Updated: December 28, 2012 at 12:00 am
The cowgirl in tennies, stretch jeans and western shirt is racing hell-bent for leather across the arena in Fountain atop a half-ton horse named Itchy.
They round the barrels heartstop close, then fly across the dirt for home.
And this is just practice.
If you think about the rider’s age, you might get a few butterflies. But like a car crash, you can’t look away.
Don’t worry, this 81-year-old barrel racer is Ardith Bruce, the 1964 world champion. She still sits deep in the saddle and competes even when arthritis makes it a chore to fling her leg over the cantle.
Lucky Ekberg, a long-time friend and president of Fountain Valley Riding and Roping Club sums up Bruce best:
“Her mind has a built-in racing stopwatch and her heart is full of horsehair. Watching her ride takes your breath away.”
Just recently, she came in about 28th out of 140 men and women barrel racers competing at Norris Penrose stadium. She was probably the only one over 65.
“I like to say I came in first — in the 80-year-old category,” she laughs.
Bruce is a legend, inducted in the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Hall of Fame. A sign at the south end of Fountain reads: “Home town of Ardith Bruce.”
“What a competitor,” says Janet Cropper, executive secretary of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. “She’s ferocious, but genuine and a kindly person. She is always giving tips and is encouraging. I could always hear her voice in the crowd, ‘Go Janet,’ cheering me on.”
Bruce began riding at the age of 2, sitting astride her daddy’s farm horse, and she has never slowed down, ripping through life like she was on a barrel course, which more often than not she was.
She was the first female licensed on a paramutual horse racetrack as an outrider. She hefted mail bags onto trains as a rural Texas postmistress. She cooked for sawmill hands. She instructed hundreds of barrel racers at clinics and lessons far and wide. She kept a contractor’s books and delivered spring water into the NORAD tunnel being dug into Cheyenne Mountain. She designed and hand-sewed her own fancy cowgirl riding clothes, including a gold lame outfit displayed recently at the national rodeo finals. She raised a son, dotes on two grandkids, two great-grandchildren, a foster daughter and foster grandson. She gardens and cans the bounty, and does civic duty.
But always it is the horses.
Many of her contemporaries are gone now. There aren’t many barrel racers in their 70s, let alone their 80s. Those who know her call her “tough” in the best sense of the word.
“She’s from very rugged cloth,” says Janet Cropper, executive secretary of Colorado Springs-based Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. “Ardith and those early riders were pioneers. They had to be versatile. They lived on ranches, raised a family, sewed their clothes, doctored their horses. And competed in rodeos.”
This grit is evident. Bruce is on the healing side of a bad case of shingles that makes her right ear and scalp burn. The only thing that kept her afoot during the worst of it, she says, was going to the barn twice daily to feed her four horses and six cats.
None of the salves prescribed for shingles pain worked, she said, so she devised her own — made of engine starter fluid. She explains that racetrack trainers used to doctor horses that way. “Us horse people use a lot of horse remedies.”
She’s not one to complain about what comes with age, even not being able to wear cowboy boots because her toes “are tangled and crippled.” Instead, she wears sneakers and slips a No. 64 rubber band around them and the stirrups to get a better purchase.
She was one of the first to use shin guards before they were commercially sold. She made her own, drawing up a pattern out of water well casings. “Motorcycle riders got wind of it and I sold lots to them. It was spare money.”
Both Itchy and Miami Man, her other barrel horse, follow her around like dogs. They docilely trailer and barn themselves, a testament to her training.
Debbie Weaver Thompson, who has a cattle and horse ranch in Nebraska, lived with the Bruce family as a teen. She and her husband have a horse business.
“A large share of it we owe to Ardith and the knowledge I got from her,” Thompson says. When a problem arises on the ranch she tries to think how Bruce would solve it.
Bruce was born in the northeast corner of Kansas, near Clay Center, in 1931 to Forest Barnes and Evelyn Swenson Barnes, whose family had immigrated from Sweden.
“For a time, my mother suffered from blood clots and was bedridden, so daddy would take me to the fields. I was itty bitty and he would plunk me on a workhorse and I’d hold on the hames on the horse collar.”
When she was older, she would ride bareback and steer as her father came behind plowing. “After I graduated off work horses, there was no stopping me. I rode everything, including a big old sow, milk cows, sheep,” she laughs.
