When Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer, who made a career for himself on the jumping circuit, decided to rescue Snowman, a broken-down Amish workhorse bound for the glue factory, it was a move that altered both their lives.
In a true underdog story, he took Snowman on to sweep the Triple Crown of show jumping in 1958. In “Harry and Snowman,” an inspiring documentary about their unusual friendship, it’s clear that Snowman was not only the main horse de Leyer worked with over the decades, but the one de Leyer most fondly remembered. “He was my best friend,” the elderly de Leyer says in the film. “Together, we made it to the top of the world.”
De Leyer grew up on a farm in Holland as the oldest of 12 children. At the age of seven, he began jumping horses in shows. At the end of World War II, he married his childhood sweetheart. They immigrated to the United States after the war, thanks to the generosity of the family of an American soldier who had been shot by the Germans in de Leyer’s hometown – de Leyer’s sister had prepared the soldier’s grave.
That soldier’s parents invited him to their tobacco farm in North Carolina, where he stayed for a time. But he soon found work as a riding instructor at the prestigious Knox School in Long Island, where he worked for the next 22 years training young women to compete in jumping events.
In 1956, de Leyer went to Pennsylvania to find horses at an auction for the riding program at Knox. The sale was nearly over when he arrived, and all of the unsold horses were destined for the slaughterhouse. Snowman, a filthy beast with overly large hooves, one good shoe, and battered shoulders that indicated he was a plow horse, made eye contact with de Leyer. He bought the horse for $80, quickly selling Snowman to a neighbor. But five days after he was sold, Snowman returned, having made the six-mile journey back to the Knox stables without a rider. The gate was closed, so de Leyer realized the horse must have jumped the fence to get back inside – an indication of his talent. A bigger fence proved ineffective at containing him, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Less than two years after being rescued, this remarkable white horse went on to glory – his trademark act was to jump over another horse – winning recognition as the American Horse Shows Association’s Horse of the Year, as well as being named champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee. Snowman skyrocketed to celebrity status, was featured in articles in Life magazine, and even appeared on television with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. He has been the subject of three books, including New York Times bestseller The Eighty-Dollar Champion.
Director Ron Davis’ documentary, is a poignant Cinderella tale. Snowman retired from jumping in 1962 and lived on de Leyer’s Long Island farm until his death in 1974. The film underscores the relationship between de Leyer and his special horse. They traveled the world together, forging a deep bond in part because, as de Leyer says, they both “came from nothing.” The horse, who was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992, was one of the greatest show jumpers of all time. “Harry and Snowman,” a fitting tribute to the horse and his master, is a moving story of triumph against the odds.
Harry and Snowman
Director: Ron Davis
Length: 84 minutes
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.