I subscribe to the Horse Network and a little while ago the story of Harry and Snowman showed up in my inbox. I don’t think I had ever heard or read about this amazing duo before that email appeared. I decided it would make a great blog post because it is a great story. In fact, it is such an awesome story that there is a movie about them as well.
Let me start by sharing the first paragraph talking about the film on the website, harryandsnowman.com.
Dutch immigrant, Harry deLeyer, journeyed to the United States after World War II and developed a transformative relationship with a broken down Amish plow horse he rescued off a slaughter truck bound for the glue factory. Harry paid eighty dollars for the horse and named him Snowman. In less than two years, Harry & Snowman went on to win the triple crown of show jumping, beating the nations blue bloods. They were famous for their day and traveled around the world together. Their chance meeting at a Pennsylvania horse auction saved them both and crafted a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Eighty-six year old Harry tells their Cinderella love story firsthand, as he continues to train on today’s show jumping circuit.
The film is available for free on Amazon Prime video (with ads!) and Alan and I watched it a couple of weeks ago. As the above paragraph states, Harry narrated the story himself, at the ripe old age of 86. Harry died in June of 2021.
Life in Holland during World War II
Harry was born in Holland and was 12 years old when World War II began. Harry’s school was closed and turned into a concentration camp. As the years passed, Harry and his father became active with the underground resistance. Harry remembers hiding Allied soldiers from the enemy by hiding them under horse and cow manure.
Additionally, Harry would take the farm’s horses out into the countryside, find wounded soldiers, bring them home and fix them up, and then send them back to the frontlines. However, not all of the pilots survived. Harry sent one young man’s dog tags to his parents in North Carolina. That good deed eventually came back around to Harry…
When the Nazis came through the area, they took all of the good horses from the local residents. Later, Harry found over a 1000 horses abandoned and many were in very poor shape. He rescued them all.
Emigration to the United States
Harry took a wife and emigrated to the United States in 1950. He was sponsored by the family of the North Carolina soldier. Although he found gainful employment on a tobacco farm, he really missed working with horses. Harry entered a local competition, showing one of the farm’s work horses, and won first prize! Harry’s talent with horses was noticed by a successful trainer who convinced Harry that his talents were being wasted on a tobacco farm.
In 1954, Harry was hired by the prestigious Knox School in Long Island, New York. Although the school is now coed, at the time Harry taught horsemanship it was an all-girl establishment. Harry’s job was to teach the girls to fox hunt and take them to shows. He remained at the Knox School for 22 years.
Harry and Snowman meet
A couple of years after starting his career at the Knox School, Harry headed for a horse auction to find more horses for the school’s riding program. A flat tire disrupted his plans. By the time he arrived at the auction, it was nearly over. He encountered a man loading horses bound for slaughter. Snowman was already on that truck. The big, grey ex-Amish plow horse bore the scars from pulling an Amish wagon. The horse was supposedly 8 years old, but I am not sure if he was accompanied by paperwork that proved that?
Harry and Snowman locked eyes. Harry asked the man to take the horse off the truck, whereupon Harry bought him for $80. Years later, he would refuse to sell Snowman for $100,000. But I get ahead of myself…
It was Harry’s daughter Harriet that named the horse Snowman. The kids would take Snowman swimming, use him as a diving platform, and generally climb all over him. Snowman didn’t mind. Harry would wait on the shore and whistle when the kids got too far out in the water. The horse would dutifully turn around and bring them in!
A talent for jumping
Harry’s success as a horse trainer was growing. He promised a local doctor that he would sell him the next good horse he found. He forgot about that promise and found himself bound to sell Snowman. Snowman, however, had other ideas.
The big grey jumped the doctor’s fence and quickly covered the six-mile distance between the farms. Undeterred, the doctor tied a tire to the horse. Once again, Snowman showed up at Harry’s farm, only this time the horse was dragging a tire and part of the pasture fence. The doctor sold Snowman back to Harry! Harry vowed never to sell the horse again.
The rest, as they say, is history. Harry capitalized on the big horse’s desire to jump. He spent two years training Snowman in earnest, helping the horse fine-tune his jumping style. From the moment Harry and Snowman entered jumping competitions, they were winners. The $80 horse was beating horses worth $50,000 at that time!
