I don’t touch a horse from one year to the next but I did go through an intense pre-adolescent equine phase. Naturally that included, in addition to riding every moment I could (and scheming to convert our garage back into the stable it had once been), reading every book about horses I could find. So when The Eighty-Dollar Champion found me, I knew just who Snowman was. I recognized the black and white photographs of his owner Harry de Leyer riding him over immense jumps, with a trademark loose rein. I didn’t know the pair’s background, though. What a tale.
Harry de Leyer, an appealing young Dutch immigrant to the US, bought Snowman off a knacker’s truck for $80. In other words, without Harry, Snowman would have been glue. Harry originally intended Snowy to be a lesson horse at the Knox School on Long Island. He brought the horse back to health, trained him to the saddle, used him to teach schoolgirls to ride, and then, regretfully, sold him. But Snowman — whom Harry had not been able to coax into jumping — kept coming home. The horse, it turned out, was a natural jumper, and so fond of Harry de Leyer that he would jump a series of paddock fences to come back to his Dutch buddy.
This is all happening in the late 1950s, at a time when horse shows were a big deal in the U.S. So Harry de Leyer trained Snowman over jumps and then campaigned him as a show horse. As the book’s title tells you, they won and won big. But the boon for Elizabeth Letts is that Snowman was a real character. In a world of highstrung Thoroughbreds, Snowman was a big goofy lug whose first job had been pulling a plow. He loved children, and even as the country’s champion open jumper, continued to be a safe, reassuring lesson horse. And as the photographs illustrating this book make plain, Snowman and Harry had a remarkable bond of affection and trust.
Of course the shadow of Laura Hillenbrand looms over this book. Letts works hard to spell out the context of the story, which she sees primarily as a triumph of the little guy. Again and again we get passages like this one describing the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden: “The working folk sat up in the bleachers; the fine folk came and went in chauffeured Bentleys and clustered in the boxes along the promenade. … Ring stewards dressed in red waistcoats and gray top hats bowed to the winners with a precise degree of shading that indicated the social standing of the competitor.” There’s a lot of repetition, and Letts‘ writing is pretty ordinary.
But the horse, with his floppy ears and his big heart, you have to love.
(Update, irresistible to me: just found online coverage of a German Rabbit-Hopping competition, which imitates show-jumping, “fences” and all. No riders on the bunnies, though.)