Champion Trail Horse Still Going Strong

Age hasn't slowed Elmer Bandit. This champion trail horse outperforms horses half his age. By Karen Karvonen for EQUUS magazine.
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Note: This article first appeared in EQUUS magazine in April 2000. To read more about Elmer Bandit, see "Record-Breaking Gelding Not Done Yet," Roundup, in the January 2009 issue of EQUUS.

If Duracell's Energizer bunny ever runs down, a little gray gelding named Elmer Bandit would be happy to fill in. At 29, an age when most horses are happy just to be relaxing in a pasture savoring the spring grass, Elmer will be shooting for his 19th North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) National Championship. To reach that goal, Elmer and his owner, Mary Anna Wood of Independence, Mo., will compete in as many as 11 separate 60-mile competitive rides.

Competitive trail riding is a sport in which a horse and rider complete a marked trail within a specified time period. But it's not a speed event. Along the way, judges observe the competitors, evaluating them in categories such as a rider's horsemanship and courtesy on the trail and a horse's manners and conditioning. Competitors start with a perfect score of 100, and judges deduct points for errors.

Elmer's career as a competitive trail horse has been as distinguished as it has been long. As a "youngster" of 15, he became the first of five horses ever inducted into the NATRC Hall of Fame. In 1980, he won the Bev Tibbitts Grand Champion Award for having the highest average score in the nation. In 1999, Elmer won his 18th NATRC National Championship and brought his career total of competitive miles up to 14,300 in 239 competitions. (Elmer is the NATRC's second highest mileage horse, behind the 23-year-old American Saddlebred gelding Wing Tempo, who has 17,590 miles. Wood herself has 14,210 rider miles, just a hair behind Wing Tempo's rider, Shirley Sobol, who has 14,220.)

In 1998, Elmer won three rides, including two Sweepstakes awards as the highest-scoring horse in the open division. That October, in the 60-mile Kansas Flint Hills Ride, Elmer almost tied with a horse 23 years his junior; he just missed his fourth perfect score by a single point.

"He had a 99 because [the veterinary judge] docked him a point for laying his ears back on his last trot circle," says Wood. "The wind was blowing hard, and he hates circling." (In NATRC events, competitors must either longe or circle their horses in-hand in both directions before the judges to check for soundness.) Elmer's scores are almost always in the 90s.

Little Big Horse

In his 23 years of competitive trail riding, Elmer has developed a unique collection of skills. He pickets anywhere--on the foot or on a line--and rolls and urinates on command. An equine botanist, Elmer has perfected selective grazing at the trot, Wood reports. He divides plants into three categories--edible (raspberry and mulberry), inedible (sassafras) and "will-do-in-a-pinch" (dogwood).

And trailers? No problem. Elmer jumps the two and a half feet in and out of Wood's two-horse model.

Elmer even mentors younger horses. "Several horse owners call him 'Uncle Elmer' because he's good at leading an inexperienced horse into a trailer or baby-sitting a new horse down the trail," says Wood.

But all those years of experience do give a horse some pretty strong opinions. For one thing, Elmer doesn't like to get his feet wet, so he is becoming an expert at keeping dry during creek crossings.

"You would swear he has X-ray vision and knows where the rocks are," says Lucy Hirsh, DVM, a veterinarian, NATRC competitor and one of Wood's good friends, who was mentored by Wood. "I recall one water crossing with logs in it where other horses were scrambling and getting wet above their knees. Elmer picked a path through the middle along a little rock shelf and barely got the tops of his hooves wet. The judges were amazed."

Wood has also schooled Elmer in Western pleasure (he hates to slow jog) and hunt seat (he still does a bit of jumping, up to two feet). Since he was 4, the pair has taken dressage lessons to learn rhythm and balance, and Elmer can deftly perform leg yields, shoulder-in, haunches-in and flying changes.

In camp, Elmer is well known as a vocalist. A confirmed extrovert, he loves to chatter, especially when he wants attention. And he is more accurate than an alarm clock when his breakfast is due.

Elmer began his long trail career at a Girl Scout camp in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, where Wood says she "broke Elmer going down the trail." A Certified Horsemanship Association instructor, Wood rode Elmer when leading scouts on six-day pack trips, on which they wrangled up to 185 head of horses.

"He is trained to be a lead horse, and no 'naked' horse passes Elmer," says Wood. "If they try, the first thing he does is lay back his ears, then he snakes his neck out and shows his teeth and, if they don't stop, then he bites."

That attitude came in handy when Wood entered Elmer in the Ten Sleep fun rodeo one year. "He won the boot race on strategy," says Wood. In this event, contestants drop one boot off at one end of the arena, come back to the start, and at the judge's signal run back down, dismount, put on the boot, remount and head for the finish. After Wood got her boots on, Elmer just moseyed toward the finish. A friend, Karen Jean Funk, came up behind him on Tucker, but Elmer laid his ears back, and no matter how much Funk whipped and spurred him, Tucker wouldn't pass Elmer.

In the barrel race, Elmer was a full 10 seconds behind the winning time, but then cantering and galloping aren't his forte. Trotting is. Elmer can trot at 12 mph and easily sustain a pace of 6 to 8 mph.

"When you think Elmer is maxed, Mary Anna gives him a little nudge, and he goes into 'turbo' and leaves you in the dust," says Hirsh. "He has one of the fastest trots of any horse I've known."

Sound Mind, Strong Body

Endurance and strength are in Elmer's breeding. The 15.1-hand, gray is the offspring of Wood's Appendix Quarter Horse mare, Dandy Lain, and an Arabian stallion, DJS Jameel Junaid. Elmer inherited his color, endurance and longevity from his sire. From his dam, who mixes Hancock Quarter Horse blood with a little Percheron, he inherited his good-size feet, bone, a bit of feathering and, says Wood, an "optimistic view of the world."

Exceptionally good health must also be in Elmer's genes, since Wood says he's almost never lame or sick; he's been pulled from less than a dozen rides. Last winter, he was sidelined for a week with a hoof abscess, the only serious lameness Wood can remember him having.

His only real sign of age is his teeth--his lowers are worn to the gum line, so Wood keeps him on pasture and feeds him alfalfa cubes. He usually gets grain only on rides. In caring for him, Wood says that the only concession she makes to his age is to separate him from the other horses to make sure he gets the extra feed she does give him. "He's been on pasture his whole life," she says, and "between the cubes, the dentist and a daily dewormer, he does fine,"

Their teamwork is another factor in Elmer's amazing health. After taking a short course, Wood even began shoeing the gelding herself. More important, she listens. "He's very chatty," she says. "When I'm mounted, he'll talk to me all day with body language."

When Elmer stops talking, she knows something is wrong. In 1998, Elmer experienced his only serious illness. A gray spot appeared in his right eye, and an ulceration developed. A tiny rupture occurred, and Elmer underwent surgery for a conjunctival graft to patch it. There is still a small scar on the cornea, but no one is quite sure how badly his vision has been impaired. "We're sure he can at least see light and shadow," Wood says. "He still mixes with the herd." And his hampered vision certainly hasn't hurt his performance; he goes down the trail as happily as he ever has.

For Wood and Elmer, riding the trail in 2000 will be no different than it was on their first competitive ride in 1976. Wood always has to make him walk the first mile. "I have to warm up his brain," says Wood. "If I just trot out of camp on Saturday, he will trot all day. But if we walk that first mile, it's a loose rein for the rest of the day."

If Elmer has a say in the matter, he will be performing for many years to come. "I don't think he wants to retire," says Wood. Just point Elmer toward Wood's trailer and watch how eagerly he leaps in.