Their first show at Madison Square Garden was in 1958. They won the prestigious Grand Prix event and Snowman was named “Horse of the Year.” The next year yielded the same result… they once again won what was then considered the equestrian “triple crown” and Snowman was once again named “Horse of the Year.”
Harry taught Snowman to jump over another horse and at one point they set a height record of 7’1″.
The pair were national celebrities. Harry appeared on To Tell the Truth, The Johnny Carson Show, and The Dick Cavett Show among others.
The impact on Harry’s family
Harry and his wife Johanna had 8 children. All of the children participated in the family business. As Harry continued to build a reputation as a stellar trainer and riding instructor, the pressure on his children was intense. The family traveled to shows nearly every weekend, and of course, his children were expected to excel. Additionally, the children were integral to the operation of the horse farm, contributing many hours to the care and training of the resident equines.
When she was 13 years old, Harry’s daughter Ann Marie was badly injured during a riding accident. Three different times she was given last rites and she was in a coma for 6 weeks. Although she did recover, she required intensive rehabilitation.
Johanna did not feel that Harry was appropriately concerned and attentive to the needs of their injured daughter. In fact, Johanna demanded that Harry give up the horses and shift his focus to the family instead. Harry refused to do that, and the pair divorced.
The children interviewed for the film are quite honest about their place in their father’s life. The horses came first, and everyone knew it. However, to be fair, it was because of the horses that the family had a comfortable lifestyle. In fact, it was primarily because of Snowman that the family achieved the financial success that paid for their expansive equine property on Long Island.
Retirement for Snowman
Harry and Snowman continued to have success in the show ring, even as the horse aged. However, eventually it was time to retire. Snowman was officially retired at Madison Square Garden in 1969, where the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Sadly, Snowman had to be euthanized in 1974 at the age of 26 because of kidney failure. That was 18 years after Harry rescued him. (Or did Snowman rescue Harry?) This decision was extremely hard for Harry, as you might imagine. Apparently, Harry had decided that he couldn’t bear to be present. (I don’t understand people who don’t stay with their animals, but that is the story…)
However, Snowman wouldn’t leave the barn to walk to the predetermined spot with any of the children. It was only when Harry took the lead rope that Snowman would leave his stall. Harry’s daughter says,
It was like the horse knew that it was his time, and he was only going with his friend. His friend had to be there.Harriet DeLeyer
Although Harry was reticent to admit it, the death of Snowman was the toughest point of Harry’s life. Harry said, “He made me.” The Cinderella horse was gone. Much of the country mourned his death as well.
The barn fire
Harry continued to breed, show, and train horses, as well as give innumerable lessons to the future generation of equestrians. He became known as the “Galloping Grandpa”! The general public, even those not accustomed to attending horse shows, would come to watch Harry ride.
Twenty years after winning the Grand Prix with Snowman, Harry repeated that victory.
One weekend while Harry was at a show, his massive barn caught on fire. The family was able to turn all the horses loose and none perished. However, the fire was devastating for Harry. His daughter described it as Harry losing a part of who he was, as well as a part of what Snowman built.
Nevertheless, Harry continued in the horse business. He was actively giving lessons within a couple of years of his death.
The Omega Horse Rescue
The filmmaking team that produced Harry and Snowman visited the New Holland auction, which is the same auction that Harry found Snowman so many years before. They were horrified by what they saw, and thus was born the Snowman Rescue Fund. The fund helps support the Omega Horse Rescue. Perhaps you’d like to donate?
Be thankful for the horses that you have
Towards the end of the movie, Harry’s daughter contemplates some of the lessons she learned from her father. I found this particular message to be excellent advice:
A big part of what we were raised to believe is that you should be thankful for the horses that you have, and you have the opportunity to make a difference in that horse’s life.Harriet DeLeyer
I just wrote a blog about how thankful I am for the horse that I have. I repeatedly talk about how important it is to have a relationship with your horse. Clearly, the relationship between Harry and Snowman was a very, very special one. Do you think that the owner of Rich Strike is thankful for the horse he has? A $30,000 horse just won the Kentucky Derby. Go give your special horse a hug! And be sure and watch the movie if you can!