By Bonnie Wheatley

There are certain truths about horses that Wanda Harper Bush knows because horsemanship is at the heart of her very essence. Though Bush’s roots are humble, they are sturdy – her’s is a toughness born of the West Texas brush country she was raised up in, and that she has never left. Having devoted a lifetime to ranching and training great horses, Bush is characterized by a few constants – an extremely close-knit and committed family, the legacy of her horses and the hard work and winning accomplished on them. The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame honoree earned an unprecedented 32 World Championships in the Girls Rodeo Association (now the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association). Roping, barrel racing, cutting – you name it, if a ranch task or an arena contest involved horses, Wanda Bush could do it, and odds are she would beat you at it.

Born in Mason County, Texas, on October 6, 1931 to ranchers Alvin and Gussie Harper, Wanda married Stanley Bush, who passed this past February, and together they raised one daughter, Shanna. When the Girls Rodeo Association was formed in 1948, Bush was one of its charter members. She was among the first cowgirls competing in the GRA who became proficient at barrel racing, first running “straights,” and later the increasingly popular cloverleaf pattern. The year 1950 was a pivotal one for Bush when she partnered with the 5-year-old, 14.3 bay powerhouse, Dee Gee. The mare was purchased from Henry Russell and would carry Bush to multiple world titles, beginning with the first one in 1952.

Her’s is a story of a lifetime, and who better to tell it than Bush herself? When she was gracious enough to allow me to visit her home in November 2011, I jumped at the chance. What made the occasion all the more memorable was that I was joined by my friend, four-time WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer, Kristie Peterson. I set my recorder down on Wanda’s table, kept my mouth shut and listened to stories of horses and time-tested philosophies on training them. The times may change, the styles may change, but wisdom like Wanda’s is a rare and valuable treasure. We hope you enjoy this unique question and answer session between two of the most decorated ladies in barrel racing. We look forward to sharing much more of “Wanda’s Wisdom” with you over the course of the next several months.

A Family Affair

Bush: Daddy built me an arena over here. I rode over here a couple of years before we moved over here. Anyway, the old roping box is still here, the roping chute is built beside a tree. And I hauled old “Digger” there from Duncan, and he’s buried there. other horses we’ve lost, they’re buried there too, except the two old mares and they’re buried over here where they ran all the time.

We use a patch out there; the ground’s really good out there and many a time I’ve rode – we all have. When I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about the whole family because that’s the way it’s always been – from my mom and dad on up.

So, you know, it’s a lifelong story of we’ve rode and rode and rode and rode, and done other work in between. You know, always, it didn’t matter how far we was, or how tired we was, we always had to get home, because we had something to do. That is one of my things about it now. I hope everybody out there doing this type of thing has something to go home to. Because I think that’s very important. There’s nothing like that feeling of, ‘I have to get home, I’ve got to get home.’

Well, when I broke my leg out there in California [in 1996], oh me, I guess that was the longest two weeks I ever spent away in my life. When I woke up, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the day we’re going to sheer [the sheep], I’m supposed to be home today!’

It has been a family affair, it sure has. We’ve all helped each other, it’s been great.

Peterson: Ever since I moved to Texas, I didn’t know a whole lot of people, because I had never been to Texas until I started rodeoing, but I’ve heard your names. You are just loved, you guys have helped so many people.

Bush: Well, we hope so. Through the years, we’ve helped a lot of people and they’ve helped us too, you know.

Peterson: But usually, when you’re in the business – and when you’re in any business this long and successful at it – there’s somebody that’s going to be jealous, or whatever, and I have never heard a bad word about any of you. Not ever, nothing. Just that you’ve helped so many people.

Bush: Well, that’s a nice compliment, that’s very nice. I like to help kids. You can just see it; all of a sudden they get that light, you know? I mean, hey, something turned the switch on for them. You know Kristie, I’ve had good luck getting behind a kid and taking their hand. I can get behind them to show them how to use their hand.

Broke or Really Broke?

Bush: My brother had always ridden those colts, I mean, even way back when. Those horses, when he’d turn them over to me, they was ready to go start going around the barrels. I mean you could go around the barrels at a lope. That is the big thing in barrel horses – they need to be broke before you start going around those barrels! how can you teach them something if you can’t put them where they should be so they can form the right habit?

Peterson: We were going to ask you about that!

Bush: Well it’ll come out from me, I’ll tell ya!

Peterson: So, how do you define the difference between broke and really broke?

Bush: The difference between being gentle and being really broke is two different things. You know, I want one to be gentle, too. I don’t want to ride a broncy son-of-a-gun, you know, and I hadn’t in a long, long time. I used to have to… you know, you earn your way. But you need to put a handle on those horses! A stop and a turnaround, responsiveness to the rein, you know, out doing jobs. There’s been many a time if I could just get my horse home and go to the pasture and ride… I mean, he’d have a whole different attitude.

Peterson: OK, I love that. You don’t take advantage of a horse, you don’t believe in fatigue training. You believe in using them and using their mind. Give ‘em a job.

Bush: Give ‘em a job. I’ve always said that a tired horse is a good horse. It takes time, and for some horses it takes more than others. Sometimes, when the run begins to hit a horse, instead of thumping on them for it, go ride ‘em. I realize a lot of people don’t have enough area to go around to ride in, and a horse gets bored going around and around and around and around in the same place. They get non-responsive. They form bad habits. They know where you’re going to pull them up; they know where you’re going to turn them around; they know and they get to out-thinking you in a little bitty pen. They won’t let you think for them anymore. I want to be able to think for one through my hands.

You know, just going and riding will do it. As rocky as this country is ya’ll, Stanly worked ol’ Royal Chess (1969 NCHA Open reserve world champion) on goats up on that rocky hill… and hey, try to beat him! That’s just it; it all goes back to horsemanship. Go back and put some horsemanship in it. I mean if he’ll stop and turnaround right, and I mean turn around quick and responsive, I can teach him something. If I’m trying to pull and tug and slow down and he won’t collect up, I can’t teach him a darn thing. I’ve ridden a lot of horses through the years for peole that were just plain spoiled, they might be a nice horse underneath, but you had to go ride that spoiled out of them. I could get a horse out here and turn some trees and rocks and all sorts of stuff and get their attention, you know?


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