Horse Roundup 2022: Ardith Bruce: The Life and Legacy of a Horsewoman
By Ruth Nicolaus
Editor’s Note: Ardith Bruce passed away June 27, 2022.
Ardith Bruce has been a member and a staunch supporter of the Women’s Pro Rodeo Association for years, a world champion barrel racer, and is now a 2022 inductee into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
The Fountain, Colo. native, now 90 years of age, was the first barrel racer to host clinics, teaching girls and women across the nation about barrel racing and finessing their skills.
Born in 1931 to Forest and Evelyn Barnes, she spent days on the back of work horses in the farm fields. The family moved to Mountain Grove, Mo., when she was young.
After graduating high school in 1949, she married Jim Bruce. The couple moved to Texas, and Jim decided Ardith needed to learn to run barrels.
So he showed her the pattern, and two weeks later, she was at a rodeo in Muleshoe, Texas. “I had never seen, and never been to a barrel race till the first one I competed in,” she remembered. It was a two-day rodeo, with entry fees of $5 a day. She won both days and $30 for her efforts.
Bruce competed at amateur rodeos before joining the Girls Rodeo Association, forerunner to the WPRA in 1960. Three years later, she qualified for her first GRA barrel racing national championship, and the next year, won it, pocketing nearly $7,000 for the world title.
Her best mount was Shaws Kingwood Snip, “Red,” a gelding she purchased as a thirteen-year-old. Red had won grand champion at the Colorado State Fair’s quarter horse show, having been shown in the roping, reining, western pleasure, barrels and poles. He was also a ranch horse that could be broncy at times. When she tried him out, he bucked, “making me think twice about purchasing him,” she said.
But “we got along fine,” Bruce said. “He had a heart as big as he was. He was a smart horse, and he was great-hearted.”
Red carried her to every one of her seven consecutive world championship qualifications, from 1963-1969.
She was one of the first to host rodeo-type clinics. She got her start with a 4-H clinic in 1965, when the instructor didn’t show up. She continued producing barrel racing clinics across the nation, two or three a year, from coast to coast. In the 1960s, video cameras were new, and Bruce took advantage of the new technology, showing students their runs. “We would critique students on their runs and show them home movies of the top fifteen barrel racers at the National Finals. I learned about as much teaching as the kids learned from me.”
She and Jim had a son, Dan, who was an excellent horseman and trainer himself. He died in a vehicle accident in 2014. Jim passed away in 2007.
Dan had two children: Spencer Bruce and Amber Bruce West. Amber barrel races, as does her daughter, Jaycie. Her son, Eastan, also competes in rodeo.
Bruce gained a daughter when she took in Debbie Weaver Thompson. Thompson was introduced to Bruce in 1972 at one of her clinics, and the two hit it off. Thompson spent her high school years living with Bruce and the two women consider each other family.
Thompson said Bruce’s natural talent is analyzing horses and barrel racing runs. “She is phenomenal at studying and picking out things, small or big, that can help a horse and rider communicate better,” she said. “She can also translate that to the person. Even to this day, she can watch runs on TV and can pick things out.”
She is tuned in to horses, Thompson said. “She can get on a horse and make him do things that other people couldn’t get them to do. She can communicate very well with horses. Even fifteen years ago, when she was in her seventies, she could have gotten on my horse and probably outrun me.”
She has a way with animals in general, not just horses. Cats and dogs are her pets, and she’s even befriended the raccoons on the creek. Every night after dark, a family of coons come up for their daily feeding of cat food. She’s made partial pets out of the raccoons, Thompson said. “They aren’t scared and they don’t run from her. She talks to them and feeds them. She loves her animals, all kinds. Some people just have that gift, and she has the gift with animals.”
She had more talents than what was evident in rodeo.
Ardith was handy with a sewing machine, making many of her own rodeo outfits. They were stylish, colorful and flashy, and her great-granddaughter Jacie West often wears them.
Ardith was the first licensed female outrider in the Colorado race industry, and she won the GRA’s 1976 steer undecorating world title.
She was just as influential in the WPRA office as in the arena.
When the office moved from Oklahoma City to Colorado Springs, she spent an estimated one thousand hours helping move and organize.
Her biggest contribution might be how she helped make the barrel racing event more acceptable and professional.
At the time, there were no electric timers, barrel racing patterns weren’t measured, and rodeos used things like folding chairs or milk cans in place of the cans.
“I was one of them that worked to obtain a standard pattern in the Girls Rodeo Association,” Bruce said. She also worked to get an electric timer, which was operated by car battery “which we lugged around to rodeos.”
Barrel stakes might be pieces of twine dug out of the trash can, tied to a pop can, and buried in the arena.
“I urged the GRA to better our rule book and to get our judges and members to abide by the rules,” she remembered. “There were a lot of responsibilities that we did to make our event professional. I worked hard and accepted a lot of responsibility to make our barrel race a better event and upgrade the standards.”
Barrel racing wasn’t always included in rodeo, and Bruce’s work helped make it more acceptable.
“We have come a long, long way in making our association a professional one, to sell it to rodeo committees and the stock contractors. (Now) barrel racing is next to bull riding in popularity.”
Her last horse left her place a few years ago, as she isn’t as mobile and has trouble feeding. She misses that horse. “I’d slide open my doors and call to her. I enjoyed visiting with her.”
She loved to compete. “I could hardly stand to miss a rodeo,” she said. “If there was a rodeo somewhere, I wanted to go.”
Her barrel racing and rodeo days run through her mind now. “God has seen fit to let me have a good mind at my age, and I have a lot of memories of barrel racing and my old Red and the other horses I’ve had, and my travels around the U.S.”
The WPRA is also important to her.
“I have a payback and loyalty to this association that I’ll carry to the grave with me.”
The Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame ceremony takes place July 16 in Colorado Springs. Other inductees into the 2022 class include Cindy Rosser (WPRA notable), Trevor Brazile (all-around); Bobby Mote (bareback riding); Bobby Harris (team roping); the late Jake Beutler (stock contractor); Rick Young (contract personnel -rodeo clown); Mel Potter (notable); Medicine Woman (livestock -saddle bronc); and Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell (rodeo committee.)