With the official start of winter only a few days away I thought I’d share the story of Snowman. No, not the tale of Frosty, the snowman that magically came to life, but rather that of a large grey horse whose true story is no less magical than Frosty’s.
The horse that would become known as Snowman, and who would reach the pinnacle of the show jumping world, came from humble and uncertain beginnings. Likely he was originally employed as a plow horse. The first documented incident of his life was nearly its last. He was at the New Holland horse auction in Pennsylvania and by the end of the day had been sold to the meat buyer and loaded onto a trailer for the ride to the slaughter pens. At this point fate intervened in the form of a late arrival at the auction, Harry de Leyer.
Harry de Leyer was the riding instructor at the Knox School for Girls on Long Island. He had made the drive to New Holland hoping to add a horse or two to his stable but bad weather and car trouble had conspired against him and caused him to miss the auction. As he walked by the trailer headed for the slaughterhouse, he noticed the grey horse and asked to see him. Despite the horse’s poor condition, there was something in his eyes and the cock of his ears that Harry liked the look of. He thought the horse might be turned into a decent lesson horse for his heavier students. He offered the meat buyer $80 for the horse, including delivery to his farm in Long Island. The offer was quickly accepted and instead of a trailer ride to the end of his life, the horse embarked on a second chance life, and he would make the most of it.
When the horse arrived at the de Leyer farm the whole family turned out to see him. Snow had started to fall and the children promptly named the horse Snowman. He was in a sorry state but the family was up to the challenge of rehabilitating the horse and it wasn’t too long before he was cleaned up and filled out. Once he was healthy again, Snowman began learning to be a riding horse. He took to the training well and displayed an excellent temperament for a lesson horse. He was deliberate and even tempered with riders. Ideal for beginners who were nervous around high strung Thoroughbreds. Eventually Harry judged him ready to work at the Knox School and Snowman moved from the family farm to the school’s stable. There Harry hoped he would eventually be able to sell the horse to one of the girls. When it became apparent that there would be no buyer Harry decided to return to New Holland and sell Snowman there, but once again fate had other plans.
A local doctor showed up at the farm looking to buy a placid horse for his son. Harry offered to sell him Snowman for $160 and the agreement that if the doctor should ever want to sell the horse, he would bring him back to de Leyer who would pay him $160. All seemed settled until one morning de Leyer discovered Snowman back inside the paddock. He called the doctor who informed him that Snowman had repeatedly jumped over the fence and trampled his neighbor’s garden, despite the doctor raising the height of the fence by a foot. Jumping high obstacles is something that horses generally have to be trained to do, and Harry was intrigued. He had trained many jumpers and wondered at the prospects of an animal that was naturally inclined to the activity. Could he make a show jumper out of him? Harry bought Snowman back from the doctor and got to work.
After a lot of hard work and training, Harry and Snowman began competing on the show jumping circuit. Initially the chunky former plow horse was mocked as he paraded out along with the elegant Thoroughbred jumpers, but laughter soon turned to astonishment and then to enthusiastic support as Snowman let his jumping do the talking for him. Harry and Snowman continued to succeed as they progressed through the jumping circuit and eventually they arrived at Madison Square Garden for the championship meet at the National Horse Show.
Americans love an underdog and by now the Cinderella story of the plow horse turned show jumper had gripped the public’s imagination. Harry and Snowman even appeared on the Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson retold their story for a national audience. The competition lasts a week and by the final contest Snowman was one point behind the leader. As if in a scripted movie, Harry and Snowman flew to victory! Snowman was the 1958 Champion. And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he repeated his victory the following year and was Champion of 1959 as well. Snowman toured Europe and the United States and officially retired in 1969 at a ceremony at Madison Square Garden. He lived the rest of his life at the de Leyer farm where his fans continued to visit him. Snowman died in 1974.
Snowman’s story has been chronicled in numerous books, one of which, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, was written by John H. Daniels Fellow, Elizabeth Letts here at the NSLM. In this trailer for the documentary, Harry & Snowman, you can see the pair in action. In 1992 Snowman was inducted into the Show Jumper Hall of Fame, and he has been commemorated as a Breyer Horse figurine.
If you would like to read more about this amazing horse and his partnership with Harry de Leyer drop into the Main Reading Room and I can show you a couple of books.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail