That is Grand Prix rider Rich Fellers' favorite assessment of the 16-hand Irish Sporthorse with whom he finished second in this past spring's World Cup Jumping Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was the best finish by an American in 20 years, and it turned a third-string long shot into an international star who has since helped the US win the Nations Cup at Spruce Meadows in September and is targeting a trip to Las Vegas in 2009 to prove his 2008 World Cup Finals finish was no fluke.
A big heart is essential for any horse tackling international championship tracks, but Flexible needed it more than most. Prior to his success in Sweden, he came back from two rare and potentially career-killing soundness issues, and two more common conditions that also could have sent this elite athlete into early retirement.
A blocked vein in his right front leg in 2004 and a severely damaged left scapula (shoulder) in 2006 were Flexible's biggest challenges. In the same time frame, he also sustained a mild suspensory injury, which further complicated the yearlong process of diagnosing the blocked vein. His return from the shoulder injury, which involved bone and nerve, was temporarily set back by a torn inferior check ligament.
In both of the unusual cases, Flexible's treating veterinarians were not optimistic that he could jump again, let alone at the highest levels of the sport. Even Rich and his longtime sponsors, Mollie and Harry Chapman, began thinking they'd be lucky if their horse could return to a comfortable life as a breeding stallion.
"But Flexible had other ideas," says Rich. "He is a super-tough horse."
The horse's recoveries are "more than remarkable," observes Mark Revenaugh, DVM, the many-time USET veterinarian who began treating Flexible after the vein blockage was resolved. "To me it illustrates how a horse, if treated and managed appropriately, can go on and do remarkable things. In each case, his recoveries are a testament to persistence and good, basic horsemanship."
Although Flexible's two biggest problems were extremely rare, each of his rehabilitations hinged on horsemanship qualities every horse owner has access to: time, patience and letting nature take its course.
The Odyssey Begins
Flexible's odyssey began in fall 2004. Rich had purchased him for the Chapmans a year prior from the barn of Irish show jumper Edward Doyle. Flexible had contested the Indoor Show Jumping Championships in Ireland with Edward, then competed successfully with Rich in the States for a year before any problems arose.
Signs first presented themselves while Rich was schooling at home in Wilsonville, Oregon, where he runs Whip 'N Spur Farm with his wife Shelley.
"We'd be working him just normally on the flat for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and all of a sudden he'd go lame," the rider recounts. Rich jumped off and took Flexible into the barn to summon a second pair of eyes. "The first few times it happened, just getting that breather while I found somebody else to watch him was enough to make him go back to work sound." Rich first thought Flexible had merely stepped on something or taken a wrong step. But over the next few weeks, the pattern recurred: perfectly sound at first, but eventually "three-legged lame" after 15 or 20 minutes of exercise.
Rich and the veterinarians treating Flexible were stumped about the source of the lameness. A mild suspensory injury in the same leg was eventually detected, but Flexible's "freakish" symptoms didn't fit that diagnosis. "It was so odd and unusual," Rich recalls. "At the time we were totally confused, and the vets were, too."
The right treatment requires the right diagnosis. Lacking that, Rich relied on common sense. "We didn't want to keep working him if we knew he was going to get sore," the veteran Grand Prix rider explains. They reduced his workload and, for one stretch, confined Flexible to stall rest. "We were trying to give him a chance to recover, but it was clear in retrospect that, as he lost his fitness, conditioning and muscle tone, his body lost the ability to deal with this buildup of pressure from the blocked vein." The less fit he became, the more quickly he would go off after just a bit of exercise.
A year of X-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs failed to reveal the cause. "We were getting a little desperate," admits the rider, adding that Flexible's spirits were even worse. "He had no enthusiasm for anything. He lost his spark and personality, like he had given up." Yet Rich suspects that the same trait that makes Flexible a great jumper, his knack for understanding the job description, also made him a good patient. "He has above-average intelligence. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he understood what was going on when he was in ‘lockdown' during the stall rest."
In fall 2005, Rich dropped Flexible off at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Washington, on his way from Oregon to compete at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta. WSU is renowned for lameness evaluation and treatment. After reviewing Flexible's records, professor of equine orthopedic surgery Robert Schneider, DVM, MS, began to suspect a vascular issue. Vein blockages in horses' rear legs are somewhat common and are typically caused by worm larvae that migrate from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream and hinder the heart's ability to pump blood to the hind limbs. But vein problems in horses' front legs are extremely rare and would not be related to worms. "He's the only horse I've ever seen with this vascular problem," Dr. Schneider notes.
Exploring uncharted territory, Dr. Schneider used a fluoroscan to do a "contrast venogram," a procedure in which dye is injected into the bloodstream and its progress is monitored as it moves through the body. As the dye traveled through both of Flexible's front legs, the vein in his right leg taking blood back to his heart swelled to nearly three times the size of its left counterpart. Dr. Schneider estimates that flow in this vein was reduced to 30 percent of normal. It became clear that, as Flexible exercised, the subsequent increase in blood flow hit a major roadblock while traveling up the right leg. The procedure did not reveal the cause of the blockage, but it did pinpoint it high in the leg, inside and just above the elbow. Dr. Schneider believes a malfunctioning valve in the vein was to blame.