By Doris Degner-Foster
Harry deLeyer is famous for his partnership with Snowman, a grey gelding that he rescued from the kill wagon and rode to win at the elite level of show jumping, competing against the top horses in the country. Harry’s daughter Harriet has been credited with naming the broken-down former plow horse that arrived at the family farm on a snowy, dark evening in 1956. Four-year-old Harriet didn’t notice the gelding was neglected and thin but saw a sweet horse with snow all over him. She said he looked like a snowman, and the name stuck.
Harry became famous for his amazing success with Snowman in 1958 and the story was told to numerous magazines and newspapers of the former plow horse that Harry rode to victory over the blue bloods of the horse world. His daughter Harriet told the rest of the story about her famous father and growing up as a deLeyer.
A native of St. Oedenrode, Holland, Harry was the leading rider on Holland’s junior equestrian team, which toured Europe in the 1930s, and he went to the London Olympics in 1948 as an alternate for the show jumping team before he became famous with Snowman. Harriet said, “He also did Roman riding where you stand on the back of a horse and hold the reins of a number of horses in front of you [that you guide through] an obstacle course.”
When the Nazis invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, the teenage Harry worked alongside other members in his family with the underground resistance movement. Those actions would later help change the course of his life. “Both my parents were part of the underground,” Harriet said. “They helped hide Jewish people and then got them safely away to the Allies.”
They also helped the Allied forces wherever they could, which included burying U.S. soldiers who had died on their farm and sending their personal effects back to their families. Those acts of kindness were beneficial to Harry after the war when the family brewery was no longer prosperous and he became interested in immigrating to America. “My parents got sponsored [to come to America] by the family of one of the solders that had died in the fields,” Harriet said. “They had sent his belongings back to his family, and they sponsored them.”
Through Harry’s love of horses and riding, he got a job training and riding horses and in 1954, he became the riding instructor at the Knox School, a private girls’ school on Long Island, New York, and held that position for 22 years.
Balancing the Family Business Around Teaching
Harry maintained his own training and teaching business during the summer, bringing his horses home from the Knox stables to his nearby farm. “We all had jobs, my parents being European; the boys worked at the farm and I worked at the house,” Harriet said. There were six boys and only two girls, Harriet and the youngest child Ann Marie. “All my brothers had to muck out stalls and sweep and I could water, but being a girl, I wasn’t allowed to muck out stalls.” The responsibilities were a typical division of labor during the 1950s and ’60s but it seems as if ‘tomboy’ Harriet would rather have been in the barn.
As a trainer, Harry’s children were the best advertisement for the family business and they trusted his judgment. “One of my most exciting memories was when I was 9 years old and I had a pony named Thumbs Up,” Harriet remembered. “For whatever reason, my father decided I should do the Medal and the Maclay qualifying class at a show when I was 9 on a pony and I won.” After the shows, taking care of the horses came first. Harry reminded the children that if they were tired and hungry, so were the horses.
Harry was always on the lookout for horses that would make good mounts for the girls at the Knox school. One cold winter night in 1956, because of bad weather and a flat tire, he arrived late to the New Holland auction. The only horses left were the ones nobody had bid on.
“They had loaded all the horses to go to the slaughterhouse. There was a white Amish plow horse on the van. The same time I looked at him, he looked out to me and that’s when he and I connected. I paid $80 for him,” Harry said. “Every horse is a little different and it’s like finding a key to a lock that clicks and opens the door. Snowman and I clicked right away.” The extent of their partnership was not immediately apparent, however.
Harry included Snowman in his lesson program at the Knox School and he was so quiet and calm that he gave the beginning riders confidence. His jumping talent, however, seemed very limited and he struggled to simply trot through the cavalletti poles. “He was a little clumsy because he didn’t quite know how,” Harriet said. “He’d been pulling a plow where he wasn’t picking up his feet to go over anything, so he didn’t quite understand the whole process of cavaletti.”
Snowman was sold to a neighbor, but the gelding apparently wasn’t happy with the arrangement. “He kept jumping over the paddocks to come home, back to my dad,” Harriet remembered. “He was bought to be a lesson horse for the girls at the Knox School so in the beginning, all my father was interested in him doing was to walk, trot, canter and go through cavalletti poles. That was all he needed him to do so there wasn’t any real jumping training until he got sold. That’s when his real jumping training began — when he showed everyone that he could jump.”
