April 16, 2008

by Neil Clarkson

Elmer Bandit with Mary Anna Wood during a trail ride in October, 2006, in the Kansas Flint Hills.
© Olivia Huddleson

Elmer Bandit was an accomplished competitive trail-riding horse in the United States when, in 1980, he was among the first five horses inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame.

It was an honour the grey part-Arab gelding earned through a string of successes across several states.

But the remarkable story of the Missouri horse did not end there. He has kept on competing with his owner, Mary Anna Wood, and, remarkably, at the age of 37, is soon to embark on yet another season of competitive trail riding.

Elmer, as he is known, may be running out of teeth and may have a touch of arthritis in his hips, but he's still good to go and enjoys getting out to see the countryside, says Mary Anna.

There's no doubt that Elmer, who lives just outside the city of Independence, has remarkable genes that have seen him clock up 20,240 certified competitive miles (32,573km).

His mother was an older appendix (part-bred) quarter horse that Mary Anna owned and his father a three-year-old Arab stallion. Elmer was the successful outcome of what she called a "$50 backyard breeding".

Elmer Bandit was born on April 8, 1971, and began competitive trail riding with Mary Anna in 1976. He used to be known as Bandit - befitting his young-gun status - but gradually became Elmer as the years rolled by.

Competitive trail riding is different from endurance riding. Endurance riding involves a race over a set distance where the first horse home to pass the veterinary check wins.

Competitive trail riding involves completing the distance in a set time (within a 30-minute window). Horses are then scored on their condition and soundness. Judges also watch the competitors at various points along the course, awarding scores for horsemanship and the horse's manners on the trail.

Each horse and rider start with a perfect score of 100, with points deducted as deemed by the judges. The pair with the highest score is the winner.

Elmer and Mary Anna, who nearly always score in the 90s, usually compete in events organised by their local branch of the North American Trail Ride Conference. They ride in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

Last year Elmer was third in the nation in the open lightweight division, second in his region, and has earned national championship status a remarkable 26 times - something only 25 or so horses a year manage to do.

The dynamic duo do between 10 and 16 competitive trail rides a year, but this season are aiming to complete around eight rides, each normally involving covering about 60 miles (96km) in a weekend.

Elmer's career accomplishments are, quite simply, too numerous to mention. In 1980 - the year he was inducted into the newly established Hall of Fame - he won the Bev Tibbitts Grand Champion Award for the highest average score in the US.

What makes Elmer such a fine performer?

The 15.1 hand horse who weighs around 1000 pounds, or 453kg, has great conformation, good feet and strong cannon bones, possibly coming from a little percheron back on his dam's side. He also has a positive attitude to life.

He began his trail riding at a Girl Scout camp in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, where Mary Anna and Elmer led out six-day pack trips, during which they wrangled herds of horses.

It soon became clear that Elmer's forte was trotting. He can trot for long periods, and can get get up to 12mph (19.3kmh) - a pace that sees many horses break into a canter.

Above all else, he likes getting out and about.

"I like to see the country. My horse likes to see the country," says Mary Anna.

Mary Anna says competitive trail riding is quite social - although it can get very competitive - and many of those involved trailer pool, especially with the rising cost of fuel.

Elmer spends his days in a pasture with a dozen or so other horses a few miles to the east of Mary Anna's home.

He has been on pasture 24 hours a day all his life, she says.

Elmer is still in great condition, due in no small part to Mary Anna's efforts to ensure he gets adequate nutrition in two meals a day.

"His teeth are in such a condition that I only count the calories I place in front of him."

Elmer has access to a big bale of meadow hay in the paddock as well as the grass, but Mary Anna doubts he gets much nutrition from it, judging by the wads that exit his mouth.

Mary Anna ensures that Elmer gets 8000 kilocalories a meal, comprising a wet mash of sugarbeet pulp and a pelletised horse feed especially for senior horses.

She says he became addicted to the pellets after she won half a tonne of them in a contest in which she entered his photo and an essay about him.

He loves his alfalfa and also gets 1 to 2 pounds (up to a kilogram) of alfalfa chaff in water.

Elmer, however, is a slow eater. He can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours to consume each meal. Mary Anna heads down early each weekday morning to give him his first meal and stays with him to ensure other horses don't chase him off his feed.

"I often take a nap while he's eating," she says. "It takes him so long to eat, by the time he is through eating I don't have time to ride."

Two high school students help out by feeding him four afternoons a week.

Elmer gets one meal a day at weekends.

He has a daily dewormer and the only supplement in his diet is a product called Restore, which helps keep the bacteria healthy in his hind gut.

Elmer's talents do not just extend to trail riding. He and Mary Anna have taken dressage lessons on and off for 30 years, which helps to keep them straight and balanced.

His health is excellent. "The only thing that we notice is that for a year he has had to get into a certain position to stand up from the ground. But he then jumps right up. A couple of vets think he might have a little arthritis in his hips. Other than that, he's sound."

With 20,240 certified miles to his credit, it's hard to imagine Elmer won't be back on the trail as the weather warms.

If he can complete another 480 miles (772.5km) - that's about eight rides - he will pass the national record of 20,710 miles (33,330km) held by a saddlebred horse, Wing Tempo.

Elmer's remarkable abilities have not escaped the United States media. He has been in two local newspapers and, last year alone, received coverage in four national magazines. He has been in Equus, Western Horseman and Trail Blazer.

Elmer still loves his work, she says, and is happy to get out and see the country.

"If he ever becomes irritated about something, it only lasts for about a minute. He even enjoys his dressage now."

Elmer, it seems, will be stepping out for a while yet.