Women in Rodeo: Barrel Racing Icon Ardith Bruce

ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee Ardith Bruce had an unrivaled passion for the sport of barrel racing, and for helping others.
The 1964 Girls Rodeo Association World Champion Ardith Bruce was a trailblazer among woman in rodeo.

Inducted posthumously into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in July 2022, Ardith Bruce had an unrivaled passion for the sport of barrel racing that she shared with everyone in her orbit. Bruce actively competed in barrel racing well in to her 80’s with an indomitable determination that inspired her peers and the many riders she mentored during her lifetime.

Born July 22, 1931, in Clay Center, Kansas, Bruce grew up deeply committed to the Western way of life and shared her love of it with others at every opportunity until her passing on June 27, 2022, at her longtime home in Fountain, Colorado, just weeks before the ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“There were so many things that she did that I maybe didn’t even know about because to me, she was just my grandma, you know, and I saw her in a different light than a lot of people,” said her granddaughter Amber (Bruce) West, who made Bruce’s induction speech on July 16 at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “I’ve had people tell me since she’s passed, ‘Oh your grandma was a legend, she was such an icon. To me, she was just my grandma, and I took a lot of that for granted. I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now.”

Amber West, granddaughter of 2022 ProRodeo Hall of Fame member Ardith Bruce, gave an acceptance speech that included notes handwritten by her grandmother who had passed away just weeks before the induction ceremony was to be held. While West was saddened that her grandmother was not there to accept the award, she took comfort in the fact Ardith Bruce knew she had been chosen to be inducted in 2022 and was elated by the honor in the last months of her life. Photograph by Lincoln Rogers

Bruce joined the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) now the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in the 1960 and within a few short years was the world champion in 1964 riding Red, registered as Shaws Kingwood Snip. That same year, Red was the AQHA Reserve World Champion Barrel Horse. Bruce and Red were the first world champion team to run to the left barrel first. If a set-up was better for lefties, Bruce ran Red to the left, but if not, she took him to the right. Bruce landed among the top 15 seven consecutive years from 1963 through 1969.

Ardith Bruce and her great horse Red, registered Shaws Kingwood Snip. Photograph Courtesy Amber Bruce West

“She said her horse Red was the deserving one of this honor because she said what a hard-knocking, tough, honest winner he was,” said West. “She hauled him in her Buick car and her in-line, two-horse trailer from the Cow Palace (in San Francisco, California) to Madison Square Garden in New York, and everywhere in between. He was tough. He didn’t have the supplements, the veterinary benefits that our horses have today.”

Bruce and Red were the first world champion team to run to the left barrel first and became known for switching to the right or left barrel first depending upon what the setup demanded. Photograph Courtesy Amber Bruce West

Women on the rodeo road in Bruce’s era were a special breed with a hardy pioneering spirit and tough as nails.

“They didn’t have cell phones back then. If you broke down, you figured it out,” said West. “If you didn’t know where the rodeo grounds were, you followed another horse trailer and hoped they were going to the rodeo too, and not to their ranch 10 miles out of town, which happened to us once! We didn’t have the advantage of cell phones. You just figured it out and everybody did it because they loved it and didn’t want to have to get a real job.”

Rodeo owes ladies like Ardith Bruce a debt of gratitude for paving the way to elevate barrel racing to the level that fans and enthusiasts enjoy today.

“Rodeo has come so far from being something that was put on in a small town for weekend entertainment to what it is now, multi-million-dollar productions in major venues,” said West.

While the fact that Bruce missed her induction ceremony is indeed bittersweet, she had multiple generations of family representing her with granddaughter West and West’s daughter Jaycie—both highly accomplished barrel racing competitors in their own right. As family and extended rodeo family gathered to celebrate Bruce’s legacy as a talented and influential figure in women’s professional rodeo, West says her grandmother would be proud.

West added that Bruce’s husband of 59 years fully supported her dreams and aspirations, which helped bring those goals to life.

“I know that she would want to thank Jim, her husband and my grandad, because he stayed home and worked,” West said. “He took care of horses that he did not ride, he raised my dad. My dad was a little boy when she was gone a lot and he kept the home fires burning and paid the bills when she wasn’t winning, which wasn’t that often, she normally paid her own way, but he backed her all the way.”

“I know that she would want to thank her friends because she said that when they rodeoed back then those rodeos might be multiple go-rounds and you might be in a place like Houston for 10 days,” shared Bruce. “You all stayed, and you all hung out together. They became very close. They say rodeo is a family sport, but it’s a family sport in another respect because everyone who rodeos is like family. You spend more time with them. I know that so many of her friends and competitors, she felt like they were her family.”

Pikes Peak region barrel racers and rodeo folks knew that Bruce was a regular fixture at the Pikes Peak Or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colorado—one of her very favorite events.

“I remember as a kid hauling horses up there, even if she wasn’t entered, we’d still haul horses up there and ride in the grand entry,” said West. “I know she loved that arena and I plan to take some of her ashes and drop some out there for her because that was one of her favorite places.”

In fact, Bruce won the PPOB Rodeo six times and was inducted into that rodeo’s hall of fame in 1997.

“Thank goodness that she lived in Fountain because she got up to Penrose and forgot her horse at home once,” echoed great granddaughter Jaycie. “She had to go back and get him and then ended up winning the rodeo!”

Bruce never hesitated with the loan of a great horse to a young, would-be champion. As a child eventual WPRA World Champion Marlene (Schiffer) McRae rode Bruce’s great horse Red to National Little Britches Rodeo Association titles in three events. AQHA champion Margaret Hammond won her first barrel racing buckle on Red. Many a young barrel racer felt the thrill of riding a great equine athlete thanks to Bruce’s generosity and her competitive fire.  

Bruce and her son Dan as a young boy learning the ropes with Red. Photographs Courtesy Amber Bruce West

Bruce loaned a young man some cash to purchase a camera so he would be able to capture the action of the barrel racing that so captivated him. That young man was none other than iconic journalist Kenneth Springer who would go on to immortalize countless champions and capture more historic moments from the National Finals Rodeo than arguably any other barrel racing photographer—not to mention cataloguing countless other great horse and rider pairings from the Barrel Futurities of America and numerous others.

From left: Zach, Eastan, Amber (Bruce) and Jaycie West were able to join Ardith Bruce, her son Dan Bruce and daughter Deb Thompson when the city of Fountain, Colorado, erected a welcome sign in Ardith’s honor. Photographs Courtesy Amber Bruce West

A true pioneer, Bruce became the first female licensed outrider in the State of Colorado. She was also among the first professional barrel racers to conduct instructional clinics, which undoubtedly contributed to the growth and popularity of barrel racing.

Bruce was passionate throughout the course of her life about teaching clinics. She is pictured here with fellow Coloradan and WPRA barrel racer Norma Seward. Photograph Courtesy Amber Bruce West

To revisit Bruce’s career achievements, watch her ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction video HERE.

The 2022 ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductees gathered for a group photo after the completion of the induction ceremony at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Saturday July 16, 2022. From left to right — Bobby Harris, Jerry Nelson representing the bucking horse Medicine Woman, Rick Young, Amber West representing her grandmother Ardith Bruce, Cindy Rosser, Bennie Beutler representing Jake Beutler, Jess Helgoth representing Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, Carlis Bartholomew representing steer wrestling horse Whiskey, Bobby Mote, Trevor Brazile, and Mel Potter. Photograph by Lincoln Rogers