Bush, Wanda May Harper (1931–2015)

By: Carrie Lammers

Type: Biography

Published: January 29, 2022

Updated: January 29, 2022

Wanda Harper Bush, the most decorated cowgirl in the history of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), was born to Alvin and Gussie (Martin) Harper on October 6, 1931, in Mason County, Texas. Wanda helped around the family’s ranch and rode horses. When she was eight, her brother, Alvin Clarence “A.C.,” was born. At a young age, she learned rodeo skills by roping and tying goats. After Wanda progressed from goats to calves, she began competing in rodeos. Before she graduated from Mason High School in the spring of 1949, she became one of the first members of the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA), which later became the WPRA, and held membership card number fourteen. She quickly made a name for herself in rodeo circles and became the all-around GRA champion in 1951, 1952, and 1954. In 1953 she was barrel race champion and came in second in the all-around category. She regularly took the championship title in barrel racing, ribbon and calf roping.

Nearly two decades before Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the famed “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match at the Astrodome (see SPORTS), Wanda Harper competed against a man, Pete Taylor of Doole, Texas, in a calf roping contest in San Angelo in 1956 and beat his time by 21.1 seconds. Although a humble woman who focused more on training her horses than media attention about her accomplishments, she appeared on an episode of the television show To Tell the Truth in April 1958. Over her long rodeo career, Wanda competed in barrel racing, cutting, flag racing, calf roping, and ribbon roping. She earned thirty-two world championships and nine all-around titles throughout her career. This made her the most decorated cowgirl in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s history as of 2017.

In 1957 Wanda married Stanley Bush, a cutting horse trainer and later world cutting champion, in Mason County, Texas. The couple competed in rodeos as well as bred and trained horses, many of which became champions, for five decades. Before she married, she trained famous champion quarter horses, Dee Gee, Phoebe Chess, and Flying Eagle, at the Harper family ranch. Then, she and her husband raised and trained their progeny. After their marriage, the couple continued the tradition of training champion mares. Stanley Bush’s cutting horse Royal Chess, progeny of Phoebe Chess, was inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame in 1970. Wanda and Stanley had a daughter, Shanna, on August 14, 1959, who followed in her parents’ footsteps when, in 1984, she qualified for the National Finals Rodeo. Wanda not only taught her daughter rodeo skills, she also traveled the country and held skills clinics for young people.

In the 1980s Wanda served on the WPRA board as the Texas ProRodeo Circuit director at a crucial point in the WPRA’s history. Many of the top rodeos were in Texas. Barrel racers earned less than half the amount of winnings as men in similar events despite having similar costs and fees. Barrel racing was also one of the more popular rodeo events. In 1981 the WPRA began requiring that purse (prize) money for barrel racing events in all rodeos be equal to half the purses offered in men’s events and equal purse money for women’s events by 1985. Wanda Bush played a crucial role in keeping Texas rodeos in the barrel racing circuit and bringing gender equality to Texas rodeos. Every single Texas rodeo agreed to raise the purse winnings and stay on the circuit, and many credit, at least in part, the respect and clout Wanda had built during her career as a barrel racer in rodeo with this success. She was later honored by the WPRA with the Coca-Cola WPRA Woman of the Year in 1989. After her rodeo career ended, Wanda and Stanley, along with Wanda’s brother A. C., continued to train horses on the Harper-Bush Ranch.

At eighty-four years old, Wanda Bush died of a heart attack on December 29, 2015. Her service was held at the Mason Funeral Home Chapel, and she was interred in the Harper-Bush Family Cemetery. In 2017 she and fellow barrel racer, Charmayne James, were the first women inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in a competitive rodeo event category. As of 2020 her brother ran the Harper-Bush Ranch and trained horses with Shanna Bush.

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Big Spring Herald, June 26, 1985. Ann Bleiker, “Rodeo World says Goodbye to Rodeo Legend Wanda Harper Bush,” Women’s Pro Rodeo News, February 2016. Jolee Jordan, “Wanda Bush A True Leader,” Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (https://www.wpra.com/index.php/pro-rodeo-hall-of-fame-inductee-wanda-harper-bush), accessed December 19, 2021. Mary Lou LeCompte, Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993; 2nd ed., Illini Books, 2000). Mason County News, April 16, 1981. San Angelo Weekly Standard, April 20, 1956; April 25, 1958. San Angelo Standard-Times, April 15, 1956.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carrie Lammers, “Bush, Wanda May Harper,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/bush-wanda-may-harper.

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January 29, 2022
January 29, 2022

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