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Award-winning Cleveland ranch offers lessons on farm life and horse riding
John Hulsey and Walt Erwin breed and train quarter horses for cutting competitions
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Rockin' H Ranch head trainer Walt Erwin with Thunder at the ranch in Cleveland.

Every year, John Hulsey and his trainer, Walt Erwin, load up their quarter horses and head to the biggest horse show competitions in the Southeast. Both men have won countless times.

Most recently, Hulsey and Erwin won in their respective classes at a competition in Perry.

But winning medals, belt buckles, awards, trophies and prize money isn’t why Hulsey gets up in the morning.

“I do it for the kids. For me, it’s always been about the kids,” the 63-year-old Gainesville man said.

Hulsey finds his ultimate reward when he spends his time teaching young children about farm life, including horses.

EXPERIENCING FARM LIFE

On his farm, Rockin’ H Ranch in Cleveland, he has everything from chickens and hen houses to buffalo.

“There’s a lot more to the agricultural business than people might think,” Hulsey said.

As part of his duties on the Georgia Agricultural Exposition Authority board, he is tasked with spreading the word on agricultural matters to the young.

“Part of our charge is to promote agriculture and livestock matters,” he said.

Hulsey said it’s important for children to learn about the rural ways of life when most of Gainesville and the surrounding areas are becoming urbanized.

“We want people to know how big (agricultural farming and life) is,” Hulsey said.

To that end, he runs a youth program at his ranch aimed at “trying to get people interested” in farming and bringing young people to the farm.

Specifically, Erwin coaches younger riders who are interested in horseman sports. They also collaborate with other barns, such as Dory Musselwhite’s, to team up for youth events.

ON THE SHOW CIRCUIT

Younger riders, who come to the ranch to train for shows, are riding the same horses that compete in national shows.

One of the horses is extra special to them because she was bred, raised and trained at the ranch.

“She’s a superstar,” Hulsey said, referring to his brown mare.

In the barn, she is called Thunder. But her show name is “R Smoking Cat,” which is a mashup of the horse’s parents’ names.

“She is the best horse that we have bred,” Hulsey said.

Now 4 years old, Thunder is in prime showing season, Erwin said. And Thunder is a cutting horse, in which she separates a calf from the rest of the herd.

“(Cutting) is what would happen on a cattle ranch,” Hulsey said.

Removing a calf or cow from a herd is no easy task, because it has the natural instinct to stick with the herd.

“They all bunch up,” Hulsey said. “It’s like trying to hold a cup of water in your hand.”

At a show, judges will watch as a person picks out a calf, hops on a horse and cuts it from the pack. Rules must be followed closely to stay penalty-free.

“It’s all fast and furious, and you have to prevent (the calf) from returning back,” Hulsey said.

Cutting is also part of the Western discipline of horse shows to help “keep the Western traditions alive,” Hulsey said. Therefore, cowboy hats, boots and chaps are worn. And all competitors sit in Western-style saddles.

Hulsey himself competes in the amateur and senior divisions, but he prefers the senior division.

“It’s more fun to beat your peers,” he said.

Thunder was one of 14 horses Hulsey and his trainer took to a Fort Worth, Texas, show hosted by the National Cutting Horse Association. Erwin and Hulsey show 25 horses altogether, but Thunder is their pride and joy.

“It’s our Kentucky Derby,” Hulsey said. “It’s just a community.”

Thunder placed highly among all the other horses, which were from Texas farms. Hulsey said it is a big deal, considering the horse was the only non-Texan there.

The Texas event is one of the three shows Hulsey and Erwin attend every year. One competition is at the end of March or beginning of April. Another is in the summer between July and August. But the main event for 3-year-old horses who have never competed is at the end of November or beginning of December. Up to 700 horses enter that competition.

“It’s like their debut,” Hulsey said, noting all of the horses are the “cream of the crop.”

TRAINING CHAMPS

Hulsey not only competes in the cutting show, he breeds and raises quarter horses for competitions as well.

For the past 13 or 14 years, Hulsey has specialized in cutting horses. He said it takes a special kind of horse to make it to the big shows, though. He determines the horse’s potential based on a few key factors.

First, they have to ride well. If they have problems with a rider, they aren’t very useful.

Second, they need to run and stop straight.

Third, a cutting horse must have natural instincts around a herd.

If the horses don’t exhibit those traits, he sells them. If they do, he and Erwin train the horse to develop its instincts.

“It’s a lot of hours (of work),” Erwin said.

Not only does he train his own horses at Rockin’ H Ranch, he has established a clientele. Plus, Hulsey’s trainer Erwin is known by his trade and skills at shows.

“They know (Erwin) is a good trainer,” Hulsey said, noting the man has been part of his team for the past eight years.

Together, the duo has traveled all over the country for shows and won “hundreds” of smaller shows, Hulsey said.

“I’m a glorified truck driver,” Hulsey said.

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