Something very cowboy/Western would likely await a pair of brothers named Ryder and Roper.
At least Kevin and Amy Rich of Eaton, Colo., hoped so. They selected their sons’ Western-themed monikers based on birth order. Ryder, now age 20, was the first born; Roper’s arrival as second son came the following year. First Ryder, then Roper.
As 19-year-old Roper logically explained, “Well, you have to learn to ride before you can rope.” Of course.
However, Ryder admitted with a hearty laugh that he avidly gravitated all throughout childhood and high school only to baseball and football. No bull (riding).
Roper similarly turned away from the rodeo chutes and instead towards the field and court, going for the trifecta by adding basketball to his expertise. Even though since childhood he’s ridden horses and been around livestock, Roper confessed that he has absolutely no idea how to rope anything.
Both Ryder and Roper were in FFA, each for all four years at Eaton High, but as less than enthusiastic participants. The fact that their parents owned American Bull Fighting, a company that breeds, supplies and exhibits rodeo bulls didn’t sway them.
So how did they recently become bull fighting champions well on their way to prominent careers in the increasingly popular sport? Their zeal for victories began modestly, to say the least.
Ryder technically fought his first bull at the tender age of 13 or 14 while attending an ABF event in Clovis, NM His dad, Kevin Rich, simply ‘tossed him into the pool’ and said, “Swim.”
Sadly, the boy floundered. Continuing with the above metaphor, Ryder sank, bobbed up and down a few times, and then wearily dragged his limp body onto dry land.
Brother Roper’s youthful debut came even earlier, at age 9. Outcome similar.
“I stepped in front of a fighting heifer at the Budweiser Events Center on New Year’s Eve 2010,” he recalled. “I got tossed a few times but won a second place.” … out of two contestants. Ouch.
From then on, he primarily focused on ballgame sports; until Roper, who loves entertaining crowds, ultimately became the barrel man at his dad’s ABF events. The entirety of the rodeo’s bull riding and fighting, he danced, did back flips in front of the bull, and otherwise kept spectators amused.
Then in May 2020 — yes, the mid-pandemic May — he began seriously fighting bulls, this time becoming as proficient as had brother Ryder.
BULL FIGHTING 101
American bull fighting differs from that in Spain, Mexico and other traditionally Hispanic cultures in two dramatic ways: no bull is ever killed, nor are any intentionally injured in the US sport.
All of Rich’s bulls are purebred Mexican Fighting bulls, one of the oldest recognized breeds in Mexico, Spain and most Latin American countries, he said. They are not trained nor coerced; rather. extreme aggression is an inherited trait.
American freestyle bullfighters each get 40 seconds to score, with points based on the performance of both the fighter and the bull. Ryder Rich stated that the athletic fighters’ goal is to stay as close as possible to the bull, performing such crowd-pleasing tricks as jumping over the animal.
In bull riding, rodeo clowns defend the rider.
Rich affirmed that, as do rough stock riders, bullfighters have corporate sponsors. Company names and logos primarily appear on the fighters’ baggies (pants), which serve as a billboard.
At age 18, bullfighters can join the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Full membership makes them eligible to compete in Protection (of bull riders), as well as in Freestyle events. Rich clarified that prior to membership, only Freestyle competition is available to those without a PRCA card.
Because of injuries, Freestyle fighters (paid in prize money and merchandise such as saddles) generally age out of the sport by their early- to mid-30s. Whereas Protection rodeo clowns (who receive a flat fee for their work) can continue working well into their 40s.
IN THE GENES
Kevin Rich, who grew up in southern Kansas, still has an early video of himself at age 6. The content lightheartedly explains his eventual fascination with bull fighting. In the footage, he matches wits with a large, indignant ram. (Spoiler: The ram wins.)
“That goat was my best buddy, but a mean son-of-a-gun.” Rich said. “That’s where I learned to fight bulls.”
He became enthralled with them back when he was a 19-year-old PRCA bullfighter. Ultimately, he decided to breed the belligerent bovines.
“I liked the thought of not having a real job.” he joked.
About 12 years ago, he started breeding fighting bulls, adding them to his bucking bulls business that he’d had since 1995. Rich noted that only about three other fighting bull breeders existed in 2008. Now there are 12 to 15 besides ABF, whose stock includes 15 head of bucking bulls, 40 head of show-ready fighting ones, plus many youngsters coming on.
Besides its own events, ABF contracts bulls out, including to PRCA well-known stock contractor Bennie Beutler of Elk City, Okla. ABF’s bulls are a big draw for spectators and riders.
GRAVE DIGGER, AND BEYOND
“I owned Grave Digger, the greatest fighting bull who ever lived.” said Kevin Rich, continuing, “He was the very best, a once-in-a-lifetime bull.”
The remarkably imposing creature originally came up from Mexico. Here he lived a long life, fighting and loving every bit of it, Rich said. Spectators and bullfighters alike loved him. Rich owned him for about 20 of his 25 years, dejectedly burying the elderly bull on his property when the (then ironically-named) Grave Digger died from natural causes. Rich took his popular bull’s death hard.
“I cried like a baby for days, sobbed actually,” he said. “We’ll never have another like him.”
ABF will, however, have many that genetically descend from him. Pretty much all their current stock traces to Grave Digger. But, male or female, most also appear to carry the genetic trait that makes them “wanna kill somebody,” as Rich bluntly put it.
Whereas Grave Digger was a monster in the ring but a pussycat back home in his field. There, members of the Rich family were able to easily approach and pet him to their hearts’ content. Kevin Rich assumes this was because the bull was a consumate professional, easily switching personas (bullsonas?) from combative to kind, at will.
Yes, Rich knows proficient professionals when he sees them and thus proudly predicts greatness for his sons.
“I understand they’re my kids, but my sons are fighters, entertainers, and two of the best at both.”
Event scores confirm proud papa’s prediction. Ryder Rich won the 2019 ABF World Championship in Las Vegas, Nev. The following year, Roper was the 2020 ABF Holyoke Freestyle Champion.
On New Year’s Eve 2020, ABF’s Extreme Rodeo Challenge is slated to be the Budweiser Events Center’s first such live event since the COVID-19 shutdown. Watch their website for updates, but keep your fingers crossed, your cinch snug, and your calendar marked.
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,