The true story of Harry de Leyer and his horse, Snowman, who both came from obscurity to become one of the most incredible partnerships in show jumping history, is like something straight from a classic Hollywood movie.
Harry de Leyer was born in 1928 and came from the village of The St Oedenrode in the Noord-Brabant region of Holland. His Father was a wealthy brewer, and Harry grew up on a farm with horses, competing regularly in show jumping competitions. However, this came to an end when, in 1940, the Germans invaded and occupied Holland, taking away many horses owned by the Dutch. Harry's Father was a member of the local resistance, and the family helped to save hundreds of Jews from Nazi death camps by hiding them at their farm. Harry was later to be commended for his bravery after crawling with a water hose to put out a fire at the local hospital while under German gunfire.
In 1950, Harry, aged 22, and his wife left their war-ravaged village and arrived in the U.S.A. with just $160 and a wooden crate containing their belongings. Harry found work in the South on tobacco farms before making the transition to horse groom, allowing him to show off his riding skills and talent. He later set up a barn on Long Island, New York, and became a riding instructor at the Knox Private School for girls. Known as Mr. D, he worked there for 22 years.
Eighty Dollar Horse
One snowy day in February 1956, Harry was on his way to a horse auction in New Holland, Pennsylvania, looking to buy something quiet for the school. Delayed on the way, when he finally arrived, the auction had finished, and all that remained were rejects sold for meat. One of them was an eight-year-old, dirty, grey plough horse from Amish country, and when Harry spotted his eyes, he thought the horse looked kind and gentle. Not wanting to go home empty handed, Harry offered $60 to the meat man for the thin horse with cut knees, one shoe missing, and harness rubs on his body, plus $20 to have him delivered. When the horse arrived at Harry's barn, it was snowing and his four-year-old daughter, Harriet, said he looked like a snowman, so that became his name.
With Harry's care and attention, Snowman's health improved, and he became a different horse. His easy-going temperament was perfect for the school, giving confidence to many riders. Harry tried him over some poles and cavallettis, but he just tripped and stumbled, showing no ability whatsoever for jumping. At the end of every school year, Harry would usually sell some of his horses to make ends meet. A local doctor was looking for a quiet horse for both himself and his children to ride so Harry sold him Snowman for $160.
Jumping Talent Discovered
Not long after, Snowman appeared at Harry's barn, obviously having escaped from his paddock and finding his way "home." When he did it again, Harry suggested to the doctor that he made his paddock fences higher, as he had apparently jumped over them. However, this didn't deter Snowman, even when tied to a heavy tyre, and leapt out dragging it with him! The doctor, tired of his antics, asked Harry if he could board Snowman at his barn. Harry agreed, but neither the doctor or his children came to see him again, and the horse became Harry's once more, continuing his role in the riding school.
Intrigued by Snowman's ability to jump out of the paddocks, Harry decided to try him over a four-foot fence. Snowman did it with ease and jumped around a whole course of the same height marking the start of a brilliant partnership in show jumping. It became evident that he would only make an effort if the fences were big, having no respect for anything smaller! Harry rode Snowman in a D-ring rubber snaffle bit, and always had him on a long, loose rein to the jumps, giving him complete freedom in the air. Snowman was unable to shorten his stride and would "weave" to the fences to make the correct take-off point but, with Harry's patient training, he soon improved. People would often laugh when the pair came into the ring, the unknown Dutchman riding his funny-looking plough horse, but Harry had the last laugh when they started winning many prestigious classes.
Madison Square Gardens
In 1958, just two years after Harry had rescued Snowman from the meat man, they achieved the ultimate by winning the Triple Crown at Madison Square Gardens, The American Association Horse of the Year, Professional Horseman's Association Champion, and Champion of Madison Square Garden's Diamond Jubilee. They competed against show jumping legends such as Frank Chapot, George Morris, and William Steinkraus. The immigrant from Holland was living the American dream and soon became known as "The Flying Dutchman."
Even though Snowman had become a top show jumping horse, both he and Harry carried on with their "day" job at the school giving riding lessons. He was very much a family horse as well and would jump out of his paddock just before the school bus was due, meeting Harry's children when they came home. There were also trips to the beach where Snowman would happily go into the sea with a mob of excited children on his back!
In 1959, Snowman again won the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year and the Professional Horseman's Association Champion at Madison Square Gardens, becoming the first horse in history to win them two years running. They were then invited to Holland for a "special jumping tour" winning a Puissance class. Harry had many offers to sell Snowman, including one for $100,000, but each time he refused. He had made the mistake of selling him before and wasn't prepared to do so again. He owed him too much.
The Cinderella Horse
Snowman became a national celebrity and was known as the "Cinderella Horse." He appeared on television shows "To Tell the Truth" and the "Tonight Show," where the host, Jonny Carson, used a ladder to climb onto his back. He featured twice in Life magazine, was the subject of two children's books, had a fan club, and made into a Breyer model horse. He retired from competition in 1962, remaining with Harry for the rest of his life. In 1969, there was an official retirement ceremony for him at the National Horse Show at the New Madison Square Gardens.
Snowman died, aged about 26, from kidney failure in 1974. Treatment had proved unsuccessful so Snowman was euthanized, with Harry by his side, and buried in his favorite corner of the grass paddock. After his passing, Harry disappeared for two days, inconsolable over losing his beloved horse which had taken him to the top. In 1992, Snowman was inaugurated into the National Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
Harry continued show jumping and rode for the U.S.A. at the World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1983. He received the United States Equestrian Federation Pegasus medal in 2002 for his services to the sport. Now in his eighties, Harry continues to ride and train young riders and is known as the "Galloping Grandfather."
A book about the pair, called The Eighty Dollar Champion, was published in 2011 and became The New York Times number one best seller. The author, Elizabeth Letts, accidently stumbled across the story after surfing the net, finding a picture of Harry jumping Snowman over another horse and wanted to know more. It took three years to write, and the story has been made into a documentary film.
Theirs was a real life fairytale. One man and one horse who both came from humble beginnings, destined to meet and, against all odds, took on the best and beat them. They are an inspiration to all and their legacy will live on forever.