From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

The Farm Horse That

Became a Champion

If you had been one of the thirteen thousand spectators at the National Horse Show in New York’s Madison Square Garden in November 1959, you would have experienced an unexpectedly moving moment. In the middle of the evening, the arena was cleared, the lights were dimmed and the band struck up a triumphal march. All eyes followed a spotlight toward the entrance gate at the west end of the ring.

There a big gray horse—obviously not a Thoroughbred— appeared, preceded by five small children. As a blond young man and his wife led the horse to the center of the huge arena, the audience rose and began clapping. The applause was deafening. The young couple and their children beamed and bowed their thanks, the horse stomped his feet, and the thunderous clapping went on and on.

The horse was Snow Man, and he was being declared the Professional Horsemen’s Association champion in open jumping—one of the highest honors the horseshow world has to bestow. That he and his owners, the handsome de Leyer family, were receiving such wild cheering was enough to make even the coldest cynic believe in fairy tales.

Less than four years before, Snow Man had been on his way to the slaughterhouse, a tired farm horse that nobody seemed to want or care about. Fortunately, somebody did care—and this is the story of that caring.

One wintry Monday in February 1956, twenty-eight-year-old Harry de Leyer set out from his small riding stable at St. James, Long Island, for the weekly horse auction in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Harry had been brought up on a farm in the Netherlands and had always loved horses. In 1950, he married his childhood sweetheart, Joanna Vermeltfoort, and they came to the United States. With only a smattering of English, and $160 in capital, Harry and Joanna first tried tobacco farming in North Carolina, then worked on a horse farm in Pennsylvania. Soon the two young Dutch immigrants had a few horses of their own, and within five years Harry was offered the job of riding master at the Knox School for Girls on Long Island. Now the father of three children, he was interested, of course, in doing anything he could to build security for his family.

When Harry headed for the Pennsylvania horse auction that February day, he was aiming to buy several horses for the school to use. He arrived late, however; most of the horses had been sold. Wandering outside, he saw several sorry-looking animals being loaded into a butcher’s van. These were the “killers”—worn-out work horses that nobody wanted, except the meat dealer. The sight made Harry sad. He felt pity for any horse, however useless, that could not live out its last years in a green pasture.

Suddenly, Harry spotted a big gray gelding plodding up the ramp. The horse was chunky, but lighter than the others, and there was a spirited pitch to his ears, a brightness in his eyes. Unaccountably, on instinct alone, de Leyer called to the loader to bring the horse back down.

“You crazy?” said the meat dealer. “He’s just an old farm horse.”

Probably, Harry thought. The animal’s ribs showed, his coat was matted with dirt and manure, there were sores on his legs. Still, there was something about him. . . .

“How much do you want for him?” de Leyer asked.

That’s how it all started. Harry de Leyer redeemed an old plug for eighty dollars.

The whole de Leyer family was out to greet the horse the next day. Down the ramp of the van he came, stumbling over his big feet. He looked slowly about, blinking in the bright winter sun. Then, ankle-deep in snow, covered with shaggy white hair, he stood still as a statue. One of the children said, “He looks just like a snow man.”

They all set about turning Snow Man into a horse again. First they clipped him lightly, and then they washed him—three times. In a while, the horseshoer came. Finally, cleaned and curried and shod, Snow Man was ready for his training sessions as a riding horse.

Harry laid a dozen thick wooden poles on the ground, spacing them a few feet apart. To walk across the network of poles, a horse had to lift its feet high and space its steps. When Snow Man tried it, poles flew every which way, and he stumbled and wove.

But Snow Man learned fast. By spring, he was carrying the novice riders at Knox, and some of the girls even began asking for him in preference to the better-looking horses.

When school closed that summer, Harry de Leyer made what might have been the biggest mistake of his life: he sold Snow Man to a neighborhood doctor for double his money, with the understanding that the doctor would not sell Snow Man, except back to him. After all, Harry told himself, he was in the horse business.

Now Snow Man began showing a side that hadn’t previously come to light. He insisted on jumping the doctor’s fences, no matter how high they were raised, and coming home—cross-country over fields and lawns, through backyards and gardens. Irate citizens called the police. The doctor was glad to let de Leyer have Snow Man back.

The feeling was mutual. For in some strange way, de Leyer had come to believe that he and Snow Man shared a common destiny. Solemnly he promised himself never again to part with the horse.

Now, with indication that Snow Man liked to jump, de Leyer began giving him special schooling as a jumper. With kindness and hard work, he helped Snow Man over tougher and tougher obstacles. Finally, in the spring of 1958, de Leyer decided to put the big gray to his first real test—at the Sands Point Horse Show on Long Island, where he would compete with some of the top open jumpers in the land.

