AT HOME IN THE HALL
Venerated Horsewoman Bruce Takes Rightful Place in ProRodeo Hall of Fame
By Neal Reid
Ardith Bruce couldn’t hold back the shriek.
According to her granddaughter, Amber Bruce West, the venerated horsewoman who won the 1964 Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) barrel racing world championship yelled with elation on the morning she got the call that she had been selected as a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame Class of 2022. Bruce — a Fountain, Colorado, resident for more than 60 years — was thrilled to finally know, at age 90, that her legacy would forever live on just up the road in the hallowed halls of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
West accepted on Bruce’s behalf, relaying to the crowd the emotions that emerged upon getting the news she was a Hall of Famer.
“She was a very stoic, old-school gal, but the morning she got the call that she was going in with this class, she actually let out a blood-curdling shriek,” said West, a former Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) Board member. “It was quite a big deal for her. It’s something she looked forward to for a long time, and it’s kind of like being immortalized for her.”
Bruce was one of 11 legends selected for enshrinement, and she relished that knowledge for more than two months before she passed away on June 27. Her ashes were carried in a cloverleaf pattern one last time on July 15 at the horse arena at Metcalfe Park in Fountain, one day before she officially became part of the Hall with this year’s class.
“It means the world to our family,” said Bruce’s daughter, Deb Thompson. “It’s an accomplishment we feel is very deserved and one that she will always have.”
West also shared part of the acceptance speech that Bruce wrote, but never finished prior to her passing.
“As a backwoods hillbilly child of a poor farm family, dreams were not dreamed of an honor such as I have arrived at today,” Bruce wrote in the speech.
Born in Clay Center, Kansas, on July 22, 1931, Bruce grew up enamored with the Western way of life thanks to the films of movie cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
“When I possessed a nickel and an afternoon in town, it was spent worshipping Gene Autry and Champion, his horse, at the picture show,” Bruce wrote. “They were the first love of my life, and they were probably the stimulus that directed my future career toward a diversifying horse world.”
She honed her skills in the saddle riding horses on her father’s farm.
“Little did I realize until 50 years later, the horses I spent riding and directing as a tiny girl, my father’s work horses, up and down row after row in his potato and corn fields while he maneuvered the planters and cultivators that these experiences would provide the expertise needed to maneuver gated show horses, racehorses, cow ponies and barrel horses in their competitions,” Bruce wrote. “Thank you, Daddy for these opportunities, even though you never believed horses would be a career opportunity and that I should become a schoolteacher. I am privileged that my horsemanship and barrel racing skills have allowed me to do both of these things.”
Bruce joined the GRA in 1960 after being encouraged to try running barrels by her husband, World War II Navy veteran Jim Bruce. She married Jim on March 19, 1949, and they enjoyed wedded bliss for nearly 60 years until his death in 2008.
He was the catalyst who suggested she give the sport a try, and she won the first event she ever entered, in Muleshoe, Texas. She was off and running and would qualify for seven consecutive National Finals Rodeos from 1963-69 on her beloved horse, Red, whose registered name was Shaws Kingwood Snip. Bruce won the 1964 title by just $400 over Sissy Thurman that year, and Red—which she bought for just $1,600 in 1960—was named reserve AQHA Horse of the Year.
Bruce and Red won six Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo titles, as well as the 1967 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo the first year it was held at the Astrodome. In 1965, Red was the first GRA/WPRA barrel horse to ever appear on the cover of Quarter Horse Journal in color, and Bruce would retire him in 1969 after the National Finals. Bruce, the first world champion to go to the left barrel first, was inducted into the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1997.
Giving back to the sport
Bruce was committed to helping others learn the craft of barrel racing, becoming one of the first professionals to conduct clinics and horsemanship schools. She taught them in 20 states, including Hawaii, and was quick to offer any competitor advice, whether it was requested or not.
“She helped grow the sport with her knowledge with anyone wanting to learn, and all you had to do was ask and maybe not even ask,” said West, who wore a buckle commemorating her grandmother’s 1964 world title. “She might just walk up and say, ‘Hey, I saw this. Would you like to try this to maybe get better?’ Nine times out of 10, she was right, and it helped.”
Bruce, who ran barrels into her 80s, helped set up the WPRA headquarters in Colorado Springs and helped celebrate the Hall of Fame inductions of Charmayne James’ famed horse, Scamper, and the first WPRA members who were inducted in 2017. She was a charter member of the Fountain Riding and Roping Club and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board, and the south entrance to the city of Fountain still is adorned with a sign that reads “Home to Ardith Bruce.”
West remarked that Bruce kept her WPRA Gold Card current every year and would routinely critique barrel racers’ runs after watching them on The Cowboy Channel. And she remained a big fan of her beloved movie cowboys.
“Sixty-plus years later, I am still enamored with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Hopalong Cassidy and all the rest of the movie and TV cowboys and their horses,” Bruce wrote in her speech. “They have and are still providing excitement and entertainment and are emphasizing clean living as good guys to children who, like myself, dreamed but never expected to be a part of that world.”
But Bruce, the first female licensed outrider in the state of Colorado, became a huge part of that world. West summed up her grandmother’s legacy succinctly and powerfully during her speech.
“I know how honored she was to be included in these hallowed halls with her friends and her fellow competitors. I know because I heard the stories,” West said. “She was a legend, a trend-setter and a matriarch of barrel racing, and we are all better for the path that she helped pave for women in rodeo.”
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