Ernest Levi “Lee” Garner Jr., 75, an NCHA Members Hall of Fame honoree, as well as the 1990 NCHA Non-Pro World Champion, the 1996 NCHA Non-Pro Futurity Champion, and a member of the NCHA Non-Pro Hall of Fame, passed away on February 11, in his hometown of Batesville, Miss.
It was Garner who put Batesville, population 7,500, on the map for weekend cutters, when he began hosting events at his covered arena there in the late 1980s. Although he was born 20 miles east, in Oxford, Garner spent most of his life in Batesville, where he established a home health care business.
As a teenager, Garner kept a horse and competed in rodeo events, but gave up rodeo and horses, when he accepted a football scholarship under legendary Ole Miss football coach John Vaught. “He told me I had to make up my mind, either rodeo or college football,” Garner recalled. “That was a real quick decision. I was going to scholl on an athletic scholarship and I wasn’t about to mess that up.”
It was a fateful day in March 1986 that connected Garner with the sport of cutting. “I thought I would go down to Jackson and buy a Quarter Horse at the (NCHA) Area Workoff,” he remembered. “I ended up buying eleven.”
Initially interested in breeding horses, Garner had no intention of showing, but encouraged his son’s interest in competition. “I guess I was an over-achiever as a father,” he admitted. “ One day I scolded Lee for cutting a cow that somebody else had just lost and he said, ‘Daddy, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you might need to try this yourself. It’s a lot harder than it looks.’”
Garner took up Lee III’s challenge and recruited help from trainers Arthur Jackson, Bobby Brown, Billy Ray Rosewell and Mike Haney. But it was Mel Shearin who gave Garner the tip on Baldy Freckles, winner of the 1987 NCHA Futurity Non-Pro Limited under Harold Franklin, and Garner purchased the stocky, 15.2 gelding in May 1989.
“Finding the right horse is like (finding) a dance partner,” said Garner, who won the 1990 NCHA Non-Pro World Championship showing Baldy Freckles. “You can see a girl dancing with another guy and she looks like a fantastic dancer. But when you dance with her, she doesn’t have the right moves. You don’t gel. Thank the Lord, Baldy and I jelled. According to Garner’s calculations, by the end of 1993, he and Baldy Freckles had been to the herd together 1,232 times.
Garner, who had always preferred riding week-end horses, purchased Peponitas Acre, his 1996 NCHA Non-Pro Futurity Champion, at the 11th hour through trainer Billy Ray Rosewell. “Billy Ray only let me on him three times after I bought him, for 10 or 20 seconds each time.” Garner remembered. “So when I got to the Futurity, I had to take it real easy and make sure I didn’t mess up.”
Garner kept his cool, but confessed he didn’t remember much about his Finals performance. “I do remember though, when I finally sat down on him, it was one of the few times I wasn’t on top of the saddle horn, and it felt like a million dollars. I wanted to get off and kiss him.”
Altogether, between 1990 and 2014, Lee Garner won or placed in the NCHA World standings 23 times.
“I built an arena before I even showed,” said Garner. “They say build a baseball field and people will come. Well build an arena and people will come, especially if you have fresh cows. I enjoy cutters so much because most of them are independent business people who have made it on their own, and most of them like athletics and love horses.”
A celebration of Lee’s life will be 11:00 A.M. Friday morning, February 14, 2020, at the First United Methodist Church in Batesville, MS, with the family receiving friends Thursday evening, February 13, 2020 from 5:00 – 8:00 P.M. at Wells Funeral Home. The interment will follow the service at Magnolia Cemetery in Batesville, MS.