I love a good underdog story, and I’m a sucker for horses. So while perusing the shelves at the local library, I passed through the equine section just to see what I could find, and spotted “The Eighty-Dollar Champion”. With a gray horse jumping over a fence on the cover, I was curious- nothing is cheap in the horse world, and the title made curious as to how eighty bucks could purchase a champion jumper. At the top of the cover read “Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation.” I wanted to know his story.
At less than 300 pages, it’s a relatively quick read. The author recounts the story of the Snowman the “Cinderella horse” who beat the odds in more ways than one to become a national championship-winning jumper. A fictional-biography, this book describes how Harry de Leyer came to own, ride, show, and eventually retire Snowman. Author Elizabeth Letts pieces together interviews from Harry, his children, and those that followed Snowman’s journey to the top. Harry and his wife Joanna leave their homeland of Holland (Denmark) post German occupation in 1950. They didn’t have much- a small crate and $160 between them- but they were determined to make a life for themselves in America. Eventually settling into St. James on Long Island, New York, the horseman took a job as the riding master at The Knox School for girls. Looking for a mount for his inexperienced riders, he made his way to a horse auction only to find “the kills”- horses bought for slaughter- left. Picking out a gray plow horse that looked the healthiest out of the emaciated bunch, Harry gives the meat buyer his entire $80 budget (a fair amount of money in 1956) and becomes the new owner. Dubbed Snowman by one of the de Leyer children, Harry nurses the horse back to health, and uncovers a diamond in the rough.
Now, a quick disclaimer, if anyone has questions on the equine terminology, feel free to ask- I’d love to explain!
Letts herself simplified or gave definitions within the book to help her readers understand some of the common terminology that equestrians use. For the average reader who doesn’t normally use such words, I find them pretty helpful and accurate, and for a person who does frequent the terms, I also found them not overly simplified. She knows that her audience is going to be predominantly horsemen, but she does a great job including those who aren’t. However, I did find that she repeated herself frequently, most often when building suspense. At many of the shows, Harry is pondering his odds and reflecting on how much the riding pair have done to get to their current situation. I understand that Letts is underlining that importance of bravery and perseverance, but it does get tiresome and slows the pace of the book.
However, the reader can’t help but get swept up in the rags-to-riches backstory. Through Harry’s point of view, the reader sees the amount of dedication needed to work and show horses- the hours of labor, the lessons and training, the early mornings and late nights, and the budget to make it all happen. As Snowman reveals his jumping talent, Harry puts his faith and best efforts into the horse, and they become a force to reckon with in the jumper circuit. Even though Harry doesn’t come from the wealthy background that many of his competitors do, he knows that talent is what matters most. His bond with Snowman is one of trust, and together they showed the nation that they belonged in the winner’s circle. Letts does an excellent job of transcribing the emotional connection between the horse and his rider.
I couldn’t help but get emotional at the end of this book. Each stage of accomplishment in Harry and Snowman’s journey connected with me- I’ve always ridden the longshot horses in the barn, and I know what it feels like to have that moment when everything clicks, and your horse becomes a true partner. I hadn’t heard of Harry de Leyer or Snowman before, but like many others I gained a deep respect and fascination for the pair after reading about them. And I’ll admit it, I cried at the end of this book in a few spots, so I suggest that if you read this book, you’ll want some tissues handy.