Harry de Leyer Is Back in the Saddle at Film Fest

Snowman’s underdog story comes to the screen
Harry de Leyer, at the Hampton Classic in 2006, retired to a farm in Virginia. Jack Graves

Harry de Leyer, “the Galloping Grandfather,” who turned 88 last week, and his plow horse turned show champion, Snowman, are the subjects of a prizewinning documentary, “Harry & Snowman,” that is to be screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Oct. 11 at 6:45 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 4:30 p.m., both at the East Hampton Cinema.

The story, a compelling, ofttold one, for Snowman was show jumping’s equivalent to racing’s Seabiscuit, has been written about a number of times, most recently by Elizabeth Letts, whose bestselling “The Eighty-Dollar Champion” was published in 2011 by Ballantine Books. The screen rights to that book were acquired by MGM two years ago.

Ron Davis’ s 83-minute documentary — “a cinematic bouquet to the world,” according to one review, “a disarming underdog story that doubles as an ani- mal-rescue advocacy tool,” according to another — has already been shown at a dozen film festivals across the country, winning prizes among documentaries along the way.

It is only fitting that it be shown in East Hampton, for de Leyer owned the East End Stables off Oakview Highway here before moving to Dyke, Va., in 2005. One of his sons, Andre, and Andre’s wife, Christine, run it now.

In an interview this writer did with him in 2011, de Leyer said he’d been at a horse auction in New Holland, Pa., in 1956, looking for a “weight carrier,” a horse that would accommodate some “heavy-set” beginners at the Knox School, a private girls school in St. James where he worked, when Snowman (so named by de Leyer’s then-4-year-old daughter, Harriet), who was about to be taken to the glue factory, met his eye.

“He was wide and quiet, with an intelligent head and good legs, but the owner said he wasn’t sound, that he had a hole in his shoulder from pulling a plow.”

Nevertheless, the deal was made, de Leyer paying $60 for the horse and a $20 van charge. The seller said he could have the $60 back if the 8-year-old long gray gelding didn’t work out.

In the beginning, the horseman, who as a young man had come to the United States from Holland following World War II, didn’t think of Snowman in terms of jumping. For one thing, he didn’t look anything like a jumper — he was very long in the body. Moreover, “he stumbled over the poles of a two-and-a-half to three-foot jump. He ran like he was drunk, to the right and left. He would lose the rider. . . .”

The next summer, a chiropractor who lived several miles down the road came by looking for a nice quiet horse to ride on the trails. De Leyer sold him Snowman for $160.

“Then, one day, clip, clop, clip, clop, he come 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.

Intrigued, de Leyer bought him back — and was never to entertain the idea of selling Snowman again, however big the offer.

“In the beginning, he couldn’t shorten his stride — that’s why he was like a drunkard. He would weave, and by doing that, he would find his spot.” Could he be ridden that way? “You could do it, but you better sit good and tight,” said de Leyer, with a laugh. “And also 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 [including show jumping’s triple crown in 1958]. He could jump the biggest jumps, 7 feet 2 inches . . . he was a freak. Drop the reins and he would keep pushing.”

A large green-and-yellow pennant that reads, “Snowman, the Cinderella Horse, Retired Nov. 9, 1969 . . . Madison Square Garden,” hangs in a room adjacent to East End Stables’ 100-by-200- foot indoor ring.

Snowman, the National Horse Show champion in 1958 and ’59, and the first horse to become Horse of the Year in the Professional Horsemen’s Association and in the American Horse Shows As- sociation in two consecutive years, was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. He died in 1974 at the age of 26.

Snowman saved him, de Leyer is heard to say in a trailer for the documentary. They saved each other.