Incredibly, out on the Sands Point jump course, Snow Man could do no wrong. Again and again, spectators held their breath, expecting the ungainly looking animal to come crashing down on the bars—but he never did. By nightfall of the second day of the three-day show, he had achieved the seemingly impossible: He was tied for the lead in the open jumper division with the great old campaigner, Andante.

Then, with success so close, on his final jump of the day, Snow Man landed with his feet too close together, and a back hoof slashed his right foreleg. By the following day, it would be swollen and stiff. But de Leyer wasn’t one to give up easily. He cut a section out of a tire tube, slipped it over Snow Man’s injured leg like a sock, tied up the bottom and filled the tube with ice. All night long, he kept the improvised sock full of fresh ice, telling Snow Man over and over how they would win the next day.

When morning came, the leg was neither stiff nor swollen. And on the final round of the day Snow Man beat the mighty Andante!

Harry de Leyer now saw that he had a potential champion— possibly even a national champion. However, giving Snow Man a chance to prove it meant hitting the horse-show circuit in earnest, vanning to a new show each weekend, putting up big entry fees, riding his heart out—a long, tiring summer and autumn that could end in little reward. Moreover, a spot on Harry’s tongue had started hurting, and that worried him. It would be easier to forget about championships. Still, after talking it over, Harry and Joanna decided that Snow Man deserved a try.

So, to Connecticut they went. Snow Man won at the Fairfield Horse Show and at Lakeville. Then to Branchville, New Jersey, but Harry was in no condition to ride a winner. His tongue was bothering him badly, and he had scarcely eaten for a week. Consequently, Snow Man had a bad day. Blaming himself for the big jumper’s first loss, Harry de Leyer drove home that Sunday night gritting his teeth against his pain.

On Monday, he went to a doctor. On Tuesday, he entered a Long Island hospital to have a tumor removed from his tongue. On Saturday, he got the laboratory report: The tumor was malignant. It was the end of the life he had known, the end of Snow Man’s quest for glory.

Harry drove to the Smithtown Horse Show, a few miles from his home, making plans to sell his horses. But somehow he would keep Snow Man. The horse would be turned out to pasture.

Sitting at the show, de Leyer heard his name announced over the loud-speaker: He needed to go home immediately. Harry’s first thought was his children! His second— a fire! He sped home, wondering how much more a man could take. But when he turned into the driveway, the children were playing in the yard and there stood the house. Joanna was close to hysteria, however. A message had come from the hospital that Harry’s laboratory report had been mixed up with another: The tumor was not malignant!

“All of a sudden,” Harry says, “my life was handed back to me.”

From then on, the summer and early fall became one happy rush toward more and more championships at important shows. And finally it was November, time for the biggest show of all—the National at Madison Square Garden.

The National Horse Show lasts eight days. Horses that lack either consistency or stamina are weeded out long before the final night. After seven days Snow Man was tied in the Open Jumper Division with a chestnut mare, First Chance. For their jump-off on the eighth day, the course was long and intricate. It wove around the Garden oval in four overlapping loops; it included quick turns and changes of direction—combinations that call for perfect timing and coordination. First Chance went first. Whether it was the tenseness of the moment, the wear and tear from so many days of jumping or the difficulties of the course, no one can be sure. At any rate, First Chance “knocked” several barriers.

Now it was up to Snow Man to run a cleaner course. Slowly he headed for the first jump. De Leyer nudged him with his knees, and the big gray exploded over it. Now up and over Snow Man went, and up and over again. Over the brush jump, over the chicken coop, the hog’s-back, the bull’s-eye, the striped panel. There were a few touches, but far fewer than First Chance had made. Finally Snow Man approached the last jump.

Now Harry de Leyer sat up in the saddle and threw the reins across the horse’s neck. He was showing, for everyone to see, that it was not he who was responsible for this great performance, it was the horse. Snow Man rumbled up to that final jump, and he thrust and he sailed and it was done! An old and unpedigreed farm horse had won it all—the National Horse Show Open Jumper Championship, the Professional Horsemen’s Association Trophy and the American Horse Shows Association High Score Award. He was declared “Horse of the Year” in open jumping,

Then, in 1960, Snow Man was “Horse of the Year” once more. And if you had been one of the vast crowd that filled Madison Square Garden that November evening to watch the de Leyer family and their big gray receive the ovation, you, too, would have stood . . . and clapped . . . and perhaps even cried—for the victory of a horse and a man who cared.

Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.

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