Rich Fellers , who grew up in Washington State, is the poster child of working his way to the top. He got started riding because his step-mother, Cheryl, rode Arabs and he went with her to shows. The excitement of the Friday night open jumper class caught his attention. He was 9 when he started riding a Quarter Horse-Tennessee Walker cross named Chevelle that his father traded a car to acquire.
Rich and his father, Dick, endeavored to teach Chevelle to jump, building their own jumps in the back yard. “He was a very quiet horse and safe for a kid, but he didn’t always get the jumping idea,” Rich recalled. “A lot of times, he’d jump his front legs over and then just stop, on top of the jump. We’d have to pull the jump out from underneath him to get him going again.”
By the time Rich’s 11th birthday rolled around, Dick and Cheryl decided to replace Chevelle, and bought a 2-year-old Appaloosa named Sure Chic. Rich taught that one to jump, too, and started going to local shows.
“I was to a pretty large degree self-taught from watching and copying—sometimes the wrong people!” Rich said. “There was a pretty strong hunter/jumper scene [in Washington] then. The first trophy I won was at the end of my first season of showing in the local circuit, and I was awarded the junior sportsmanship award because I fell off just about every class I went in. I just kept coming back for more. If I made it over the first jump, I’d be thrilled. If I made it over two or three, it was even better.”
Local trainer Max von Zimmerman offered Rich some instruction, and in his teenage years he showed Sure Chic on the Appaloosa circuit and then the “A” hunter/jumper circuit. By the time he was 16, he made the big move to show in Northern California a bit, in the junior jumpers and the grand prix, and he met Morris when he tried to buy Sure Chic from Rich. Luckily, Rich’s father didn’t sell, but Rich started a long tradition of attending Morris’ clinics.
“I’d go to his clinic every year. That would be my training for the year,” Rich said. “I’d take notes and I’d watch all the other sessions. I’d have pages of notes and drawings; I’d draw all the exercises and the measurements. That would be my textbook for the rest of the year.” Fellers still rides with Morris in yearly clinics.
Sure Chic, though just 15.2 hands, progressed up the ranks until they were jumping in World Cup qualifiers and at Spruce Meadows. “He battled it out with For The Moment and some big-time horses. He was a $350 horse and he turned out to be a pretty good one,” Rich recalled with a smile.
After spending three years studying Construction Engineering and Management at Oregon State University, Fellers left school behind and started a training and sales business with his father. They bought young Thoroughbreds off the track, developed them and sold them on. But by 1985, Fellers was ready to move on.
He packed up his saddle and moved to Southern California, spending a year working for someone else and then starting his own business. Shelley, who had taken a clinic with Fellers in Oregon in 1985, came into the picture again and ended up being his first working student. “She’s still the best one I ever had,” Fellers said wryly.
In 1989, then married, they moved to Oregon to work for the Chapmans, and Fellers’ career started to gain momentum. In 1991, he represented the United States at the Pan American Games, riding a Thoroughbred owned by his father, El Mirasol. “That was my first taste of the whole team thing. Harry [Chapman] groomed for me at the Pan American Games selection trials. We had a good time,” Fellers recalled.
By 1999, Fellers had ridden the Chapmans’ Stealth Sprenger to the top of the national AHSA open jumper standings, and they won the $200,000 Grand Prix of New York at the National Horse Show (N.Y.) in 2000.
In the mid-’00s, Fellers saw much grand prix success with the Chapman horses Amos, McGinniss and Gyro. Then, Flexible stepped into the spotlight.