It was a snowy February afternoon in 1956 in New Holland, Pennsylvania, the location of the largest horse auction east of the Mississippi every Monday for more than fifty years. Almost 400 horses were sold that afternoon. No horse was left unsold. The last bidder had been the kill buyer and he purchased the remaining horses for the slaughterhouse. His horses would be ground up for dog food and their hooves would be melted for glue.
Harry de Leyer arrived late to the auction because his $25 truck had broken down. He had driven 150 miles from his home on Long Island, New York, hoping to find a calm horse that he could train for his riding pupils. He was the riding instructor at The Knox School, a prestigious girl’s riding school where wealthy patrons in New York City brought their daughters to learn to ride. A thoroughbred would be out of Harry’s price range, but possessing a keen eye for horses, Harry knew finding a good horse at a reasonable price was possible.
When Harry arrived, only the kill truck was still there. He peered through the truck’s slatted trailer where more than a dozen horses were nervously striking their hooves on the metal floor. One horse stood quietly by, seemingly paying no attention to the chaos. When Harry reached out his palm, the horse stuck his nose toward him. “What about that one?” he asked the driver, who responded, “You don’t want that one. He has a cracked hoof and his chest is all cut up from pulling a plow.” Disregarding the driver’s advice, Harry bought the broken-down, ex-plow horse for $80, all the money he had in his pocket.
Harry de Leyer and his wife had immigrated to America in 1950 from a small farm in St. Oedenrode, Holland. Having grown up with horses, Harry found a job as the riding instructor at The Knox School. To supplement his meager income, he also specialized in buying cheap, reject horses, training them, and selling them for a small profit. No one at Knox knew that had it not been for World War II this poor immigrant might have been on the Dutch national jumping team, riding the best horses in Europe, and possibly preparing for the 1960 Olympics.
Harry bought the horse, took him home and his two young children quickly fell in love with the gentle, grey gelding. They named him Snowman and rode him around the small family farm. Money was tight and the horse was expensive to feed, so when a doctor who lived two miles away offered to pay Harry twice as much as he had paid for him, Harry sold him the horse. Two days later, however, Snowman was back at Harry’s barn. He returned the horse, informing the doctor that his fence must be down. The fence was fine. Several days later, Snowman was back again. Once again Harry returned the horse; not believing an old plow horse could jump a five-foot fence. This time they tied a rope with a tire attached around Snowman’s neck. If he were jumping the fence, he would not be able to do it now.
To Harry’s amazement, early the next morning, Snowman was back at the de Leyer barn dragging the tire. Could it be that hidden in this old plow horse from the fields of Pennsylvania was a jumper? Still not convinced, Harry set up a six-foot rail, mounted Snowman, and the horse sailed over the rail like he had invisible wings. Harry bought Snowman back from the doctor for $160.
In their first competition, the crowd laughed at Harry’s flea-bitten horse. Snowman did not look like a thoroughbred that belonged in a show ring; he looked like he belonged in a field. The crowd could not believe that Harry would enter an old farm horse in a jumping competition. Snowman didn’t win that day, but Harry realized that within this horse was a champion jumper.
The crowds did not laugh for long. Just two years after having been given up for dog food, Snowman won the Washington, D.C. National Horse Show with President Dwight Eisenhower in attendance. In 1958, Harry and Snowman also won the National Horse Show Jumping Competition at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The National Horse Association voted Snowman their “Horse of the Year.” The $80 plow horse had become the $80 wonder horse and a media darling.
The nation fell in love with Snowman, who had been the longest of long shots. Wherever they competed, large crowds turned out to watch Harry and Snowman jump. When Snowman retired from competition in 1962, Harry estimated that the horse was about ten years old. He lived on Harry’s farm until he died in 1974. Snowman was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992.
In 2002, the United States Equestrian Foundation recognized Harry de Leyer for his incredible contribution to the sport. Now 87-years-old, and too old to ride in competition, he continues on as one of the most successful show jumping trainers in America, a career jump-started by his partnership with Snowman.
According to H. Jackson Brown, Jr., “Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.” Was it fate that Harry arrived late to the auction on that snowy February afternoon in 1956? Or was it part of a larger plan that brought Harry and Snowman together? Regardless, Harry rescued an old plow horse on his way to the slaughterhouse and neither of their lives were ever the same again.
“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” Muhammad Rumi