At first the big gelding didn’t know how to shorten and lengthen his strides between fences so he would go a little to the right or left to make room for his strides to fit, but he soon learned to adjust and he’d do whatever Harry asked him to as their close partnership grew.
The Plow Horse Into the Show Ring
Harry had to work Snowman’s showing schedule around his responsibilities at Knox, missing the prestigious Devon Horse Show because of the graduation ceremonies at the school. In 1958, just two years after he saved the gelding from the kill wagon, Harry and Snowman managed to get to enough shows within driving distance from his farm to qualify for the championships. That year, Harry and Snowman won what was considered the triple crown of show jumping: the American Horse Show Association’s Horse of the Year, Professional Horseman’s Association champion and the champion of Madison Square Garden’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1959, Harry brought Snowman to Madison Square Garden again and they set a record as the first horse to win the Open Jumper Championship two years in a row.
Snowman remained the calm, easygoing horse that anyone could ride. “When we moved to the farm when I was 9, my dad let me jump Snowman in the indoor ring,” Harriet remembered. “He just kept making the jump higher and higher; the last jump I jumped Snowman over was six feet! I was so small back then that my legs couldn’t hold on to the saddle and the only thing connected to Snowman in mid flight were my hands buried in his mane. My legs were up over my head. By some miracle we did land together and he cantered away as if we’d just jumped a 2-foot jump.
“Snowman would do anything my dad asked of him,” Harriet said. “And I believe that’s because Snowman understood that my dad saved him.”
After their wins at Madison Square Garden, Harry and Snowman became an instant sensation. Snowman appeared on the cover of Life magazine and Harry was on the televised game show “To Tell the Truth.” They both appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. As an example of just how calm Snowman was, Johnny actually climbed up on Snowman’s back onstage during the taping of the show, sitting backwards as he clowned around. With Harry at his side, Snowman stood quietly.
Snowman retired and continued to be ridden by the deLeyer children, sometimes all eight of them at once. Harry said, “Snowman got so close to me, and he got so close to my kids that he was part of the family.” The children would often ride him to the nearby beach on Long Island and swim with him in the waves. There are numerous pictures of several of them on Snowman’s back, holding onto him and each other as he paddled through the water.
Snowman died in fall 1974. He was 28 or 29 — no one knew his actual age. He was ill with what was diagnosed as kidney failure when it was decided to put him down, and he was buried on the farm Harry once owned on Long Island.
Harriet explained that her dad didn’t do well with putting animals down. She remembered how Harry couldn’t be around when his much-loved German Shepherd dog had to be put down. “He said, ‘I know the vet’s coming to put him to sleep. I’ll be back in an hour,’” Harriet said. “Both my older brother and I were there [when we put Snowman down]. Dad didn’t want to be there but when we had to walk him out to where they were going put him down, Snowman would not leave the barn. We had to go find my father and Snowman would only walk out of the barn for him. It was a horrific thing to watch my dad have to deal with; it was like putting a part of his family to sleep. It was very hard for him.”
Once Harry got Snowman out of the barn, he left the farm and was gone for two days. “He just had to deal with all of that himself and we just carried on,” Harriet said. “We knew how to run the barn; it wasn’t like we didn’t know what to do because we ran the barn when he went off to shows.”
In 1992, Snowman’s lifetime accomplishments were recognized when he was inducted into the Show Jumpers Hall of Fame. Harry gave his permission for Breyer to immortalize Snowman as a model, simply requesting that a model be given to each of his grandchildren. Several books have been written about him, most recently the New York Times best seller, The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts. The feature-length documentary film “Harry and Snowman,” produced by Docutainment Films, has made the rounds on the film circuits, winning 10 awards.
There are many stories of horses rescued from kill lots who go on to productive careers, and Harry is optimistic that another Snowman could come along. He said, “Yes, it can happen! Some kid can come out of nowhere with a horse that doesn’t look so good and win. It happened to me, and it can happen again.”
Visit www.harryandsnowman.com to learn more about the award-winning documentary “Harry and Snowman.”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she isn’t interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a novel where a horse appears mysteriously in people’s lives to help them through a crisis. She’s also writing and a middle-grade series about kids who ride horses and solve mysteries.