Rich Fellers had every intention of competing in the Oregon High Desert Classics this year.
But sometimes plans change, and for Fellers, they changed dramatically — after he qualified for the Olympic Games.
Fellers told me last week that he had expected to be in Bend this month to ride in the Classics.
“But then,” he said, “as we got more and more details regarding when Flexible (Fellers' horse) needed to depart and when I needed to be over in Europe (for the Olympics in London) and when all that kind of came together, then it looked like it wasn't going to work.”
Instead, in early August, the 52-year-old Fellers — a frequent participant over the years in the High Desert Classics hunter/jumper competition, Central Oregon's pre-eminent horse show, which begins Wednesday — will represent the United States in London along with Flexible, a 16-year-old Irish Sport Horse chestnut stallion, in show jumping. It will be the first Olympic Games for both rider and horse.
“It's really special to be able to compete in our sport as a team representing the United States because, for the most part, our sport is an individual sport,” Fellers observed of show jumping. “It means a lot more when you're not just out there for yourself and your owner trying to win with your horse. You're trying to put a winning performance together with three other riders and three other horses and do it for the United States. That makes it extra special.”
Fellers, a Sherwood resident who also owns a home in Sunriver, and Flexible went through a rigorous process this year to qualify for the Olympics. Qualification started with four rounds of show jumping in four days at the Olympic trials, staged in March in Florida. Fellers and Flexible exited those trials ranked seventh on the long list of three dozen contenders for the team.
And they have been white-hot ever since.
“I've never seen anybody in my career in the sport ... have a horse going so consistently for such a long period,” Fellers noted of Flexible. “He's really been unbeatable for months now in the sport all over the world.”
After the trials, contending horse-rider combos were required to compete in two of four designated Olympic observation events staged across North America this spring. Fellers rode Flexible at one such competition in Del Mar, Calif., in May, and at a second in Calgary, Alberta, in June. Impressively, the pair went two for two at both sites, leaving no doubt of its worthiness for the 2012 Olympics.
One of the most notable career highlights for both horse and rider actually took place between the Olympic trials and their observation events. In April, Fellers became the first American rider in a quarter century to capture the Federation Equestre Internationale World Cup Jumping Finals in 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, defeating Swiss rider Steve Guerdat and mount Nino des Buissonnets in a jumpoff. Fellers described the competition to me as the sport's indoor world championships. And earlier this month, in what would be their final show before the Olympics, Fellers and Flexible won one event and jumped cleanly while placing second in another in a jumpoff at Spruce Meadows in Calgary.
When asked if he considered 2012 to be his best year in equestrian, Fellers — who has been competing in show jumping since his teenage years — readily answered in the affirmative. He pointed out the serendipity of everything coming together at precisely the right moment.
“I'm kind of a practical person ... and I've learned over the years how crucial it is in our sport, especially, the timing of it all,” observed Fellers, a married father of two who operates a training business in addition to his athletic pursuits. “I've had some great horses over the years, but I just haven't had them in the right year at the right stage of their careers to make an Olympic team.”
But now Fellers has that horse in Flexible, who is owned by Portland residents Harry and Mollie Chapman. Fellers described his mount as “really intelligent” and “high-energy.” He also said that Flexible, at 16 hands, is a little undersized for a show jumper of his caliber, and that his horse, at 16 years of age, is also two to four years older than show jumpers are when they typically hit their peak.
But if his performance this year has been any indication, Flexible seems to be defying convention. And he wants to win.
“There's no question in my mind — he completely understands the objective of the sport, and that's all he thinks about,” Fellers said. “When he's going around the course, he knows that he's not supposed to touch those fences. He knows that that's what's going to make him the champion and get him the opportunity to come into the ring after everyone's done and parade around with his ribbon on and get all the photographs. I mean, he just knows what's going on.”
Instead of competing in the High Desert Classics this week, Fellers plans to depart for Europe from Oregon on Saturday, while Flexible will be flown out of Sea-Tac Airport in Washington late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. The pair will spend about a week at a farm in the Netherlands before departing for London and the Olympics, Fellers by air with his human teammates and U.S. equestrian officials, Flexible by shipping van.
“We just don't want to take any risks,” Fellers said. “The team doesn't want to take any chances with any of the horses. So that's the idea of going over there ... eight to 10 days ahead of time, is to let the horses get adjusted to the time change.”
So when the show jumping begins in London on Aug. 4, look for the little chestnut stallion with a big white blaze running down his face and for his silver-haired rider wearing the uniform of the USA. If their performances so far this year can serve as any track record, they should not be too difficult to spot, be it on television or online.
Fellers said: “(Flexible) is to the point right now where he will practically turn himself inside out if he has to, to keep any part of his body from touching those rails.”
That would be some Olympic-worthy performance indeed.