American Olympian Rich Fellers has contested nine Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Finals, eight of which were aboard his famed Irish Sport Horse stallion, Flexible. Here he recalls the week they captured the victory and solidified their place in show jumping history. As told to Carley Sparks.
It’s the dream, making the World Cup Final.
Any young rider will tell you the Olympics, the World Cup Final, that’s the dream. Then once you experience it, it can turn into sort of a nightmare, depending on how it goes.
My first World Cup Final wasn’t great.
I remember. It was 2007 in Las Vegas. I was riding a horse named Gyro. We ended up 36 out of something like 45 horses. It was definitely disappointing. But moments like that stir the fire in your belly. You want to get back. You want to qualify again and you want to perform better.
My second time was the following year in Gothenburg, Sweden with Flexible.
It was his first World Cup Final and we ended up second overall, which was just absolutely shocking. That stirred the fire even more. I wanted to get back and win because I knew I probably could. I just came second on my first try with Flexible.
Then when it all comes together, a full week of championship competition and it comes down to a jump off like it did in 2012 in ‘s-Hertognebosch (NED) with me and Flexible and Steve Guerdat (SUI) on his incredible horse, Nino des Buissonnets—that’s the fairytale ending.
But we’re getting ahead ourselves. Because that Final didn’t begin on a good foot.
For starters, Flexible’s flight to Europe was rerouted. He was going to fly out of Seattle, which he normally does, but the flight was cancelled, so we had to ship down to L.A. It’s a two-day trip. So that was extra stress on the horse.
Then the connecting flight was delayed and he was stuck in Scotland.
He finally got to Holland with a lot of extra wear and tear from the trip. That was unsettling—to start out with a horse that maybe was a bit worn out from a long, long journey. Flexible was 16-year-old at the time, which is considered quite old in this sport. But I think for him that wasn’t so old, now that I reflect on it.
The Final started out, as always, with the speed round on Thursday night. Flexible was on form and won the first night out. He was just brilliant. Very fast and very careful and full of energy.
The second round was big, a typical World Cup Final Friday. There was a double combination away from the out-gate late in the course that seemed to be catching everyone. To this day, I don’t know exactly why it was so tricky, but I ended up having the rail that most of the top horses had in that combination, so I dropped back a bit the standings.
I think I went into Sunday’s final round in third or fourth place.
Flexible just stayed super energetic that week. Super bright. Every time I took him out to exercise in the morning he was fresh and full of himself—obviously on very good form.
The first round on Sunday was a big, scopey, technical course, a classic championship course. Flexible jumped a clear, which moved me up into the tie with Steve Guerdat. Pius Schwizer (SUI) had a pole down and dropped back.
In the second round, Steve and I both jumped a clear again. We were locked in a tie.
The times of the rounds determines the order of go for the jump off, so Steve went first.
He was getting his horse ready in the warm up ring—jumping back and forth and galloping and turning a little bit. I remember our chef de’equipe George Morris said, “Well, what do you want to jump, Rich?”
I said, “I don’t really wanna jump. I don’t think I need to jump. He knows how to jump and he must be tired.”
It was a long week. He’d just jumped two huge rounds.
“I think I’ll just do a little walk-trot flat work and watch Steve go.”
That was the first time I’ve ever done that in my life, not jumped before a jump off. I could feel that Flexible was in the zone. He was so focused and he was getting a bit tired.
So, I just walked him up and peaked through the curtain to watch Steve go around. That was fun to watch. It’s always fun to watch brilliant show jumping. He laid down an incredible, fast, fault-free performance on what I learned afterward was without a doubt the fastest horse in Europe at the time.
And that just motivated me.
I believed, and I still believe, that Flexible is one of the fastest horses of all time. I thought, I’m just going to match what he did. I’m not going to leave out any more strides, I’m not going to turn any tighter. I’m just going to try and match his track and his pace and trust that Flexible is quicker.
And he was.
To win in a jump off like that, I don’t think I’ll ever top that in my career. I well up just thinking about it.
It was the dream. And the dream came true.
This week the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League stops in California at the Sacramento International CSIW-3*. Watch all the FEI classes live—and for free!—on horsenetwork.com/live.