But he cramped up after one class; he jumped clean, but he got a bit lower at the end of the course, which has never been his style, and he rubbed the last jump. I came out of the ring and walked for a bit, but when I picked up the trot, he was lame behind; he’d cramped up.”
Fellers consulted with the vets at UC-Davis, Flexible’s usual vet Mark Revenaugh, DVM, and internationally known vet Phillipe Benoit, DVM. He spent the winter getting Flexible as fit as possible with careful work. And in mid-February, he showed Flexible again at HITS Desert Circuit. When Flexible shows under U.S. Equestrian Federation rules, Fellers can replace the blood-thinning medication with aspirin to help prevent problems. The regimen worked, as Flexible showed four times as a warm-up for his grand prix win and AIG $1 Million Grand Prix performance.
“He felt as good as ever. He got stronger and stronger through the circuit and he’s wired for sound now,” Fellers said. “He’s fresh as he’s ever been. I think he’s feeling better. He knows there’s a different feeling in that hind leg and he’s wild.”
Fellers plans to take each class as it comes with Flexible, but he’s not ruling out a bid for the U.S. team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. “If that’s not in the cards, we’ll just find him some nice classes to jump and keep doing what he does,” he said. “If he’s not right, we won’t jump. I love him too much to take any risks.
“It’s just an absolute dream come true to have him showing. It’s getting a bit ridiculous how many times I’ve been told he’s done and then I’ve had these dreams about Flexible coming back against the odds. And they just keep coming true; it doesn’t seem real.”
Want to read more about Flexible’s latest remarkable recovery, including insight from his veterinarians and what his most recent check-up at UC-Davis showed? Read an in-depth article about his case in the April 14 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.