An Unlikely ChampionBy Pam Gleason
The Eighty Dollar Champion
Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation
By Elizabeth Letts. Ballantine Books, New York, 2011.
Hardcover, 336 pages with illustrations. $26.00
In February 1956, a young Dutch immigrant named Harry de Leyer went to the horse auction in New Holland, Pennsylvania. He wanted to buy a school horse for a lesson program that he ran at the Knox School, an academy for young ladies on Long Island. He had car trouble, however, and it took him all day to get to the auction yard. By the time he arrived, the auction was over and the only horses left had already been loaded onto a slat-sided truck bound for the slaughterhouse. Harry didn’t want to go home empty handed. He asked to look inside the truck, which held about a dozen horses. There he spotted a calm grey plow horse, probably a former Amish workhorse. Harry liked something about the gelding, and so he bought him for $80, which was $20 above the price that a horse normally would bring at the rendering plant.
When the horse arrived at Hollandia, Harry’s small farm in New York, his children instantly named him Snowman and he became a family favorite. He was quiet and gentle with children, an honest "best friend" kind of horse. Harry figured that he was about 7 or 8 years old, and that, although he was accustomed to pulling a plow and had the harness marks to prove it, he had never carried a rider before. Harry taught him to go under saddle, and he soon had a place as a steady beginner horse at the Knox School. Snowman was so calm, pleasant and easy, that after the school year was over, Harry sold him for $160 to a local doctor who was looking for a horse to take care of his 12-year-old daughter. Harry had made a profit, the gentle plow horse rescued from the killers had a loving home, and that might have been the end of the story.
But it wasn't. A few days after Snowman went to live with the doctor, Harry got a call that the horse had jumped out of his pasture and was disturbing the neighbor's property. Harry didn't believe it: Snowman was no jumper. Surely the doctor had left a gate unlatched. The horse was captured and returned. A few days after that, Snowman showed up at Hollandia Farms. He had jumped out of his pasture again and run home. Harry took him back to the doctor, but Snowman would not be deterred. He continued to jump out and gallop back to Hollandia, even after Harry suggested that he be turned out with a tire tied to his halter. Clearly the horse had an opinion, and his opinion was that he should stay with Harry. Harry had no choice. He took him back.
Snowman had demonstrated that he could jump, and so Harry decided he would turn him into a jumper. After all, he had always had dreams of riding competitively. Unlikely as it seemed, here was a horse that might make these dreams come true.
It did not start out well. The horse that had cleared his 5-foot paddock fence even while dragging a heavy tire was different under saddle. He stumbled over rails on the ground and scattered the cavaletti like pick-up sticks. He was heavy and clumsy and didn’t bother to lift his feet. But then one day Harry was riding him in a ring where the jumps were set to 4 feet. On a lark, he pointed Snowman at the higher fences, and the horse sailed over cleanly – once the fences commanded respect, Snowman would jump them.
And that was the beginning of Snowman's story. A little over two years after he was saved from the slaughterhouse van, Snowman, with Harry astride him, won the jumper championship at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and became the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year. His jumping career lasted five years, during which time he won many top competitions and prestigious titles. His story captured popular attention, and he became a national sensation, appearing on the Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett shows, and even doing an episode of To Tell the Truth. He was the subject of two children's books (The Cinderella Horse, by Tony Palazzo,1962; and Snowman, Rutherford Montgomery, 1967) and he was inducted into the National Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. There is even a Breyer model of him.
The Eighty Dollar Champion; Snowman the Horse that Inspired a Nation, written by Elizabeth Letts, is the story of Snowman and Harry de Leyer, as well as a portrait of American society at the close of the 1950s. Ms. Letts conducted extensive research on the history of horses during this period, as well as on the social atmosphere surrounding horses and horse shows. What emerges is the story of an era as much as the story of a horse. It was a time when horseback riding was growing as a sport, but when horses themselves were suffering as a result of increased mechanization. They were no longer needed on farms; the army remount program, which had promoted horse breeding, was closed down in 1948, and the equine population was in sharp decline. As Ms. Letts points out early in the book, in 1950, there were around six million horses in the U.S. In 1960, there were only half as many. Snowman himself was one of a disappearing breed of light workhorse, the kind of horse that was easily replaced by a tractor.
Elizabeth Letts, who has also written two novels and an award winning children's book, rode and competed extensively in eventing through her teenage years. As an adult, her career in the field of obstetrics took her away from horses, but she has always kept them close to her heart.
"I had always wanted to write a really great horse story, but I hadn't found the right one," she says. "I found this story by accident. I was surfing the Internet, just looking at horse pictures, and I came across a picture of a horse jumping over another horse. I saw it and it stopped me in my tracks because I had never seen that particular stunt done. I grew up in California where were trick riders and people who did stunts for the movies, but that was new to me. The thing that really interested me, though, was the expression on the horse’s face. He looked so honest and he looked happy. I thought to myself, 'what's the story here?"
