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The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts
Review by Nancy Brannon
Everyone needs a heartwarming story for the holidays, and for horse folks, it’s hard to find a better classic than Elizabeth Letts’ book about the very talented horse Snowman and extraordinary horseman Harry de Leyer.
Born in St. Oedenrode, Holland, Harry and his wife emigrated to the U.S. just after World War II, having miraculously survived the Nazi occupation of his home village. Arriving with only $160 a few belongings, and his amazing horsemanship skills, it wasn’t long before he gained the position of riding instructor at the Knox School in New York, an upper class girls’ school.
Harry often went to horse auctions, looking for inexpensive horses that he could train for use in the riding school. The night he found Snowman, he was late getting to the auction and the only horses left to choose from were those already bought by the “killer buyer” and on the trailer headed for the slaughter house. When Harry first saw him, he had cuts on his knees and the hair across his chest was all rubbed away, “signs of being yoked to a burden.” (p.24) But when Harry looked him in the eye, he saw something extraordinary – not just the sad eyes of a depressed, worn out plow horse, but a spark of life, of bravery, of quiet confidence. “The horse stretched out his neck and blew a soft greeting.” (p. 7) So for $80, all the money that Harry had, the horse became his. Later that evening when the horse was delivered to the farm and unloaded from the trailer, “snow drifted down, leaving a dusting across his broad haunches.” Harry’s 4-year-old daughter chimed out, “Look, Daddy, he has snow all over him. He looks just like a snowman.” All agreed the horse would be named Snowman.
The horse was always cool, calm and nothing rattled him. He was the perfect school horse at the Knox School, and could easily carry all the de Leyer children swimming in the pond in the summertime, where they used his rump as a diving board.
When Harry’s neighbor Dr. Rugen needed a quiet, dependable horse, he sold Snowman for $160, with the stipulation that if the Dr. ever wanted to part with the horse, Harry would have the option to buy him back.
Not long after the sale, Snowman began escaping from Dr. Rugen’s pasture, returning to Harry’s stableyard. After returning him numerous times, one morning Harry found Snowman back standing in the middle of the stable courtyard, dragging behind him a big rubber tire with a piece of board ripped from the pasture fence. “There was no mistaking the pride in the horse’s eyes. ...There is one thing no horseman can ever put a price on and that is heart.”
Recognizing the horse’s innate jumping talent, Harry set out to properly train him to jump. But he was klutzy over ground poles and simple cavaletti. One day on a dare from a stable hand, Harry jumped Snowman over a course of four-foot jumps, which the horse sailed over with room to spare. Snowman could fly!
Harry continued schooling the horse over the larger jumps and soon was ready to take the horse to his first horse show. Looking much out of place on his flea-bitten gray “plow horse,” compared to the fancy Thoroughbreds, Snowman was consistent in his jumping efforts, completing courses with clear rounds and bringing home blue ribbons and championships. Snowman soon developed a following of horse show fans after journalist Marie Lafrenz captured the essence of the horse in her Herald Tribune article “The Cinderella Horse.”
Only two years after his rescue, Snowman won the 1958 horse show Triple Crown — the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year, Professional Horseman’s Association Champion, and Champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee. The following year, he was again the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year and Professional Horseman’s Association Champion.
Harry always used the softest bit possible on a horse, such as a D-ring rubber snaffle. Harry believed in going easy on a horse’s mouth and teaching the horse to be responsive to the lightest touch. And Harry had a riding style that gave the horse the greatest freedom of head and neck over the huge fences. While other hot blooded horses in the competitions had to be “hand ridden” to the fences, checked then spurred, Harry rode Showman on a long rein and the horse cantered quietly as a hunter around the huge jumper courses.
Elizabeth Letts keeps readers spellbound with her details of each competition, mesmerizing them into hopeful anticipation of another win for the amazing horse, despite various setbacks. It’s not only a story of a great horse, it’s just as much a story about a great horseman and his very empathetic method of training horses to bring out their best.
Interspersed are well-research details of the historical, political, and social circumstances of the times in which the events take place. She gives important background information to set the context and the scene for the events in de Leyer’s and Snowman’s life. The reader will recognize many famous names in the show jumping world, including Olympic champions, many of whom are still riding and/or teaching riding today.
Snowman retired from competition in 1962, and in 1969, Snowman was escorted into the new Madison Square Garden at The National Horse Show for his retirement ceremony. “As Harry walked into the ring, leading his beloved horse, he remembered every step along the way, each image of Snowman… But the strongest image was from that first moment on the slaughter truck, when something in the horse’s expression caught his eye.”
Coming soon in 2015, the documentary of Harry and Snowman comes to the movie screens.
Read more about author Elizabeth Letts at: http://www.elizabethletts.com
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