George Gillespie ranks among the best rodeo bareback riders on the planet.

But hold your horses, it's not the PRCA world ranking (No. 22) or all those shiny buckles that make this 34-year-old cowboy content. It's the ring he will soon be wearing around in his adopted home of Hamilton.

"It was always kind of a dream to meet a Montana ranch girl," he said after competing in the Missoula Stampede on Thursday. "It's kind of weird how you follow your dreams."

Kind of weird, indeed.

Soon Gillespie will marry Ashley Lippert, sister of former Montana Griz linebacker Kelsey Lippert. They met at a rodeo in Great Falls four years ago. A rodeo Gillespie never would have attended had his college plans or post-college 20-something situation panned out.

The son of a timber cutter and nurse, Gillespie wanted to be a doctor when he enrolled at Eastern Oregon University 16 years ago. That wasn't a good fit so he spent seven years clearing high forests in Oregon as an excavator operator for the U.S. Forest Service.

Along the way he got married and purchased a home. It was pretty much your garden variety American tale until the marriage fizzled and George decided he was going to ride his rodeo aspirations as far as he could.

"I started rodeo-ing in Oregon while I was working full time running a (vegetation) masticator out in the woods," he recalled. "I was working 12 hours a day to try to make up extra days to go rodeo. Then it got to where I could go full time rodeo around 2010."

Gillespie is older than most of the bareback riders he's chasing in his bid to earn a National Finals Rodeo (NFR) berth for the first time. To get there he needs to get in the top 15 of the PRCA standings by the end of September.

"Rodeo gets easier mentally I think when you're older because you know what to do from the experience," he offered. "You don't get overly excited about certain things you don't need to and you stay stronger mentally.

"But then obviously days when you start getting beat up, definitely the recovery is not as easy, especially when you have to get on more than one horse like I did (in a re-ride Thursday). You have to focus more on taking care of yourself and taking care of old injuries."

That's not even the toughest part, according to George.

 "It's the driving, definitely," he said. "I came to Missoula from Jasper, Alberta (Wednesday) night. It's about 10 1/2 hours. It wears on you when you're not getting as much sleep. You might be all right that first or second night, but five nights down the road you start wearing down.

"It's hard to get that excitement and motivation level and your mind in the right place sometimes when you've been driving. You show up lethargic. I barely got ready in time for this one."

Gillespie didn't fare as well as he hoped in the Missoula Stampede, settling for a score of 65 on a critter named Crow Fair. He needs a fantastic five-week stretch to reach the NFR -- or at least find his way into the smaller Canada National Finals Rodeo.

Even if he never reaches his ultimate rodeo, George figures he's found what he was looking for all along.

"Rodeo was always what I really wanted to do and I have no regrets," he said. "I've gotten to experience things I never would have to this point. I wouldn't have met my fiance and all the friends I've acquired all over the United States and Canada.

"My fiance got a job two years ago in Hamilton and I think it's awesome here. I really love the big, high mountains. It's got everything I love to do here. Elk, deer, and the people are really cool."

For Gillespie, the ride that started out rather rough smoothed out considerably once he listened to his heart.

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