The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse that Inspired a Nation
by Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine, August 2011
[box] November 1958: the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Into the rarefied atmosphere of wealth and tradition comes the most unlikely of horses—a drab white former plow horse named Snowman—and his rider, Harry de Leyer. They were the longest of all longshots—and their win was the stuff of legend.
Harry de Leyer first saw the horse he would name Snowman on a bleak winter afternoon between the slats of a rickety truck bound for the slaughterhouse. He recognized the spark in the eye of the beaten-up horse and bought him for eighty dollars. On Harry’s modest farm on Long Island, the horse thrived. But the recent Dutch immigrant and his growing family needed money, and Harry was always on the lookout for the perfect thoroughbred to train for the show-jumping circuit—so he reluctantly sold Snowman to a farm a few miles down the road.
But Snowman had other ideas about what Harry needed. When he turned up back at Harry’s barn, dragging an old tire and a broken fence board, Harry knew that he had misjudged the horse. And so he set about teaching this shaggy, easygoing horse how to fly. One show at a time, against extraordinary odds and some of the most expensive thoroughbreds alive, the pair climbed to the very top of the sport of show jumping.
Here is the dramatic and inspiring rise to stardom of an unlikely duo, based on the insight and recollections of “the Flying Dutchman” himself. Their story captured the heart of Cold War–era America—a story of unstoppable hope, inconceivable dreams, and the chance to have it all. Elizabeth Letts’s message is simple: Never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky-high. There is something extraordinary in all of us.[/box]
A few years ago a wonderful history book that read like a novel was published with a horse as the focal point: Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. The book attracted a tremendous following not only by horse racing and horse lovers but many who saw the book as a look back at another time in America. It was even made into a movie that also attracted a number of viewers.
With her new book on the show jumper Snowman Ms. Letts tries to follow a similar path. But while the book uses Snowman as the focal point this is really the story of Harry De Leyer, a struggling riding instructor. Snowman was an unwanted four-year old flea-bitten gray plow-horse that Harry buys in 1956 for $80 from a killer wagon to become a lesson horse. Later Harry discovers this very laid-back lesson horse could jump when Snowman keeps leaving pastures to visit his stable. From there we follow the two as they train and move up to the top shows in the country winning events against the fancy horses of the wealthy and powerful owners and riders.
The book focuses on the years of the 1950’s and 1960’s but it also makes quick visits to the 1940’s and World War II to backfill Harry’s story. Before the war Harry showed a knack with working and riding horses in Holland and he aspired to one day ride for his country in the Olympics. During the war Harry and his family struggled to keep farming while quietly working against the Germans. At the end of the war Harry married his sweetheart and immigrated to the United States, sponsored by a family of one of the American soldiers he tried to help during the war. Harry and Johanna arrived to become share croppers and then slowly they entered into the horse trainer business. By 1956 when Snowman makes his appearance Harry is the beloved riding instructor for the very posh Knox School for girls on Long Island NY.
The 1950’s were a time of change and this book takes a look at how those changes were happening through Harry and Snowman. Up to this point horses and showing were the bailiwick of the very rich that could afford the cost of horses and show life. Top hats and evening gowns were the dress of the show audience and our countries teams were made up only of amateurs who had no need to work. But this “Grand Society” life was coming to an end in the late 1950’s with the advent of the cold war and the American worker. And Harry and Snowman were the symbols of that change.
As Ms. Letts notes at one point after Harry and Snowman win at the National Horse Show “Up in the stands, thousands of people – families with children, shopkeepers, police officers, and secretaries – looked down from their perch high up in “heaven,” clapping wildly and uproariously cheering, smitten by the horse who seemed to fly without wings and yet was so firmly anchored to the ground.” And later she writes “Harry and Snowman seemed to capture the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach Americans admired, especially now, with the Cold War threatening those very values.”
The author does a wonderful job of describing America and the changes that were happening in this country. Ms. Letts also gives us historical asides that explain certain events. And as an equestrian she truly knows horses and the language of the business. There might be times where a non-horse person may feel lost in the descriptions of the horse, training or showing but if one sticks with this book the 1950’s and early 1960’s will come alive again. Definitely a read for those who want to visit our country’s past, those who love showing and horses and those who admire the story of someone who through hard work and skill realized the American dream.
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