On Sunday night, the audience at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo watched in horror as bareback rider George Gillespie was flung over the side of his horse and dragged all over the arena, his hand caught in the rigging.
Even sitting in the bucking chute at RodeoHouston, Gillespie had a bad feeling about the horse he was on, about the ride he was about to take.
Some of Gillespie's friends had drawn this particular horse in other rodeos and the creature was known to be a difficult animal, tough to ride (and that's saying something in a sport where the horses kick and jump and are challenging to ride because that's the point of the event and what they've been trained to do.)
Gillespie, a native of Placerville, California, a small town in the northern part of the state nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, fell in love with rodeo when he was in college, and he won a spot on the college rodeo team. Soon his plans to become a doctor were replaced by a fierce desire to master the art of bareback riding, a sport where the competitors use rigging, a wooden handle and leather straps to stay on the back of a bucking horse for eight seconds. He says he's never regretted his choice.
The rodeo life suits him, with the adrenaline, the challenge of the ride, the freedom to travel and see the country and make his own schedule. "I've never liked a 9-to-5 job. Sometimes this sucks when you have to drive 12 hours to get to the next rodeo, or when you have to ride and you're hurting but you have to push through. I like being my own boss, though. I like the freedom," he says.
Still, there are drawbacks to the gig. For one thing, it's never a question of if a rodeo athlete will be injured; it's only a matter of when, a reality we write about in this week's cover story, "A Hard Ride." A few years ago, Gillespie was riding in a rodeo in Oregon when his worn-out glove, one that he'd put off replacing because he was tight on money, gave out and Gillespie fell back off the horse. He woke up in an ambulance, his face a bloody mess from a cracked cheekbone, a broken nose and his broken front teeth.
“I was fine and I was lucky. It taught me a big lesson, because I was riding with a kind of worn-out glove because I was young and broke and trying to push things, and then I realized you can't do that because the gear is what can save your life,” he says now.
Gillespie bounced back from that one. The accident that really shook him happened in San Juan Capistrano a couple of years ago. Gillespie was astride an antsy horse, and the horse was so keyed up the animal tumbled backwards out of the bucking chute and flipped over. Gillespie scrambled to get out from beneath the horse, his heart hammering while he gasped for air, struggling to fill his lungs.
His injuries were bad enough to force him to take two months off. "I probably came back too soon, but I had to because I was out of money," he says now. During his first ride after the accident, he realized his body wasn't in good enough shape to perform at his best. The second ride was even worse because he was dogged by flashbacks of the horse crushing him, of how he couldn't breathe or think or do anything but wait for a chance to get clear of the animal. That kind of doubt can kill a rodeo career, so before the third ride, he had a couple of beers and told himself to let the accident go and to just be there in the moment.
But on Sunday night, Gillespie couldn't shake the nagging feeling that something was about to go wrong here in Houston. "I'd seen my friends ride the horse and I knew he was one that hits you in the back of the head. I got a concussion competing in San Antonio, and it kept going through my mind that he was going to hit my head and neck," Gillespie says.
On top of that, he was exhausted from bouncing from Florida to Fort Mohave, Arizona, and then catching a red-eye flight to Houston. "I hadn't had time to sleep, and I exercised and took a shower to try and shake it off, but that kind of tiredness can make you get down and start second-guessing yourself," Gillespie says.
When he signaled that he was ready, the horse moved out of the chute, immediately bucking. “I had made up my mind what I was going to do, but I was almost trying to do too much too fast,” he says.
Gillespie marked the horse out, touching his spurs to the break of the animal's shoulders, and then as the horse started jumping, Gillespie was flung to the right, smacking him in the back. "It kind of stunned me," he says now.
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The horse ripped his hips away from the rigging and Gillespie sailed over the side of the horse. The horse was dropping away from him and he was on the wrong side. “It was all so fast that I couldn't do anything about it. I was all hung up in the rigging,” he says. “I've got strength, but once it comes to where you're just being dragged like that by the skin, the muscles don't count, and the horse can do whatever he wants.”
When the horse stopped bucking, he tried to jerk his hand out of the rigging, but his glove was locked in place and he was at the wrong angle. The horse started running, stepping on his legs and kicking him. The pair got tangled up and the horse started to go over, but caught himself so that he fell sideways, not quite on top of Gillespie.
Gillespie was still stuck with his hand in the rigging when the pick-up men roped the horse. A friend lifted Gillespie up so he could finally free his hand. The friend asked if he was okay. Gillespie had a mouth full of blood – the horse had landed a hoof in his face, smashing Gillespie's teeth into his upper lips, gashing the inside of his mouth – so he just nodded and walked out of the arena as quickly as possible. Afterward, the announcer told the crowd Gillespie had lacerations and other injuries but would recover.
On Monday Gillespie was heading back to RodeoHouston ready to ride again. His body was sore and his back ached, but he'd drawn a good horse and he spent the day focusing on the next ride, putting the other one behind him. “On Sunday, all that stuff that goes through your mind, the reality of how dangerous it really is and how lucky I really am, I was thinking about all of that,” he says. “Today it's about what I'm going to do next. I've got to stay out of my head and stay smart and focus on the ride ahead.”