But it was the era of the violent Dust Bowl storms; farmland was blowing away, so the family moved to Missouri. Her father had received $400 for war service and made a down payment on a farm in the Ozarks.
She walked five miles to attend a one-room school. But at home they couldn’t get her off the horses.
Her mother used to tell Burce that she’d would “walk two miles west just to catch a horse to ride one mile east.”
She has paid the price for that love: stomped feet, bruises, a broken collarbone, being knocked unconscious. “I can’t itemize them all. It comes with the territory.”
After high school she married Jim Bruce and they moved to the Texas panhandle on the border near Clovis, N.M., where they worked on his sister’s ranch and lived in a one-room bunkhouse.
Her husband introduced her to barrel racing. He placed oil drums out in the grass and she used his range horse, Booger, who was anything but gentle. After two weeks of practice she entered her first competition on July 4, 1949, in Mule Shoe, Texas.
“I won both days and got hooked.”
She was 18, and Jim took her to amateur rodeos all over Texas and New Mexico. “It cost $5 to enter. I won $15, sometimes $30, a week. That was nice money.”
They moved to Colorado Springs on Jan. 1, 1952.
Jim Bruce worked on a ranch, was a lineman and, as an iron worker, helped put the spires on the Air Force Academy chapel. He died in 2008 at age 88.
They raised a son, Dan, who now owns Spear D horseshoeing and trains horses. Her granddaughter, Amber West, has a ranch near Sturgis.
Since 1963, Bruce has owned the same modest brick rancher in an old part of south Fountain that backs up to Fountain Creek. The wide open spaces are gone, but the property was grandfathered in so she can keep her horses.
Cookbooks that she reads for entertainment late into the night cram the kitchen shelves. There are sacks of jalapeno peppers ready to be made into cowboy candy. The living room is filled with books, trophies, framed photos of horses long gone.
She doesn’t get up early. “I don’t adhere to a rigorous schedule. I feed the horses when it warms up.”
On most days she drives to the Senior Center to have lunch “with the older ladies,” and hitches up her trailer to practice at the Metcalf Park arena. (The Bruces were one of the 13 charter families.)
Over the years she has been involved in civic endeavors: committees for the city charter, the Powers Corridor, Norris Penrose Stadium Advisory Board, the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board.
When she can, she goes to a little country church in Hanover. “I know God doesn’t care what you wear to church, but I like to dress up for Him,” she says. “I remember when I was little riding to church on my pony, carrying my good dress in a paper sack and changing in the outhouse.”
Barrel racing has changed. Purses are more lucrative, and the sport is more technical. Horses are carefully bred; there are magnetic blankets, leg boots with ice water, special diets.
Bruce knew none of that back then.
“Ardith is a traditionalist. She trains her own horses and they work for her. It’s a simple as that,” notes Eckberg, the Fountain riding club president.
She has learned plenty from her horses, particularly “how to observe and pay attention to things.”
She was always gussied up for her races, wearing outfits she fashioned herself and sewed by hand.
There were plenty of good times, including in Baton Rouge when she and the girls, as she calls her fellow racers, somehow ended with a baby alligator in the bathtub. But, now, “Most of those I rodeo’d with are dead and gone.” So is Shaw’s Kingwood Snip knicknamed Red, the horse on whom she won the Girls Rodeo Association finals title in 1964. (Since then the named changed to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.)
She was looking for a horse in 1963 and found Red. “People thought he was way past his prime. He was rank. He’d been roped and ranched on. He almost bucked me off when I was testing him. But we clicked. And he trained quickly.”
She borrowed $1,000 to buy him, but in several months of competition was able to pay it back. Over time, they won the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo barrel racing competition six times.
In 1964, Red was named AQHA Reserve World Champion Barrel Horse and was the first to be on the cover of Quarter Horse Journal. They were among the top 15 barrel racers from 1963 to 1970 and qualified for the national finals rodeos. They were crowned champion in 1964. Winnings were spare, around $7,000 compared to racers like Mary Walker, who just had a $147,000 season.
Red started failing healthwise at age 29 in 1979. Bruce had planned to have a veterinarian put him down, but there was an emergency and the horse was suffering. “My husband made me go in the house, because he didn’t want me whooping and crying, because it was tough enough to do.”
Ardith says that when her own time comes, she wants to be cremated, her ashes scattered in her rose garden where Red and her favorite Queensland heeler, Mighty Dog, are buried.
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