Others find victory on their own – you just have to hold still and go along for the ride.”
Does anyone remember Snowman, the show jumper who launched Harry de Leyer’s career? De Leyer found Snowman at auction in Pennsylvania. Then, he was an 8-year old Amish plough horse sent for slaughter. De Leyer, looking for a school horse, arrived late at the auction – just as the “dregs” of the auction were being loaded onto the kill buyer’s truck. The horse’s eyes met De Leyer, and he was purchased off the truck for $80.
Snowman (as he was renamed), went to work in the riding school. He was a barn favourite, adored by the De Leyer children. A year after his purchase, De Leyer sold him to a neighbouring doctor, who was looking for a horse for his daughter. It seemed like a perfect fit: a forever, loving home for Snowman, and a 100% profit for De Leyer.
Snowman had other ideas. He believed he had found his forever home with De Leyer, and was not going to take no for an answer. A few days after the sale, De Leyer received a call from the doctor saying the horse had jumped out of his paddock, and was in a neighbour’s yard. Snowman was returned to the doctor, but he continued to escape, finally jumping his paddock fence, and every obstacle in his path, across the six miles that separated his new home from the De Leyer’s farm.
It turns out that De Leyer had not bought a school horse. He had bought a show jumper and a personality. And while his early training was hardly auspicious (Snowman pretty much decimated small jumps and cavaletti), once De Leyer pointed him to what Snowman considered a real jump, his passion appeared. Two years after he was saved from slaughter, Snowman and De Leyer won the jumper championship at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, and Snowman became the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year. In the five years Snowman and De Leyer competed at an international level, they won many top competitions and titles. And they captured peoples’ hearts. Snowman appeared on both the Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett shows, in 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 of the impressive The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation, by Elizabeth Letts, 2011.
Snowman lived out his life with De Leyer, and was humanely euthanized at the age of 26 following complications due to kidney failure. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Show Jumping Hall of Fame. The Breyer model of him is now a collectors item.
Last summer, Elizabeth Lett’s book about Snowman was published. Now, director and producer Ron Davis is looking to make a documentary about Snowman and De Leyer. He feels that the story stands the test of time. “When you looked at Harry and Snowman on paper in the 1950’s, neither were destined for greatness. But they came together, there is no other word to describe them other than inspiring.”
Lett’s book and Davis’ pending documentary are incredibly timely. It’s a story of success in the face of horrible fate. In a time of rising costs, the tremendous influx of horses into an already saturated marketplace, increased awareness of and the call to ban horse slaughter and the culling of wild horses, the story of Snowman carries some valuable lessons:
“First, be fair, and don’t be so tough on your horse,” De Leyer 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. There is always a chance to get there, so give yourself a chance. Give every horse a chance.”
Snowman is another great reminder of the success you can find if you give a horse the chance.
Credits go to “The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation” (Elizabeth Betts, 2011)