Told that TheHorse.com wanted him to talk about his 2012 Olympic mount's training and management regimen, jumper rider Rich Fellers chuckled.
"This will be a short interview," he said.
In fact, it was.
The Oregon-based Fellers, 52, takes a traditional--which is to say, minimalist--approach to managing his Olympic partner, Flexible, an Irish Sport Horse stallion owned by Harry and Mollie Chapman.
No massage. No chiropractic. No acupuncture. No special tack. No treadmills, hydrotherapy, feng shui, whatever-therapy. "Normal shoes."
The veterinarian shows up occasionally for, you know, routine shots and stuff, but "we don't see him too often," Fellers said.
"He's pretty sound," Fellers said of his mount. (Flexible did have a couple of fairly serious injuries some years ago, but they were not of the soft-tissue-and-related-lameness variety that so often plagues performance horses.)
Flexible's diet is equally simple. Pasture. Grass hay. Rolled oats. Purina Omolene 200. A Cavalor supplement.
If you didn't know better, you might think Fellers was describing the care and feeding of a kid's pony, perhaps, or maybe a well-tended pleasure horse. But Flexible is most definitely neither of those things.
To begin with, Flexible is arguably the top jumper in the world going into the 2012 London Olympic Games. The sixteen-hand stallion is the top-ranked horse on the U.S. Olympic jumping squad, and he is the reigning Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Final champion. With his April victory at the 2012 Final in the Netherlands, Flexible became the first American horse in 25 years to claim the World Cup Jumping title.
Oh, and Flexible is sixteen years old. He was the oldest horse in the 31-horse field at the 2012 World Cup Final.
If It Ain't Broke...
Obviously Fellers is doing something right. He's been paired with Flexible since he found the horse jumping "huge jumps" in Ireland as a six-year-old.
Now a veteran, Flexible doesn't need to learn his job.
"We never overtrain him," Fellers said.
Instead, Fellers focuses on "fitness and consistency," with both Flexible and another teenaged partner, the seventeen-year-old Grand Prix-level Irish Sport Horse McGuinness.
"It's not so good to let down an older horse," Fellers said. Flexible hasn't had an extended vacation in about three years, he said.
What Fellers does is to vary the intensity of the work depending on the horse's show schedule. Flexible gets ridden five days a week, with the vast majority of the time spent on flatwork. "Then three to four weeks out from showing, I'll increase it to two times a day. The first session will be a full flat ride--walk, trot, canter, gallop--for about forty to forty-five minutes. Later in the day, he'll go out again for twenty to thirty minutes, just walk-trot or walking and trotting on the trail."
Asked what he works on in those flatwork sessions, Fellers said: "I wouldn't call it dressage, exactly. I mostly focus on the tiniest details regarding his fitness and maneuverability--things he'll need to get around the course, like being able to accelerate and decelerate quickly."
As a competition approaches, Flexible's workouts ramp up incrementally.
"After Del Mar [back-to-back Grand Prix wins at U.S. jumping Olympic observation trials in Del Mar, Calif.], we did flatwork until three weeks before the Calgary observation trials [at Spruce Meadows in Canada]. The first week, we did small gymnastic schools" over fences of about 3'6", Fellers said. "The second week, we did two jump schools. The last week, we did two days of jumping" courses of about 1.45 meters.
Fellers said he tells his students to "ride in different rings. Go on trails." Doing so helps keep horses fresh, and Flexible enjoys it too, he said. The stallion also enjoys his turnout time on "irrigated grass," where he's (no surprise) "pretty good."
Fellers reserves his highest praise for his farrier, Joe McKee, a "great shoer" who's been doing Fellers' horses for 30 years; and for the Irish Sport Horse breed, which he calls inherently hardy.
"There's a saying that the reason Irish horse dealers are poor is that they don't sell many horses because the horses stay sound for so long," Fellers said.