On The Trail with Rider Kiesner

by Siri Stevens

Rider Kiesner has performed in every state and 15 different countries. “When I turned nine I got a Will Rogers trick roping kit for Christmas,” said the 29-year-old from Ripley, Oklahoma. Rider grew up as a fifth generation cowboy on his dad’s side and third generation on his mom’s side. He was competing in Youth and Little Britches rodeos, winning his first buckle when he was just 5 years old. Today he is a two time World Champion All Around Western Performer, four time World Champion Trick Roper, as well as a two time World Champion Gun Spinner. He has performed at the NFR seven times as well as the Ram National Circuit Finals and several circuit finals.

He mastered the art of trick roping by pushing the living room furniture back and watching instructional videos over and over until he mastered each trick. “My dad (Phillip) trained Arab English horses and had as many as 30 horses in training.” His great great grandfather leased out horses and had a turn of the century full city block, three stories tall. The bottom floor held all the horses; the second and third floors were for the wagons. He leased out horses to all sorts of companies that needed horses to deliver things.


Rider at three years old dressed up while his dad was riding saddle broncs - courtesy
Cracking the whip on a flower held by Bethany Ileas - Steve Gray Photography
Pointing to the great wall of China 2004 - courtesy

“My grandfather would stop at wherever the train would stop and unload ten teams, based on whatever the logging camp needed.” said Phillip. “They would check them in and go to the next one. He had around 2,500 head of horses in Northern Minnesota that were used for loggers.”

Phillip’s dad trained saddle bred horses in the late 60s and 70s, and then switched to Arabs – that’s where the money was. Phillip grew up training horses. He also competed in high school rodeo in saddle bronc riding. He met his wife, Julie, who was the Minnesota High School rodeo queen and qualified for the National High School Finals all four years and was state champion in barrel racing. They met when they were 24 and 25 and married within a year. They took a job training Arabs in Oregon and got into cutting and reined cow horses. “We moved around a lot training quarter horses,” said Phillip. “Rider was born in California. Roper was born in Colorado.” Phillip trained out of Randy Dunn’s (Bath Brothers Ranch) ranch in Laramie and trained for notable breeders as the Merritt’s in Laramie, Wyoming.

Rider had gone to kindergarten in Laramie, the school was 30 miles west of Laramie and there were 13 kids enrolled. “They taught us to say yes ma’am and no ma’am,” said Rider. The family moved to Penrose, Colorado, and bought a house with 80 acres, where they continued to train horses and give riding lessons. After Sept. 11, 2001, it all stopped. “We got one gift each,” said Rider, whose gift was a trick roping set. The family was forced to sell their place and start down another path. “We started doing a mini Wild West show at rodeos. Dad started with cowboy mounted shooting, adding clowning and I would do rope tricks, and Roper did the trick riding. That’s how we made a living until I was 18.” The family booked enough little rodeos to fill their card. By 2005 the family was working some of the most prestigious rodeo in the PRCA. Not only did the family spend four months in Bejing, China in 2004 producing rodeos, but “my dad produced the first rodeo in Lebanon. It was really fun.” The family did everything during the rodeo. “I was the bull fighter .. we were in charge of the back pens and competed in every event … that was in 2010 – I was 18 Roper was 16.”

Julie’s role was throwing props, occasional mounted shooting and keeping it all together. She also kept all four paint horses white along with the four white shirts. She also home schooled both boys. “I’d bathe them in the mud and snow – we lived on the road full time for ten years – we started with a four horse trailer with a four foot dressing room. The only splurge we did was an air conditioner … we all slept in the gooseneck of that trailer. It was the time of our lives .. we were all together and we had everything with us. It was absolutely phenomenal.” Julie still competes in barrel racing.

“I am certain that God has a bigger plan … none of this would have happened if we hadn’t gone broke after 9/11,” said Phillip. “It was such a huge blessing – unanswered prayers… there was nothing I could do. It opened up the world to all of us.”


Performing at the 2013 NFR - Hubbell
Ft. Worth Stockyards, featuring Best of the West - courtesy
Jumping the loop in 2005 - courtesy

They got their pro cards as team ropers. “I always thought I was going to be a team roper, but God had other plans.” Roper rides saddle broncs – and has gone to the Prairie Circuit finals 8 times. He makes knives (see page 114) The brothers often end up at the same rodeo. “We played golf and tennis yesterday.”

Rider has added barrel man and clowning to his skills. “I was so bad as a clown at the first…I’m not funny and I don’t want to die.” He’s gotten better at it over time. “I do all the walk and talk – I try to make my own twist on it – I do fire eating and juggle – I’ve been doing that since I was six. I was also the 2012 Kansas State YoYo champion, so I do that too.” Rider remembers hearing Flint Rasmussen saying he made his own twist on rodeo clowns, so Rider took that to heart. “I like to perform – I have a lot of tricks and props and jokes.”

The pandemic has been challenging for Rider. “I lost all my rodeos, but I got on the phone and hustled to get some other rodeos. I did a handful of rodeos and that filled in the gap. I did a lot of driving – from Florida to Montana. I had a better year than most, so I’m grateful.” He performed at the Cervi ranch last month. “Cervi is one of the biggest stock contractors that hired me – that was a pretty short notice and he called me up and asked if I would do it. He didn’t have to have acts – so for him to have me and perform at his house – he’s one of many stock contractors that have done a lot for me. I felt like I was performing at Dances with Wolves … it was awesome.”

Rider has been nominated for Coors Man of the Year as well as nominated for Dress Act of the Year for the seventh year. “I’ve built a truck with a stage on it; I’ve got pyro on it, and I do a lot of trick roping on my horse. Bethany and I are on the road, so I’ve got all the acts as a bigger wild west show act … just like I did as a kid. Without God, none of this would be possible.”


Bethany Iles

“He’s the guy I’m going to end up with,” said Bethany Iles, who started 13 years ago as a trick rider. “My family was not rodeo – we had the white picket fence house.” After taking horseback lessons at 9, for about three months, the lady who was her coach now was about to get married and they put on a little trick riding show for the people trail riding. “My twin sister (Brittany) and I decided that’s what we wanted to do. We took lessons from her and about a year later we were doing some rodeos around Missouri.” When they were 18, they started trying to get their pro card. “She had a couple wrecks; she broke her back and neck and that stopped her trick riding.”

Bethany went out on her own and has now joined up with Rider. “We have a lot of the same goals – dress act of the year and always to be better. I’m always working to improve to be better at what I do. Both Karen Vold and Linda Schotlz inspired me. I love God and He has been a big part of what we do. I want to be a light for Him and being an example is what I want to do.”



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