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Making over a mustang
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As Johnny Cash runs around the training ring, Eric Gray gives him time to settle down before he starts working with the Mustang. - photo by Jim Dean

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Eric Gray works with Johnny Cash

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For a horse just two months removed from the arid Nevada wild, Eric Gray’s lean, black-tinted mustang now carries a saddle as naturally as some men carry a plain leather wallet.

The 3-year-old gelding walks, canters, trots, backs up and, with a little instruction from Gray, could probably go rustle up a tomato sandwich and glass of sweet tea.

“From what I’ve seen so far,” said Gray, a stout, 28-year-old farrier and horse trainer, “he’s come a lot farther along than the majority of horses I’ve worked. He’s [still] got a long way to come.”

The horse, appropriately named Johnny Cash, seems to find it easy, pleasant work in exchange for temporary quarters on Gray’s rolling, green home place, Blackthorn Farms in northwestern Forsyth County.

Johnny Cash’s days spent with more than 33,000 others just like him foraging the American West for dried up prairie grass and a trickling stream have blown away like tumbleweeds and dust.

This wild horse Shangri-La is a place where the sun rises and sets on a North Georgia barn replete with a steady supply of grain and nutrient rich hay. Here water, despite the drought, is, by comparison, plentiful.

“The neat part with these mustangs,” Gray said, “is once they start trusting you, they come along a lot faster than a domesticated horse, because they just read your body language and your energy level so much better. They’ve never had any mistakes made with them.”

Gray and his mustang are among about 200 participants from across the country in the Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Extreme Mustang Makeover is a 100-day challenge where some of the country’s top horse trainers must gentle and train horses straight from the wild in preparation for competition Sept. 18-21 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Gray is also among three Georgia horse trainers selected by the Mustang Heritage Foundation to participate.
After completing an arduous application process, Gray, Drew Olsen of Villa Rica and Marc Chancey of Augusta received their horses June 14.

Gray said the mustangs were rounded up in Clark County, Nev. just south of Las Vegas. They were then castrated, vaccinated and taken to a holding facility in Illinois for distribution to trainers across the country.

But the trainers only have the horses temporarily. “It’s a lot to cram in to 100 days,” Gray said.

At event’s end, the horses are sold at auction with the proceeds benefiting the Mustang Heritage Foundation, an arm of the Bureau of Land Management designed to preserve and promote the adoption of American wild horses.

“The whole purpose of this deal is to try to get these things noticed and get a few more of them adopted out,” Gray said.

And Johnny Cash is nearly ready to … well … walk the line.

Within three hours of his arrival at Blackthorn Farms, Gray had Johnny Cash wearing a halter. And, remarkably, within the mustang’s first three days on the farm, Gray had gentled him enough to ride.

Since then, Gray has worked Johnny Cash about an hour a day, four or five days a week. The two have covered 30 to 40 miles of trails in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.

Already, the training has netted the pair a second place at the recent Midway Saddle Club show.

“I’d always believed that a real spoiled horse would be harder to work with than a wild horse,” Gray said.

“I figured the only way to prove myself right or wrong was to get one for myself. This looked like a good opportunity to get one.”

And after eight weeks, Gray seems to have taken a liking to the equine form of his country music hero.

In fact, while Gray’s reputation in horse training circles would take a quantum leap forward with a win or top showing in Fort Worth, he’s already thinking about what happens after the “makeover” ends.

When Johnny Cash is offered for sale, Gray may be placing bids.

“I knew that when I got into this deal and said, ‘aw, that won’t really be a big deal,’” Gray said.

“Now, I’m trying to find something else around here I can sell so I can find a stall to keep him in. He’s just kind of a special little horse.”