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Roll out the barrels

One family's deep love of horses has kept them linked to the El Paso County Fair

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Racing matriarch Ardith Bruce soon may see Jaycie, her - 4-year-old granddaughter, competing.
  • Racing matriarch Ardith Bruce soon may see Jaycie, her 4-year-old granddaughter, competing.

One year at the El Paso County Fair, Ardith Bruce saddled up for the annual barrel race, unaware that her horse had been drugged. It went berserk, jumping the rail of the racetrack, the fence of the parking lot and the hood of a car, before smashing Ardiths leg on the hood of a second vehicle. She never lost her grip.

It was almost safer to stay on than to get off, Ardith explains.

At 73, the Fountain resident sounds quite matter-of-fact while talking about the wilder days of her racing past. Then again, for Ardith, the past is never too far away.

Her former daughter-in-law, Dianna Miketa, was a National Barrel Horse Association champion in 2003 and currently raises horses in Simla. Her son, Dan Bruce, is a farrier out of Hanover.

Dans daughter Amber competes out of Philip, S.D., where she shares a ranch with her saddle bronc-riding husband. Their 4-year-old, Jaycie, is already riding barrels, while their 3-year-old son, Eastan, has his own horse, which he likes to ride at breakneck speeds.

Hes a tough little motor scooter, Amber explains.

In a way that few, if any, other families could, the Bruces personify the continuity that has carried the El Paso County Fair and one of its signature events through generations. Talking about her grandmother, the 1964 world barrel-racing champion and the first U.S. woman to be licensed as an outrider, Amber calls her a matriarch of barrel racing.

Ardith laughs when she hears Ambers assessment.

Possibly so, she acknowledges humbly.

In the mud

Although the exact origins are foggy, barrel racing traces to the 1940s, when the Girls Rodeo Association (which later became the Womens Professional Rodeo Association, now located in Colorado Springs) was founded in Texas.

It was there, around that time, that Ardith first tackled the cloverleaf-patterned race, at her husbands suggestion.

They started me out on an old ranch horse with barrels set up on the edge of the wheat field, and they showed me what to do, Ardith recalls.

Amber Bruce West says she has a long way to go before - she matches her grandmothers barrel racing success.
  • Amber Bruce West says she has a long way to go before she matches her grandmothers barrel racing success.

When she won back-to-back competitions at a Fourth of July rodeo not long after, her fate was sealed.

The first year she and husband Jim moved to Colorado, she competed in the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo and El Paso County Fair. It was 1952, and the fair had been celebrating the countys rural history for nearly 50 years.

My first memories of the fair were of competing in the barrel races out in Calhan, and the rigmarole we had to go through to get entered, Ardith says, sighing. I lived in Woodland Park at that time, and you had to drive clear out, or get somebody that was going out to Calhan to get you entered.

Once there, she and her girlfriends would room together in a motel for the weekend and run the races, sometimes under lightning-filled skies and in deep mucky mud.

I had a couple of spectacular wrecks that always excited the crowd, says Ardith wryly. One time I was knocked unconscious, and I suffered a broken collarbone when a racehorse came out of a starting gate. She thought she was a rodeo horse. I was leaned forward on her, not expecting a buck, and she promptly buried my head in the dirt.

Riding on

Such stories might be off-putting to younger generations, but the pull of the sport still wooed Ardiths granddaughter.

If Id grown up in a family that didnt have horses and barrel racing, Amber says today, I dont know what Id be doing in life.

Ardith started training Amber when she was just 3 years old.

Any time Id be saddling a horse to go out, shed be there saying I want to go, I want to go ... Ardith remembers.

Ardith was cheering Amber on at the El Paso County Fair when she won her first barrel race in 1982. Since then, Ambers built a successful career.

Ive won my fair share, says Amber with a hint of pride, speaking via phone from the Philip, S.D., ranch she shares with her husband, Zach. I havent won nearly as much as my grandma, but hopefully someday I can give her a run for it, and have as many accomplishments as she has.

Although the equestrian events brought Amber and Ardith to the fair, the women looked forward to other things, too. Even now, Ardith enjoys watching the demolition derby and making the rounds of the food stands. Although Amber is far away, she still misses going to the parties and the dance. Both ladies hope that the traditions of the fair, increasingly considered relics of another time, will be kept intact.

Im extremely disturbed when theres talk of taking the fair away from El Paso County, or discontinuing it, or moving it into Penrose Equestrian Center, explains Ardith, referencing a discussion that cropped up in the late 1990s. I think the people in the Calhan area are very fond of their fair and very supportive of it, and ... that the people in [Colorado Springs] should be supporting it.

Its a very integral part of our county.

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