Rich Fellers and Flexible at the 2015 FEI World Cup Photo © McCool Photography
by Rob Warren
The 19-year-old Irish Sport Horse, Flexible, just came off a successful 7th place showing for the United States at the FEI World Cup. Thanks to a group of veterinarians three years ago, Flexible’s competition future was renewed.
In 2012, the stallion and his rider, Rich Fellers, were on fire. The pair won the FEI World Cup and competed in the London Olympics. Always a fan favorite, Flexible was named International Horse of the Year. Fellers had the honor of being named Equestrian of the Year by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).
The next year, Fellers noticed some mild lameness in his equine partner. His primary veterinarian examined Flexible. Dr. Mark Revenaugh, located in Oregon, is a sports horse veterinarian and a renowned expert in the diagnosis and treatment of lameness and performance issues.
Dr. Revenaugh noticed an atypical appearance on Flexible’s bone scan. His associate at Northwest Equine Performance, Dr. Rachel Gottlieb, performed a transrectal ultrasound. She discovered an aorto-iliac and right femoral aortic thrombosis – or blood clots in four arteries in his right hind, including the aortic and femoral arteries.
Dr. Revenaugh researched surgical treatments of aortic thrombosis and came across a paper published by several veterinarians from UC Davis. All signs seemed to point toward Flexible being referred to the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
Once Flexible was in California, Dr. Mary Beth Whitcomb performed extensive ultrasound (transrectal and transcutaneous) evaluations on him. An all-hands-on-deck conference call involving all parties, including Flexible’s owners Mollie and Harry Chapman, followed to discuss Flexible’s future.
Surgery was recommended as an option to treat the condition, but that would have most likely resulted in Flexible’s retirement from show jumping. Another option was treating the clots with blood thinners. The team, after further consulting with other well-known international veterinarians familiar with Flexible, chose the latter, as retirement was not in the cards for Flexible.
At a three-month recheck examination, Flexible’s condition remained relatively the same. Eight and ten-month rechecks, however, revealed a dramatically improved situation. Multiple vessels had blood flow through them, although there was still occlusion of the right femoral artery and also branches of both left and right internal iliac arteries. Overall, though, his condition was improving.
The treatment allowed the pair to continue competing. At 19 and 56-years-old, respectively, Flexible and Fellers were the oldest horse and rider combination at the 2015 FEI World Cup.
Great care and an enthusiastic audience help keep the mighty stallion going. “He feels as good as he’s ever felt. I think the crowd took four or five years off his age,” said Fellers during last week’s competition.