The last horses may have jumped at The Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton, but for the equine admirers among us, September brings a special treat. Harry & Snowman, the Cinderella story of Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer and his transformative relationship with a broken down Amish plow horse turned show champion named Snowman, opens in theaters September 30.
The documentary examines the life of Harry de Leyer, its then 86-year-old narrator. After surviving WWII in Nazi occupied Europe, de Leyer and his wife emigrated from Holland to North Carolina “with nothing in [his] pocket” where he worked on a tobacco farm. “It was hard labor,” he says. “But I learned how to do it.” After de Leyer saved enough money, the couple moved to Long Island, where he secured a job at the prestigious and exclusive Knox School in St. James, NY as a horse-riding instructor. Though, according to one former student, he almost wasn’t hired because “he was—and still is—drop dead gorgeous.”
It was in this capacity that de Leyer travelled to a Pennsylvania horse auction in 1956 and locked eyes with an eight-year-old former plow horse on his way to the slaughter house. De Leyer paid only $80 for the horse who would become Snowman (named by de Leyer’s daughter, Harriet) and the rest, as they say, is history. Man and horse created a special bond and in less than two years, Harry and Snowman would beat all the odds to go on and win the triple crown of show jumping, beating out the national blue bloods and travelling the world together as they became the media darlings of the 1950s and ’60s.
The film combines present day footage of de Leyer, known today as “the galloping grandfather,” teaching a new generation of horse riders with archival footage and photographs along with articles from The New York Herald and more recent interviews with de Leyer himself, his former Knox School students (one of whom fondly recalls his expression “Throw your heart over the jump and your horse will follow”), his children and others who knew Harry and Snowman. Such a variety of source material provides an in depth historical perspective to a sport and a pastime some viewers may not be familiar with.
Archival footage from the Ox Ridge Horse Show in Darien, Connecticut—the most coveted event in the jumping division—juxtaposes the $80 Snowman and the $50K Windsor Castle, at that point the most expensive horse in the horse show game—one where money and spectacle were de rigueur. You might guess the outcome.
And Snowman continued an impressive string of unprecedented and unlikely victories, beating out the best-trained, most expensive horses in the world. He would named Horse of the Year two years in a row, travel to Europe and the Caribbean. He broke the American record for high jump. Books were published about the Cinderella Horse, the Eighty Dollar Champion. Countless newspaper and magazine stories were written. Schools would send buses full of children to meet the famed horse. Snowball even had his own fan club and was eventually inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992. And to think, Harry originally sold Snowman to a friend down the street.
The documentary is, in essence, a classic rags-to-riches, feel-good, American dream underdog story great for the whole family. It’s proof that hard work and determination can overcome any perceived obstacle. It was fate and chance that brought Harry to America and brought Snowman to Harry. “I’ve had so many wonderful horses in my life, but Snowman was the most special to me,” de Leyer says. “Snowman was more than just a horse to me—he was my best friend.”
Did we mention it’s also a real tearjerker?