Riding with Elmer Bandit

Elmer Bandit, the 37-year-old Half-Arabian who recently broke the record for competitive trail mileage, and his owner/rider Mary Anna Wood inspire me. I have known Elmer for eight years and have written about his career for TheHorse.com for the past six months.

I competed in competitive trail for 10 years, but felt my 15-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter, Ransom, was "too old" for the Open Division, the class that demands the greatest distance and speed.

Watching Wood care for Elmer over the past 10 years changed my mind, and I entered Ransom in the Oct. 25-26, 2008, Kanopolis Canyon ride near Lindsborg, Kan. My goal: to ride with Elmer and see him break a long-standing 20,710-mile lifetime record previously set by Saddlebred Wing Tempo.

The night before the event started visitors ambled by Elmer's camp, admiring a new blanket provided by The Horse on behalf of his many fans and offering encouragement.

Elmer and Ransom set off at 8:34 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 25. It was 34°F and Elmer set off at a brisk trot. Could Ransom keep up?

Elmer starts, as Ransom follows along
Elmer on ride

Elmer Bandit set a new record for lifetime competitive trail miles. Author Marsha Hayes (on right in top photo) followed along to document the achievement.

Ransom had to lope to keep the gray gelding from pulling completely away. Wood's words carried back to me: "He feels great." All of her ride plans centered on Elmer's welfare. Making time early while it was cooler would spare Elmer later in the warmer part of the day.

Within three miles, the open prairie gave way to solid sandstone terrain and a steep drop into the first canyon, and we encountered a set of judges.. They were waiting to see how the horses handled the rocky stair-step trail. They asked each horse to stop at a marker and stand quietly for five seconds before backing three steps uphill. Elmer and Ransom both nailed the task.

When traversing the slower canyon terrain, Wood told of Elmer's early years as a lead wrangler horse in Wyoming, where she led Girl Scouts on trail rides and pack trips.

She believes the lead horse expends more energy, "clearing spooks from the trail." I offered to lead, but when I pulled alongside Elmer, he would gently pin ears and give Ransom the look, seeming to say, "Keep back. I am The Man." Ransom, normally the leader in a group scenario, seemed to agree and dropped back.

Wood memorized every water source we passed and made a mental note of potential cooling spots for the return loop. She never passed an opportunity to drop her sponge on its long leash into water and wet the sweating horse, often without breaking pace. It was an example I learned to follow.

After 20 miles, Elmer allowed Ransom to occasionally take the lead. Often our group rode alone across thousands of acres of red and green grasses. Red prairie sumac battered our riding boots as we trotted serpentine paths through the brush. Deer scattered from distant ridges.

"I will retire Elmer when he no longer enjoys the trail," said Wood. Saturday was not that day.

The last vet check found Elmer in fine shape and Ransom with an elevated heart rate. I was held for a mandatory rest and recheck as Elmer trotted off to finish Day 1, sound and on time.

Grateful not to be "pulled," I did not time out with Elmer Sunday. I left at the back of the pack and joined Elmer at mile 19 of a 25.4-mile day. Elmer was traveling more slowly Sunday and Wood stopped before the final vet check to cool him in the 30 mph wind. The check was a complete reversal of our ride Saturday. Ransom was fine, but Elmer was held.

The last horse to finish, Elmer was greeted with a simple bouquet of flowers from an anonymous competitor and a bucket of apples, for which Elmer has a fondness. Wood carried the flowers to final checkout.

 Elmer Bandit reaches the finish line

Elmer Bandit and Mary Anna Wood received flowers and a bucket of apples upon reaching the finish line at Elmer's record-breaking ride.

Elmer's legacy will be more than records. Wood and Elmer leave another legacy of inspiration to push limits, coupled with taking special care of our equine partners. Elmer set a record. Ransom and I completed our first open ride.

Elmer Bandit is not scheduled to compete in any other events in 2008.

Read more about Elmer's record-breaking ride.

About the Author

Marsha Hayes

Marsha Hayes has been covering endurance, trail, and other equine topics since 2005. She believes every horse has a story.

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