Born to a pioneer family that moved into Northeastern Wyoming and homesteaded, Ernest Leitner grew up watching cowboys, learning all he could learn about cowboys, and wanting to be a cowboy. That quest occupied his youth, riding whatever he could ride, emulating every good hand he could watch or associate with. He became a good cowboy himself, one who was ever ready to help anyone else who wanted to learn any cowboy skill.
Cows, good old rangy Hereford cows, and quality horses were his life. Ernest had an eye for a good horse, and from the time he got established on his own he always kept a blooded stallion and raised horses. Although he never rode broncs in rodeos, those who knew him said he could sure ride a rank one outside. Generous to a fault, he was prone to give away colts to kids who might not otherwise have a horse.
Ernest Leitner was Ray Marchant’s idol. Ray recalls when he was 12, Ernest came to pick up him and his brother to take them to a horse sale in Belle Fourche. When a red dun colt came in the ring Ernest asked Ray what he thought of it. Ray thought it looked pretty good so Ernest bought the colt, wintered and fed it for him. Ernest also gave Ray and his brother each a good colt he’d raised when they graduated from high school.
When Ray was about 14 Ernest heard of a 4H Rodeo in Belle Fourche and said, “Take that old black horse of mine and go enter the calf roping there. I’ll go with you and I think you can win it.” Ray says, “Ernest was just that way. I didn’t win, but I placed because of his help, confidence and a good horse.”
Ray remembers it always being a pleasure to go to the brandings at Ernest’s place because they heeled the calves and drug them to the fire, when a lot of people were just mugging them out afoot. “When you’re a kid wrestling calves you always long for the day when they let you go rope. Ernest would always give me that chance, and he always had you well mounted,” he remembers.
Ray’s dad and Ernest were lifelong best friends, and the two couples stood up for each other at their weddings in Broadus, Montana. He says, “When Veryl and Ernest were going to stand up for my folks they drove Dad’s cousin’s roadster in. Elmer was driving, Ernest in the middle and Veryl on the outside. They went around a sharp curve and the door came open and she fell out . . . they just made a big circle and picked her up out of the sagebrush, kind of scratched up and dusty, and went on to the wedding.”
Ernest and Veryl adopted a son, Kendall, now residing in Spearfish, SD. He didn’t share his dad’s horse fetish, taking greater interest in the tractors and farming work, yet Ernest kept him well-mounted and encouraged his participation in 4-H and fairs, just as he did with all young people.
Ernest was able to expand the ranch where he spent his entire life by buying out his elderly Uncle Hans Leitner. Progressive in the livestock industry, he began crossbreeding the Herefords with black bulls. Ever eager to help younger men out, Ernest even set one up with cows on a share deal. If a kid didn’t have a horse and needed one, Ernest was likely to give him one.
Leitner enjoyed rodeo, roped calves and team roped successfully in a lot of area rodeos, and followed the Northwest Ranch Cowboy’s Association when it started. Ivan Moore was his longtime roping partner.
Ernest exhibited the traditional cowboy sense of humor at all times. In the 50’s, before two-horse trailers were common, horses were often hauled in a stock rack on a truck. On their way to a rodeo Ernest and his roping partner stopped to gas up. He had bought a set of goggles to keep the wind out of his horse’s eyes, but the other horse had none. A tourist gal, taken with the sight, took a careful look all around the truck, then asked Ernest why “one horse has glasses and other doesn’t.” Without ever changing expressions Ernest replied, “Oh this horse here is awful nearsighted.”
Those who knew Ernest Leitner best use words like dependable, honest, kind, generous, funny and helpful to describe him. They also point out that he was a cowboy to the end. The Sundance vet clinic recalls him, around age 90, bringing a 3-year-old stud in for castration. Explaining that this might be the last horse he could train, he declared he “sure wanted to make just one more good one!” In his mid-90’s, after a good friend helped him get in the saddle, Ernest trailed cattle all day and really enjoyed it.