Lee Garner and Peponitas Acre at the 1996 NCHA Futurity.
One of Lee Garner's career highlights as a cutter was the 1996 NCHA Futurity Non-Pro title. Photo by T. Jett

Lee Garner, 75, Friend to the Cutting Industry, Dies

Lee Garner, a National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Members Hall of Famer, World Champion and one-of-a-kind personality and cutting horse promoter died Tuesday in Batesville, Mississippi, his beloved hometown.

Garner was 75.

A funeral will be conducted at 11 a.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church of Batesville. Visitation is scheduled to take place from 5-8 on Thursday at Wells Funeral Home. Garner’s final resting place will be in Magnolia Cemetery.

As a rider, Garner, a late-comer to cutting, won the 1990 NCHA Non-Pro World Championship on Baldy Freckles, as well as the NCHA Futurity Non-Pro in 1996 aboard Peponitas Acre. Garner, who had an Equi-Stat record of more than $1.5 million, won or placed in the NCHA World standings more than 20 times between 1990 and 2014.

However, it was in his covered and later climate-controlled arenas in Batesville, where he hosted weekend events, that he made his most significant contributions to the sport.

“He was a huge supporter of cutting in the southeast,” said Austin Shepard, an Equi-Stat Elite $8 million rider and longtime friend of Garner’s. “He wanted to have a cutting in Batesville that every world champion and everybody who wanted to be a world champion, or world finalist, would have to come to. Sometimes that was misunderstood, but he loved cutting horses and he loved cutting people.”

They were like him, he said, independent business people who had to go it alone, to take risks — Garner owned a nurse staffing business — who made it on their own, and “most of them like athletics and love horses.”

He had a photographic memory. If he ever met you, he never forgot you, Shepard said, whether that was a top open rider or the guy making his first run at Garner’s place. 

He will also be remembered as one of the game’s great personalities.

“He was a handful,” Shepard said. “He was a mess, as entertaining as anybody I’ve ever been around. He had the most amazing mind I’ve ever met. He could tell you in any cutting to the penny before the cutting was over what it was going to pay. 

“You could tell him what mile marker you lived at and he could tell you the exit number. It was amazing. He knew everybody’s birthday in my family. My dad, my mother, myself, my wife, my kids. 

“If it was Nov. 16, he’d make sure the run [his son] Cade down and give him $20 since he was a little boy. His mind was incredible, especially mathematically, how it worked.”

His tales were just as legendary. 

He rubbed elbows with celebrities and politicians in high places.

“He was one of those guys,” Shepard said. “Before you left his show, he knew you and if he ever met you, he never forgot you.”

Ernest Levi Garner Jr. was born in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 26, 1944. 

His first horse was a gift from his grandfather, a Shetland pony named Scout. Garner was 4.

“I was so proud of that pony. I was in every parade. I even went to school on him. We got in all kinds of trouble,” Garner said before telling of youthful mischief. “All the ladies in town had real nice yards. And we could mess up the ‘Yard of Month’ so fast. Everybody would call my mother and ask her to please keep that horse out of the yard.”

In an interview in 1994, Garner recalled with perfect clarity — showing off that memory — putting away the horses after his college football coach at Ole Miss, Johnny Vaught, told him he couldn’t be both a rodeo cowboy and a defensive back. But, he also knew the exact day — March 22, 1986 — he got into cutting horses. He wanted to buy a Quarter Horse at the Area Workoff in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of one, he bought 11.

Over the next two years, he had acquired 50 broodmares and a stallion. His eyes turned out to be too big for practicality. The breeding business proved “too big of a project.” He later sold most of his stock.

It was a year later, 1987, that he made his well-documented wager with son and cutter Lee III.

“One day, I scolded him for cutting a cow that somebody else had just lost,” Garner recalled in 1994. “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.”

The two shook on a $100 bet, Garner declaring that he could take a broodmare out of the pasture and beat his son at the next show in 30 days.

Garner, then 43, lost his $100.

“I thought I was too old to be showing horses,” Garner said. “So when I got off my horse, I was embarrassed, and my knees buckled and I fell.”

Winning the NCHA Futurity Non-Pro title called for a toast. (Photo by Robert Eubanks)

He didn’t stop, though. Soon, he had recruited the help of trainers Arthur Jackson, Bobby Brown, Billy Ray Rosewell and Mike Haney. In 1989, he bought Baldy Freckles from Harold Franklin. Two years later, after his World Championship run, he turned down an offer to sell, telling the prospective buyer that, “he’ll die on my place.”

Of Baldy Freckles, Garner said: “He’s almost monkey-proof. And he’s so forgiving. I know that I’m not any good, but I know that Baldy Freckles and I are good together. 

Before Garner ever hopped on a cutting horse, he had built his covered arena in Batesville, based on the concept of the Field of Dreams: Build it and they will come.

“Especially if you have fresh cows,” he joked.

His days hosting events was a losing venture, Shepard was convinced.

For Garner, it was like buying a ticket to the best show in town, and he didn’t care what it cost to watch the best, most elite equine athletes perform at his house.

“He loved cutting so much that he kept it so light and entertaining,” Shepard said. “That’s when he was happy, when everybody was there.” 

He remained a steadfast friend to cutters and their families. Shepard recalled Garner’s standing offer to hook up his trailer and his stalls while passing through on the way for a show … at no charge. 

The cost might be talking cutting horses for a couple of hours. “That’s what he craved,” Shepard said.

“I can remember so many horse trainers being down. He’d let them stay with him. I’ve seen him countless times with guys who were down in their business and they’d come to him on Sunday and say, ‘Mr. Lee, there is no way I can cover my entry fee. I was hoping I’d win more this weekend. I’ll get you your money as quick as I can.’”

It might be a month or several months before he followed up on it. It was different if a guy could afford it, Shepard said, but Garner empathized with a guy down on his luck.

“And he never brought it up to anybody else,” these acts of generosity and understanding, Shepard said. “That’s just the way he was.”

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