The story of how Harry de Leyer came to ride Snowman, a plow horse he rescued from the glue factory at the cost of $80 in 1956, to national show jumping championships is one of this country’s most compelling sports stories.
And though more than 50 years have passed since the events described in Elizabeth Letts’s “The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation” (Ballantine Books), the chronicle of de Leyer and his Cinderella jumper — show jumping’s equivalent to Seabiscuit — has not lost its legs: It hit 10th on The New York Times’s hardcover nonfiction list during the week of the Hampton Classic.
De Leyer, who is to turn 84 on Wednesday, was to have signed copies of the book at the Classic on its first day, but Irene, the hurricane turned tropical storm, persuaded him not to make the trip up from his farm in Dyke, Va.
During a telephone conversation last week, de Leyer said he would be signing copies, however, at the big shows in Washington, D.C., Lexington, Ky., and Harrisburg, Pa.
When asked if he still was competing — as he had vowed he would do as long as he lived when interviewed by this writer at East Hampton’s East End Stables a number of years ago — the crowd-pleasing rider known as the Flying Dutchman and the Galloping Grandfather said, heartily, “Oh yeah, I’m still competing.”
“Oh yeah, I still do that.”
He had, in fact, been a member of the bronze-medal winning men’s jumping team at the 2009 Washington International Horse Show. Not bad for an 82-year-old, one who, by the way, had broken his back in several places at the age of 77 in a fall from a 16-foot-high hay bale loading platform.
All together, he said in reply to a question, he had eight children, all of whom are involved in the equestrian business, 19 grandchildren, and “one . . . I think two great-grandchildren.”
A native of St. Oedenrode, Holland, de Leyer first got on a horse when he was 4 years old and began jumping when he was 9. As a teenage 4-H club instructor he did underground work for the Dutch in World War II, after which he became the leading rider on Holland’s junior equestrian team, which toured Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. He went to the London Olympics in 1948 as an alternate.
His and his family’s contact with American paratroopers, whom he first met when they parachuted into his village, enabled him in 1950, at the age of 22, to get his first job in America, on a tobacco farm in Greensboro, N.C., where he schooled and showed some horses locally, attracting the attention of Mickey Walsh, a top trainer, at one of them.
Because of Walsh, de Leyer moved on to manage farms — and to breed and to show horses — in western Pennsylvania and Lynchburg, Va. The owner of the latter farm, David Dillard, president of the Old Dominion Box Company and inventor of the six-pack, “gave me my start in the horse business. He said to me, ‘Harry, there are only four horses here — you’ll get bored. Get some horses and teach the high school kids.’ I told him I didn’t have any capital to buy horses. He gave me the money, and that’s the way I got started.”
Soon after, in 1954, he became the riding instructor at the Knox School, a private girls school in St. James, a position that he held for 22 years.
He was looking for a schooling horse able to carry his heavier students when, at an auction in New Holland, Pa., in 1956, he made the acquaintance of the former plow horse, an unkempt 8-year-old gray gelding who was to become Snowman, as he was about to be carted away to a slaughterhouse in Northport.
“He was wide and quiet and he had an intelligent head and good legs,” de Leyer said.
But the owner advised against a sale. “He said he wasn’t sound. He said he had a hole in his shoulder from pulling a plow.”
Nevertheless, the deal was made. De Leyer paid $60 for the horse and a $20 van charge. The seller said he could have the $60 back if it didn’t work out.
Since de Leyer already had a good jumper in St. John, whom he’d bought at a racetrack in Charleston, W.Va., and since Snowman, who had been thus named by his children once he had been cleaned up, hadn’t shown much proclivity for jumping — “he stumbled over the poles of a two and a half-to-three-foot jump and he ran like he was drunk, to the right and left” — de Leyer sold him, for $160, to a chiropractor who lived several miles down the road and was looking for a nice quiet horse to ride on the trails.
“Then, one day, clip, clop, clip, clop, he comes right in and stood there in my ring where I teach him. I called the doc to come pick him up. He told me that he jumped the fence. I told him to raise it.”
It soon became apparent that it didn’t matter how high the fence was raised. One day, Snowman arrived in de Leyer’s ring dragging a log and a 30-foot halter, having worked the log under the fence before rearing back and vaulting it.
De Leyer said he agreed with the chiropractor to board Snowman at Knox, “but he never paid me anything. I called him to talk about it and he said, ‘You keep him — we’ll call it even.’ ”
And so, despite the fact that “he didn’t look anything like a jumper — he was very long in the body, he was only 16 hands” — the horseman began to school Snowman seriously indoors in the winter of 1957.
“In the beginning he couldn’t shorten his stride. He would weave, and by doing that he would find his spot. . . . Yes, you could ride him that way, but you better sit good and tight! And with him weaving like a drunkard you are losing time. . . .”
“I showed him in 1958. He was the champion at Madison Square Garden and all over the U.S. He won the most points for five years! He could jump the biggest jumps, 7 feet 2 inches. He was a freak of nature.”
“There’s a picture of that in the book. A huge set of parallel bars. At the Fairfield show in 1958. It was the first time I showed him off the Island. I don’t have the reins, you see? Just my knees. . . . I gave him his head all the time. . . . No, I never fell off him.”
De Leyer said his Hall of Fame horse, who was officially retired at a ceremony in Madison Square Garden in 1969, and who lived to be 28, “was champion at the Southampton Horse Show, which later became the Hampton Classic. They used to have it on a farm next to the water, near where those old-fashioned cars were” — Henry Austin Clark’s Long Island Automotive Museum.
De Leyer was last at the Classic in 2006, “but I didn’t show.”
He had good reason: He had, as Letts describes in an epilogue to her best seller, fallen from the aforementioned loading platform the previous year.
The E.M.T.s initially found him to be quite headstrong, determined to stand up on his own despite the fact, as it later became clear at the University of Virginia’s hospital, that he had broken his back in several places and had water on the brain.
“They had to tie me up, but I knew how to unzip it! I escaped — just like Snowman!”