We're honoring the deep bond between horse and rider in our series, A Letter to My Horse. And we want you to participate! In mid-July, we're choosing 3 top reader submissions to this series to win some awesome prizes and be published on NoelleFloyd.com. Learn how to participate here.
We didn’t have the most impressive start. Our first trial was on cold, wet grass, and you were energetic and excited, slipping all over the place. You weren’t the biggest horse to start with, and by the time we finally got you home to Oregon, you’d spent so much time in quarantine that you’d lost a lot of fitness and muscle tone. It was the weekend before a George Morris clinic, and when I opened the stall door, ready to show off my new superstar young Irish stallion, he didn’t even know what to say. He was thinking, That horse is so small. How is he even going to jump?
But I knew there was more to you than meets the eye. And after all these years together, through injuries and setbacks, blue ribbons and big wins, and a well-deserved retirement, I’m happy to have you occupy the first stall at the barn. You are still our main guy.
Flexible at his retirement ceremony. Photo by Bret St. Clair.
I’ve been enlightened in the last few weeks, during this whole pandemic we are all dealing with. I’ve been riding you more than ever, five days a week, really just because I think we enjoy each other’s company. Even in retirement, you are as fit as ever. You are quicker, your reflexes and movements are faster than the average horse. It wasn’t any special training or riding on my part, I think you’re just a freak of an athlete. I’m not sure I truly realized it, in all those years, when we were competing. I guess that’s something you learn in life; so often you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Now, while it seems like the whole world is on hold and everything is strange and uncertain, I get to spend this time with you. Maybe in the past I didn’t fully appreciate what I had in you, but I do now. I’ll always love riding you. Flexible, you are my kind of horse.
I’m grateful for your incredible strength, speed and the power. And you’re so intelligent. You understand the sport. You knew how to do your job, and you always gave your best performance when in the ring.
I’m also grateful for what you’re not. You’ve never been an easy horse. You still aren’t. You’d think that at this age, at 24 years old, it’d be easy to put a halter on and bring you out of your stall. But if someone new tries to take you out, they won’t be able to get you into the cross ties. You’ll be flailing around like an idiot. You still pull all kinds of things, and we all know you get a kick out of it.
You might be tricky, contrary, and always ready to prove everyone else wrong, but that’s what has made me a better horseman. The bond we have developed over the years is based on mutual respect. When I have to get firm, I have to be smart. You are quick and clever, and if I’m unfair or show temper or emotion, you retaliate. That’s happened more than once in our career, and you didn’t hesitate to throw me off. You never leave room for error. With you, I’m always learning.
Three times, I’ve had vets tell me you were done, that you wouldn’t recover. And three times, they were wrong. We had to give you time and trust that you could heal. And you always did. That’s had a big effect with how I deal with soundness issues with my horses. In this sport, I see so many horses that are treated aggressively, with a quick fix applied. A lot of times they end up worse off than they were before. I think about the most practical, natural way to let the horses overcome the problem on their own. Of course, I give them help when they need it. But, thanks to you, I have confidence that their bodies want to heal. It’s been a bumpy ride, but you’ve taught me to stay patient, be smart, and sort things out little by little.
Out of all our memories together, I think this one pretty much sums everything up. It was 2012, the Olympic Trials in Wellington. We shipped over ahead of time to get acclimated, and we were based out of a farm that was quite a ways from the grounds there at WEF. I was a little late finding out the time that the horses had to check in, and I was riding you on the trails from our base to the FEI stables. You were fresh, as usual, and I was in a hurry. There were railroad ties or something stacked alongside the trails, and as I was getting close, you just spooked from those ties, and spun.
You threw me off, and I remember, as I was flying through the air over your head, all I could think of was, I better hang on. If you had gotten loose, that could have been the end of you or some other horse. When you saw me hit the ground, still holding the reins, we made eye contact, and you knew you were in trouble. So, you started running backwards, just dragging me down the trail. I was thinking, I have to hang on. No matter how long this lasts, I have to hang on. I kept saying, Flexible, it’s ok buddy. When you finally stopped, I got up off the ground, still holding tight to those reins, covered in dirt and sand. I walked up to you, and you looked like you knew you were in big, big trouble. I didn’t have time to hand walk you the rest of the way, and I had to get back up. I remember, I said, I just have to get on you. I slowly put my foot in stirrup. And he just stood there while I swung my leg up and got on. It’s like you knew, whatever bad thing that happened was over, and it was time to pull it together and move on.
We trotted back and got to the FEI stable just in time. It could have been so bad, and it ended up no problem at all. We carried on from there.
That’s how it’s always been. We’ve both made mistakes. We’ve had serious injuries, setbacks and health problems. I’ve shown a little temper, and you’ve bucked me off. Despite everything, we’ve always managed to hang on, to ride out the storm. It took time, patience and trust, but we’ve done it together, learning as we go. With hard work, we found success with each other.
And you know, it’s been a blast.
Thank you, Flexible, for being who you are and never changing. You have taught me and all the people in our program to be good, smart horsemen and women. You bring out the best in us, but only if we work hard to bring out the best in you.
Photos by Savannah Fellers (@reignsbysavannahfellers), used with permission.
Written by Rich Fellers
Rich Fellers and Flexible became one of the most beloved pairs in show jumping as they represented the United States in many major championships over the years, including the Rolex/FEI World Cup Finals, the Pan American Games, and the London Olympics. Rich runs his stable in Oregon where Flexible, who has retired from competition, continues to stay in work and is a sought-after breeding stallion.