In late 1958, a plow horse ridden by a Dutch immigrant took the triple crown at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Gardens.Snowman, Harry de Leyer’s beloved gray gelding, won Horse of the Year, the title of Professional Horseman’s Association Champion and the Champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee.
“On that November night in 1958, it started to seem that anything was possible.”
Snowman and de Leyer are the subject of a new book, “The Eighty Dollar Champion,” by Elizabeth Letts, due for release on Tuesday.
The miraculous story would have never happened had de Leyer, a struggling riding instructor, been on time for the weekly horse auction in New Holland, Penn.
“By the time Harry arrived ... the grounds were deserted and there were no horses to be seen. ... Only one vehicle remained, a battered old truck with slatted sides.”
The truck belonged to the kill buyer, the man charged with taking unclaimed horses to the slaughterhouse where they’d be shot in the head with a bolt and ground up for dog food and glue.
De Leyer was unwilling to let a trip from his farm on Long Island to New Holland go unrewarded so he took a look inside the truck.
“The big horse was male, a gelding ... His coat ... was matted and caked with mud. Open wounds marred both knees. His hooves were grown out and cracked, and a shoe was missing. ...
“The horse stretched out his neck and blew a soft greeting. ...
“There was something about this horse ... he was wise, an old soul, a horse whose steady demeanor seemed to cover hidden depths. ...
Man or beast, Harry did not like to see a proud soul held in captivity.”
Despite the horse’s rough condition, Harry and the kill truck driver struck a deal for $80, which included delivery to Harry’s barn near the Long Island hamlet of St. James.
It was snowing that night when Harry unloaded the horse.
“The big gray stumbled as he clambered down ... Harry had already forgotten what a sorry state this animal was in ... But when the giant creature turned his head and caught Harry’s eye, he felt it again – that sense of connection.”
It was de Leyer’s small children who named the horse.
“Look, Daddy, he has snow all over him. He looks just like a snowman.”
Snowman settled easily into the de Leyer family routine, responding to the attention Harry and the children lavished on him. He gained weight, and with a lot of grooming, his dappled coat began to shine.
De Leyer, who had been raised on a farm in Holland, slipped a bridle and soft snaffle bit on Snowman, quickly adding a saddle to the mix.
As de Leyer and Snowman rode around the farm during the next few weeks, the horse proved “steady and sure-footed.”
By the beginning of March, Snowman was ready to earn his keep as a lesson horse at the exclusive Knox School, where Harry taught riding.
“From his very first day on the job, Snowman carried even the most timid beginner with the gentle care of a four-legged nanny.”
De Leyer was building a stable of horses for the Knox School, but he was also looking to the future. Before World War II and the Nazi occupation of Holland, the young man had been focused on a show-jumping career.
Now with a family and an established business in the United States, de Leyer hoped to revive his dream – a dream that didn’t include a simple lesson horse like Snowman. So, when a doctor with a nearby farm was looking for a sure mount for his young daughter, de Leyer reluctantly let Snowman go for the price of $180.
There was one condition to the sale: “If the doctor ever wanted to part with the horse, he had to give Harry a chance to buy him back.”
That chance came in a hurry.
One afternoon, the doctor called, saying Snowman had gotten out of the pasture and trampled a neighbor’s fields. Was the horse a chronic runaway, the doctor asked? No, de Leyer assured him. A gate must have been left open.
One morning a few days later, Snowman appeared in Harry’s barnyard. The doctor came to fetch him.
The next morning, Snowman was back. The doctor was getting tired of this routine.
The next morning, Snowman was back again. De Leyer tried an old horse trainer’s trick to discourage Snowman’s return by tying a tire to a rope and then tying the rope loosely around Snowman’s neck.
The next morning, Snowman – and the tire – were waiting for de Leyer at the barn.
It was then de Leyer realized “that he had somehow missed the plain truth. He unclipped the tattered lead rope and led Snowman back to a stall. There was more to horses than columns of numbers, the profits and losses in his farm ledger. There is one thing no horseman can ever put a price on, and that is heart.”
After giving the doctor his money back, de Leyer set about the task of teaching Snowman to be a proper jumper.
But things didn’t go so well in the first phases of Snowman’s education.
“Snowman tripped, then stumbled, tripped again, and then righted himself” over a series of poles, called cavaletti, that de Leyer laid out in the corral.
Despite de Leyer’s continued attempts to get Snowman to jump, little progress was being made.
A dare changed all that.
One of the barn hands challenged de Leyer to ride Snowman over jumps set up for one of the farm’s high -strung mounts.
“You gonna jump that plow horse over those big jumps?”
Then, it happened.
“The horse pricked his ears forward and electricity pulsed up through the saddle. ... Snowman’s hindquarters gathered underneath him; his hocks sank down. Harry kept the reins loose and his balance forward. ... Up and over the fence they flew, front legs well clear of the poles. Harry listened for the hollow thump of the horse’s hind legs trailing over the rail, but there was none. ...
“After testing all of the keys, Harry had finally found the one that unlocked the lock. Snowman would jump – just give him a fence that was high enough to respect. ... Harry guided him toward the fence a second time. Again, in a perfect orchestration of movement, the horse sailed over with room to spare.
De Leyer raised the jump to six feet. Snowman sailed over it. At six feet, six inches “Snowman continued to soar, as if he’d been born with invisible wings.”
Finally, Harry and Snowman were ready to compete. They were the unlikeliest pair. The world of competitive show jumping was elitist, expensive and exclusive, but that did not deter the Flying Dutchman.
By September of 1957, Snowman and de Leyer were entering – and winning – major horse shows on the East Coast.
“Steady and sure, the horse circled the course, ears pointed forward, as though this were just another day at Knox. With each fence, he gathered, tucked up his knees, and jumped.”
At the end of his first show, the North Shore at the Old Field Club on Long Island, Snowman took the blue ribbon in junior jumpers, ridden by Louie Jongacker, one of de Leyer private riding students.
It was the beginning a winning streak that took de Leyer and his plow horse to a two-time championship at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Gardens.
“When Snowman soared over the final fence, Harry dropped the reins and raised his arms in an exuberant hurrah.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as uplifting, emotional and inspirational as “The Eighty Dollar Champion.” The author relied on newspaper clippings and extended interviews with de Leyer, now in his 80s, and other resources to tell Snowman’s story.
What sets this book apart is its ability to capture the magic bond between a very special horse and his wise and capable rider. Neither had a pedigree. They didn’t need it. They had something much more important – they had hearts with wings.
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