Elizabeth did some research, finding out not just that the horse was the famous Snowman, but that his owner and trainer, Harry de Leyer, was very much alive and that his Virginia farm was not more than three hours from her home. Harry, who is 83, is still riding and teaching, despite a bad fall he had while unloading hay in his barn in 2005. He was delighted to tell her whatever she wanted to know about Snowman and to provide her with the materials she needed.
"The horse is very close to me," says Harry, who still speaks with a heavy Dutch accent. "The best thing about him was that he was so quiet and so consistent. My kids loved him – they could ride him together, they could take him swimming. I could give a lesson on him at the Knox School, even after he was a champion. He could go in the leadline class and win the jumpers on the same day. When I would take him from the ring, all the little kids would come around him, and he would nuzzle them, and sometimes they would pull a little hair from his tail as a souvenir. All the people loved him."
Harry's story is just as remarkable as Snowman's. He left war-ravaged Holland in 1950, arriving in the U.S. with his wife Johanna, no money and no connections in the horse world. He was 21 and used to farm work, so he got a job working on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. The farm was still using horses in the fields, and Harry, who had been a competitive rider in his native country, taught one of the horses to carry a rider and to jump. He even took that plow horse to a local show where he won the jumper class and a $10 prize. Over the years, he worked his way from doing manual labor to his position at the Knox School, where he began training horses that would eventually make him famous, including not just Snowman, but Sinjon, who became one of the top horses on the United States Equestrian Team under George Morris during the 1960s. Harry went on to develop many other great horses, and in 1983 represented the U.S. at the World Cup Finals in Sweden riding Dutch Crown, a horse he had bred, foaled and trained himself. ("It was the biggest thrill I ever got," he says.)
"What really struck me when I was writing the book was that Harry and Snowman had led somewhat parallel lives leading up to the moment that they found each other," says Elizabeth. "It’s easy to lose sight of it looking back, but at the time that Harry found Snowman, he was an unlikely candidate to be winning the national jumping title. When he came to the United States eight years earlier, he had a wooden crate with all his belongings in it and $160. He didn’t think he would make a living as a horseman; he didn’t know anyone and no one knew him."
"Harry also had very low expectations for the horse, but there was a chemistry between them. I don't know whether Snowman knew he was on the way to the slaughterhouse, I'm not going to go that far, but I think he certainly knew that he was being treated well by his new owner and he appreciated it."hey found each other," says Elizabeth. "It’s easy to lose sight of it looking back, but at the time that Harry found Snowman, he was an unlikely candidate to be winning the national jumping title. When he came to the United States eight years earlier, he had a wooden crate with all his belongings in it and $160. He didn't think he would make a living as a horseman; he didn’t know anyone and no one knew him."
The social history in the book helps put the Snowman story into context, taking the reader back to a time when George Morris, the current chef d'equipe of the U.S. showjumping team, was just a "kid" and Frank Chapot, the former chef, was getting his professional start. More than that, it discusses how the horse world fit into broader society.
"The more research that I did, the more I realized how iconic the image of the horse was at that time," says Elizabeth. "If you look through Life magazine from that era, every single person, politician, movie star and so on, was being photographed with horses. Horseback riding was expanding, but horses themselves were disappearing. Snowman caught peoples' imaginations – to understand why he was so fascinating, why they wanted him to go him on the Johnny Carson Show, you need to understand the social background."
The book was released on Tuesday, August 23, and its first printing was sold out by Thursday. There is no official word yet on whether The Eighty Dollar Champion will become a movie, but Elizabeth says that this is "not unlikely."
"The response has been beyond my wildest dreams," she says. "One thing that I am really happy is about is the reception it has gotten in the horse community. Horse people are very picky. They don’t want to read something that sounds like the person doesn’t know what they're talking about, and so far, the feedback from the horse community has been very good. Of course, the book is written for a more general audience; the response from them has been very good also."
Although the book is the story of Snowman and Harry, it also carries an implicit message about unwanted or discarded horses, as well as about people who may not appear destined for success.
"One thing that I am hoping will come out of the book is that the publicity surrounding it will help shine a light on the problems of unwanted horses in this country," says Elizabeth. "The 1950s were a bad time for horses, and in a way the economic situation is creating a similar problem for horses now – we have a much bigger surplus of horses now than we had 10 years ago.
" Elizabeth is currently developing a project in which people who have rescue horses can share their stories of success. The idea is to inspire people to give horses a second chance, and the theme is "don’t let the next $80 champion pass you by."
Harry de Leyer also believes that the story of Snowman carries some lessons. "First, be fair, and don’t be so tough on your horse," he says. "You can get more done with carrots and petting them than with being so tough. Snowman went in a rubber D-bit, and I school all the horses in a rubber D-bit. I am lucky with horses, but this is part of my luck – to be nice to horses and nice to people."
"Then also, don’t give up too quick on yourself," he continues. "There is always a chance to get there, so give yourself a chance. Give every horse a chance."
A portion of the proceeds from The Eighty Dollar Champion will go to 4-H Therapeutic Riding of Carroll County, Md. To read more about the book go to www.elizabethletts.com or "like" the Facebook page: Facebook/eightydollarchampion.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.