The Best: Friends, family honor River Ray Ludemann

A river is a powerful, diligent, mesmerizing thing. Always working, never resting. Giving life to those who dare come near. A source of never-ending wonderment, entertainment and occasionally, heart-wrenching tears.

And so it was and will forever be with River Ray Ludemann.

Born April 13, 2009 and tragically died May 27, 2023, River was as unique as his name.

“Everything he did was special. If you could do it well, he’d try to do it better. He had no ceiling,” said his dad Shane Ludemann, Ft. Pierre, South Dakota.

Best friend and girlfriend Shada Beeson of Dante, South Dakota, described her favorite pal as outgoing, fearless. “If someone told him he couldn’t do something, he did it to prove them wrong,” she said. Shada and River shared a love for competition in and out of the rodeo arena.

Shane and Shada teamed up to honor River at the South Dakota 4-H Rodeo Finals, Aug. 18, 2023.

Shada buckled on a helmet, vest, spurs and chaps, and rode a “bull” (she actually rode a steer because steers are used for the junior bull-riding event) as a tribute to her best friend.

While some may have doubted her ability to cover the critter, Shada was determined to stay until the eight second whistle, and indeed, she did.

“It was awesome. I loved doing it. It was really emotional for everyone,” said the cowgirl who works most of the rodeo events, and rode steers as a younger girl. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to cover this steer for River.’ It means so much. I needed to do it for him,” she said.

“At first everyone was kind of worried, asking me if I needed anything, and wondering if I knew what I was doing. Once I sat on his back, I thought ‘I’m going for this. This is it. This is for River’. Shane was there and pulled my rope. I was ready to go. I nodded my head, rode the steer, and I got off, got down on my knee, pointed to the sky and said ‘this is for you, Buddy.'”

“He would have loved it,” she said.

After her ride, Shane met Shada in the arena with a hug. “We just both melted. It was a great moment right there,” she said.

Shane is the one who suggested the bull riding tribute.

“He said ‘I’m going to enter River. You should ride his steer.'” Shada immediately took to the idea, and when they presented the unique concept to the board, it was approved.

“They (the rodeo committee) were surprised with the idea but they approved it. I’m glad they did that for River and the family,” she said. “It’s an awesome thing to share with people. It’s not about me, it’s for River.”

The young woman who qualified in breakaway and pole bending (her barrel horse is still in training) said many didn’t understand the close connection she shared with River, with whom she had been friends for years.

“We were just best friends. We were two peas in a pod. Our personalities just matched. We both break horses, everything about us is pretty much the same, we got along really well,” she said.

“Then his accident happened and it was the hardest thing of my entire life. I didn’t know what to do. It’s like your partner in crime is gone. I’m just kind of lost right now. After losing your best friend, you have to restart life. It’s going, but it’s really, really hard,” she said.

Some of Shada’s fondest memories include riding the Missouri River breaks with River on his ranch. “We’d hop on bareback and go on trails, go swimming with our horses, just me and him out in the water. Spending time with him was my favorite,” she said.


As many compliments as Shada has for the Ludemann family, the feeling is certainly mutual. 

River’s parents Shane and Jessie are thankful for River’s connection to Shada and were honored to see her represent him in the arena.

“Shada’s talents are exceptional. She’s an exceptional horsewoman, she competes in multiple events. She’s a winner. She’s probably one of the handiest girls in the sport at that level,” said Shane. “She’s got a heart of gold. She and River were best friends,” he said.


Jessie said River had no “whoa.”

River would rope against adults as a young boy, never scared of the competition, even at big ropings such as Rancho Rio in Arizona.

When River started riding bulls, he asked his dad (a former bull rider) to give him a chance. “I said, ‘Buddy, if you want to ride, you have to ride all 24 steers tonight,’ He got on all of them and he wanted to get on more,” said Shane. “That’s the way he operated. He was the glue that held everything together, the guy always asking me to run steers in, and trying to get kids to practice with him.”

Jessie said he also enjoyed teaching younger kids by roping the dummy with them.

River competed in flag racing, breakaway, goat tying, and other rodeo events. His favorite events were team roping and bullriding.

A horseman first and foremost, River started training ponies as a young boy, then rode two-year-old horses.

One of Shane’s fondest memories is from junior high finals in Rapid City. Shane was home, River at the finals. River called to ask permission to ride a “big bull.”

“I said I’m not going to try to tell you ‘no’ because I know you’ll do it anyway. So I told him ‘Good luck and be careful.”

River ropes with his junior high roping partner, Rowdy Martin, Hayes SD. Jessica Ludemann | Courtesy photo
River learned to ride bulls from his dad, Shane Ludemann and Ty Odden. Jessica Ludemann | Courtesy photo
River was a skilled horseman. Jessica Ludemann | Courtesy photo

Team roping with her middle child is a memory Jessie will cherish forever, along with countless others. “River always made the short round. He always managed that. His little heart was huge. We made a lot of high calls together. As a mom, when you rope with your son, there is no way to explain the feeling you get when the announcer calls you: ‘Ludemann and Ludemann ride in.'”

Jessie said teaching her son to rope and then competing together at the highest level, meant she saw River’s and her own dedication come full circle.

River’s older brother Coy (15) and younger sister Dakota Rose (8) are elite competitors as well.

“They are amazing. They are the same way,” said Jessie.

River’s brother Coy leads a riderless horse in River’s honor at the South Dakota 4-H Rodeo Finals in Ft. Pierre, SD, Aug. 18-20, 2023. Ludemann family | Courtesy photo

Shane, Jessie and Shada appreciate the South Dakota 4-H Rodeo board for getting behind their tribute idea.

“They’ve been so supportive. They’ve gone above and beyond. They did nothing but love and support us. It’s overwhelming,” said Jessie.

Jessie talked about River’s big, white “famous” smile, his drive and his energy. “He had a glow about him. If you knew him, you loved him. He was the best.”